Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 17 Feb 2021
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Ombudsman found fault on Mrs W’s complaint about the Council failing to promptly process her application for a disabled facilities grant. The failure to include access at the start of the process caused about 3 months delay. The failure to include needed works identified at the start, was also fault. The agreed action remedies the injustice caused.
- Mr V, who complains on behalf of his mother Mrs W, is unhappy with the way the Council dealt with her application for a disabled facilities grant to make adaptations to her house and its failure to:
- Communicate effectively with her about it;
- Provide information requested;
- Provide a transparent breakdown of the cost of the proposed works;
- Operate it fairly and without discrimination for those who wish to find an alternative option; and
- Process it promptly.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
Disable facilities grants
- Disabled facilities grants (DFGs) are provided under the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996. Councils have a statutory duty to provide grant aid to disabled people for certain adaptations.
- Social care authorities must promote ‘wellbeing’ when carrying out any of their care and support functions. Wellbeing includes the suitability of living accommodation. The Care Act 2014 recognises that suitable accommodation is one way of meeting care and support needs. Prevention is critical to the Care Act, and home adaptations are an example of secondary prevention.
- A council should give the applicant a decision on a grant application as soon as reasonably practicable. This must be within 6 months of the grant application. If a council refuses a grant it must explain why. Once the work is complete, the council must pay the grant in full before 12 months from the date of the grant application.
- ‘Delivering Housing Adaptations for Disabled People: a detailed guide to related legislation, guidance and good practice’, recommends target timescales for each stage of the process. There are three stages:
- Stage 1: is from the enquiry at first point of contact to the occupational therapist (OT) referral. Their recommendations are provided to the adaptation service (landlord, housing association, or grant provider).
- Stage 2: is from the OT recommendation to approval of the scheme.
- Stage 3: is from the approval of the scheme to the completion of the works.
- The timescales for urgent adaptations are:
- Stage 1: (5 working days), stage 2 (30 working days), and stage 3 (20 working days.
- The timescales for non-urgent adaptations are:
- Stage 1: (20 working days), stage 2 (50 working days), and stage 3 (80 working days).
- A council must decide if the proposed works are necessary and appropriate to meet the needs of the disabled person. It must also be satisfied it is reasonable and practicable to carry out the works given the condition of the property to be adapted.
- The Council’s ‘Comprehensive Housing Renewal Policy’ (June 2018) states mandatory assistance be provided up to the statutory maximum grant to enable disabled people to live independently in their own home, Works required will be identified in consultation with social services and the requirements of the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996 (as amended).
- Enquiries for DFG assistance, where works are required to meet the needs of the disabled person, will normally be processed in order of date of initial enquiry to the Council within the priority identified by the occupational therapist.
How I considered this complaint
- I considered all the information received from Mr V, the notes I made of our telephone conversation, and the Council’s response to my enquiries on the complaint, a copy of which I sent him. I sent my initial draft decision to Mr V and the Council. I considered their responses. I sent them a copy of my revised draft decision and again, considered their responses.
What I found
- Mrs W owns the house she lives in with her family. She has various health problems, and her mobility is affected. Everyday, carers visit to help with tasks such as washing and cooking, for example.
- Mr V contacted the Council about the possibility of his mother making adaptations to her house. This was because she started to sleep downstairs as she struggled with the stairs. To have these adaptations, Mrs W needed to apply for a disabled facilities grant (DFG). She would then need to choose whether she had the assessed works done through the Council’s agency service (the agency), or through her own contractor. An applicant can off-set any grant awarded against their own contractor’s fees if they decide not to use the agency.
- Mr V received quotes for the works in the region of £20-25,000 but, the Council’s quotes were between £7-10,000. He is unhappy with the lack of transparency by the Council about its calculations which makes it difficult for those wishing to use their own contractors. Despite sending plans, he is unhappy with the time taken for the Council to process the application.
- The following are key dates:
- June: The occupational therapist carried out a prevention and wellbeing assessment of Mrs W. It found, because of her health and mobility problems, she slept on the sofa and strip washed downstairs. The assessment was not marked as urgent. The Panel approved the recommendations.
- July: The Council received a referral from her occupational therapist saying she needed adaptations to give her access to sleeping accommodation and WC/bathing facilities. Access to the property was not included in the referral.
- September: The Council received the DFG enquiry and an officer visited Mrs W to carry out a financial assessment, leaving an information pack explaining the DFG process.
- November: An officer visited to inspect the property and design a scheme meeting Mrs W’s needs identified by the occupational therapist.
- January: The officer sent the design to the occupational therapist for confirmation it met Mrs W’s needs.
- February: The officer sent Mrs W a letter after receiving the confirmation. The letter included a plan of the recommended scheme and attached a schedule of works needed. It warned works could not start until she received an official letter approving the application. A week later, Mr V rejected the scheme because it failed to consider access to the property. He contacted the occupational therapist to review this and the officer also queried this with her.
- March: The occupational therapist contacted Mr V, accepting she should have included access. She asked the Council’s ‘Lifts’ section to assess a step-lift to the front of the property and told the officer access needed including.
- April: The Lifts section sent the specification for the step-lift to the officer who asked the occupational therapist to confirm it met Mrs W’s needs, which she did. The officer added it to the scheme.
- May: The Council wrote to Mrs W confirming the occupational therapist agreed access to the property was needed and recommended adding this to the scheme. The Lift section identified a step-lift for the front of the property. The Council sent out an amended schedule of works.
- June: Mr V sent the officer draft plans for his preferred scheme with access to the rear. The officer told him he would consult the occupational therapist about them. The Council’s standard procedure is to look at access to the front of a property. This is because emergency services, for example, always look for access to the front first.
- July: The officer visited to confirm Mr V’s intention to offset the costs of the Council’s recommended scheme with his own scheme. The officer agreed to include a ramp and platform to the rear provided the occupational therapist agreed, which she did. The Council sent Mr V an amended schedule of works. Mr V signed a checklist saying he was fully aware of what was involved in offsetting costs as he wanted to use his own contractors. The Council granted planning consent to Mr V’s preferred scheme, which included a ground floor extension.
- August: Mr V asked for a breakdown of the costing. The officer explained he could not provide the information but would refer it to his manager.
- September: The officer’s manager called Mr V and explained how the grant was calculated but, the Council could not send a breakdown of its contractors’ quotes because of commercial sensitivity. The officer would recalculate the cost of the access works which a quantity surveyor would then check. The Council wrote to Mrs W explaining the scheme cost £10,900, including access to the rear. It warned she was responsible for meeting the cost above this for any works done if they used their own contractor. Mr V received the names of its contractors as requested. Mr V wanted to meet officers.
- October: The manager and technical officer met Mr V and told him the scheme would likely cost about £10,200. The Council later sent him a letter following his request for the names of the contractors it used.
- November: The Council wrote to Mrs W reminding her it needed to see the Party Wall Act consent and her contractor’s detailed, itemised quote for the works. It also reminded her about getting estimates for the work and necessary permissions. It needed to receive these documents by mid-December.
- December: The Council received the quotes and Party Wall Act information it needed. At this point, the Council had a full DFG application to consider.
- January: The Council approved the grant at a cost of £10,948.8.
- August: The Council later increased the grant to £13,033.99. This was because additional works were identified during a review which needed including. The works were: lowering the bathroom ceiling for the extractor fan; boxing-in ducting through the lounge; installing metal railings/handrails to ramp. The grant was re-approved the following month following a request to use a different contractor.
- Mr V decided to use his own contractors and build the development according to his plans, rather than use the agency which would follow the Council’s plans.
- The Council said its costings were based on the cost contractors would charge if the works were done by its agency. Its contractors are appointed after a rigorous and competitive procurement process. As the prices submitted to the Council are commercially sensitive, it cannot share this information. It explained its contractors are required to provide a 12-month guarantee for the works, meet requirements for customer care (call outs after completion, for example), provide accounts, and evidence of insurance. This means its contractors are more likely to have higher overheads than private contractors.
- The Council’s assessed cost of the works was £7,200 but, this was before access works to the rear were added which increased it to about £10,200. The Council agreed its costings and Mr V’s costings are not the same. This is because Mr V included additional works. While the Council costed the internal adaptations, Mr V’s scheme included an extension and wet room. Mr V changed contractors and got another quote in March 2020.
- While the Council accepts the time taken to process the application is longer than usual, most of the delay was due to access not being included in the original referral.
Complaint a): Communication
- While Mr V complains about ineffective communication by the Council, the evidence I have seen shows it was in contact with him relatively regularly about the application. I found no fault on this complaint.
Complaint b): Provide information
- The evidence I have seen shows the Council provided Mr V with information about the DFG process and what was happening with the application. I found no fault on this complaint.
Complaint c): Breakdown of costs
- The Council explained to Mr V why it could not provide the breakdown of costs he wanted. I am satisfied, therefore, he knew why the Council could not send it to him. In addition, the scheme the Council costed was not the same as the one Mr V costed. His scheme was substantively different. It included building a new extension to the rear of the property rather than limited to internal works proposed by the Council. Put simply, it was not comparing ‘like with like’. I found no fault on this complaint.
Complaint d): Discrimination
- I have dealt with the issue of costing above. The Council also explained why the quotes from its contractors are likely to be higher than those from private contractors applicants might approach. Applicants are free to pick their own contractors if they believe the agency contractors are too expensive. I found no fault on this complaint.
Complaint e): Delays
- I found fault on this complaint. In reaching this decision, I took the following into account:
- The Council accepted the occupational therapist referral made in July 2018 failed to recommend the need for access to the property. This is fault.
- The Council met the timescale set out for stage 1 of the application process from the date of the initial enquiry to the occupational therapist’s referral.
- The Council did not meet the timescale set out in stage 2 of the application process. This is because the time taken from receiving the occupational therapist’s referral to approving the application took longer than 50 working days. This is fault.
- The failure of the occupational therapist to include a recommendation about access to the property delayed the processing of the enquiry which meant Mrs W could have submitted her application earlier than she did but for this fault. Only when Mr V received the schedule of works did he realise there was no provision for access. This meant the Council had to correct the scheme to provide access. This took about 3 months to do. This period of delay caused Mr V and Mrs W an avoidable injustice.
- While the Council failed to meet the stage 2 timescale, I consider Mr V must take some responsibility for the delay. This is because Mr V then decided he wanted access to the rear of the property rather than the front. He did not mention this until June 2019. The Council was not at fault for assessing and planning access to the front of the property. When made aware of Mr V’s wishes, it amended the plans quite promptly.
- It then had to calculate the cost of the amended scheme. It amended the scheme the following month and there then followed correspondence with Mr V about costing. His refusal to accept what the Council said about why it could not give him all the information he wanted about its own contractors’ detailed costings contributed to the delay.
- In addition, the evidence shows Mr V failed to send all the requested information and documentation until the end of the year which prevented the Council from reaching a decision on the application earlier.
- The Council accepted that following a review in late 2020, additional works needed including in the costings. It said, ‘there were a couple of additional items of work that the Council would have needed to complete should [Mrs W] have opted to use the Council’s agency service to complete the Council’s proposed scheme of works (ie. additional items of work that should be added to the schedule of works)’.
- Despite the Council’s response to my initial draft decision, except for the railings, I see no reference to lowering the bathroom ceiling or the boxing-in of the ducting through the lounge in the schedule of works or the amended schedule of works in 2019. I remain satisfied these were works the Council should have identified, and included, at the start of the application process and assessment. This is fault.
- I am not satisfied this caused Mr V or Mrs W a significant injustice. This is because Mr V’s second contractor had already fallen through by this point which meant he was looking for another quote from a third contractor anyway.
- I considered our guidance on remedies. I also took account of the apology the occupational therapist gave to Mr V and Mrs W about her failure to include access in the initial recommendation.
- I considered the Council’s response to my initial draft decision. The Council referred to the apology already given by the occupational therapist. While I have not seen any written evidence of this apology, I have seen nothing to show this included apologising for the additional delay this omission caused.
- The Council is invited, within 4 weeks of the final decision on this complaint, to carry out the following:
- Send Mr V and Mrs W an apology for the additional 3 months delay the original omission to include access caused, and for not including the works it later said was needed.
- Review why the access and the additional works were not addressed in the original assessment and act to ensure these failures are not repeated on future cases.
- Pay Mrs W £300 for the avoidable injustice the delays caused her.
- The Ombudsman found fault on the complaint against the Council by Mr V on behalf of Mrs W. The agreed action remedies the injustice caused.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman