Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 26 Jan 2021
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms X complained about the Council’s handling of a disabled facilities grant and related works to provide a bathroom adapted for the needs of her son, Y. She said the work was not completed and the work that was done did not meet Y’s needs. The Council was at fault. It will apologise, pay Ms X £1,000 for the inconvenience caused, and take steps to put matters right.
- Ms X complained about the Council’s handling of a disabled facilities grant (DFG) and related works to provide a bathroom adapted for the needs of her son, Y. She said the Council commissioned an unsuitable company to manage the work, which in turn employed unsuitable builders. She said the parties involved repeatedly ignored information they provided about Y’s needs and reneged on agreed timescales.
- As a result of these failings, Ms X says the work done was not fit for purpose and many of the fittings were not sufficiently tamper proof. The work was not completed because the parties were not able to resolve the difficulties that arose, leaving the family with a bathroom that could not be used. Ms X said this caused immense stress and frustration, and the family have been living in limbo since December 2017.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
- We investigate complaints about councils and certain other bodies. Where an individual, organisation or private company is providing services on behalf of a council, we can investigate complaints about the actions of these providers. (Local Government Act 1974, section 25(7), as amended)
- When considering complaints, if there is a conflict of evidence, we make findings based on the balance of probabilities. This means that we will weigh up the available relevant evidence and base our findings on what we think was more likely to have happened.
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered:
- the information provided by Ms X and the Council;
- relevant law and guidance, as set out below; and
- our guidance on remedies.
- Ms X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered their comments before making a final decision.
What I found
Relevant law and guidance
Disabled facilities grants
- A disabled facilities grant (DFG) can be used by people with a qualifying disability to make adaptions to their home to help them stay living there. They can be used to make improvements, such as level access bathrooms.
- Councils must award a grant if the applicant meets the criteria. The works proposed must be:
- necessary and appropriate to meet the disabled person’s needs. This is usually assessed by an occupational therapist (OT);
- reasonable and practicable, depending on the age and condition of the property.
- The work must usually be completed within 12 months from the date the Council approved the DFG.
This Council’s process
- This Council has commissioned Metropolitan Thames Valley Home Improvement Agency (Metropolitan) to provide a full home improvement service. The process is, as follows:
- an OT completes an assessment under the Children Act 1989 or Care Act 2014 and their recommendations are referred to Metropolitan;
- an OT from Metropolitan carries out a further assessment and draws up a detailed specification for the works need, working with a Metropolitan surveyor, as needed;
- where the adaptations cost up to £12,000 Metropolitan can agree them, otherwise the application is considered by the Council’s Major Adaptations Panel;
- Metropolitan will employ builders to complete the works and will inspect the works on completion.
- Ms X asked the Council to assist with adaptations to the bathroom to meet the needs of her son, Y, in early October 2017. Y has severe learning difficulties and ADHD, is low functioning and displays challenging behaviour, including destroying fixtures and fittings, and eating non food items, such as sealant. He needed close supervision, including at night when he needed to use the bathroom.
- The Council arranged an OT assessment who made a home visit during which they discussed Y’s needs. In late December 2017, the OT reported that some of Y’s needs were outside the scope of an OT assessment but the provision of a bathroom and toilet next to his bedroom would promote the development of independence skills. The OT recommended:
- a bathroom adaptation with waterproof flooring and a tamper proof toilet cistern;
- waterproof flooring in Y’s bedroom, on the stairs and in the hallway;
- tamper proof light fittings; and
- tamper proof radiator fittings.
- The Council referred the case to Metropolitan in February 2018. In March 2018, an OT from Metropolitan made a home visit to assess the feasibility of the works. I have not seen a record of the visit but Ms X says there was a detailed discussion of Y’s needs. A few days later, the OT sent a design brief to Ms X. The design brief stated the proposed works included:
- Creation of bathroom
- New flooring – first floor landing, stairs leading to first floor landing and bedroom
- Robust tamper proof lighting – bedroom, stairwell and lounge
The design brief also contained standard information about DFGs but no other information about Y’s needs.
- Ms X said the initial specifications did not reflect the detailed discussions about Y's needs at the home visit. Ms X wrote to Metropolitan in early May 2018 to identify the missing features & clarify what was needed. The letter included a drawing to show the proposed bathroom layout. I understand there was a telephone conversation with the Metropolitan OT, who later emailed to confirm the amendments would be noted. On this basis, Ms X signed and returned the design brief. Metropolitan lost the documents and Ms X sent them again in late May 2018.
- The case was then put on a waiting list for a surveyor to visit. The surveyor first visited in June 2018 and there were discussions at that point about a low water pressure issue that the family had addressed by means of a tank system. Ms X says she had a detailed discussion with the surveyor about Y’s needs as information about this had not been passed on to him by Metropolitan’s surveyor.
- There were a number of communications about the proposed bathroom layout in July 2018, and the family sent a revised drawing for the layout in mid August 2018.
- There were further visits by Metropolitan’s surveyor during which the surveyor said the tank system for the low water pressure would not be needed and an alternative solution would be found. Ms X says she stressed the need to resolve the low water pressure issue before work on the bathroom began, and drew his attention to her own drawing showing the bathroom layout, in which a space was left for a water tank in case this was needed. Mrs X says she discussed Y’s needs in detail with the surveyor at numerous visits between June and October 2018. Metropolitan have not been able to provide records of the visits and its chronology shows no visits until October 2018.
- In November 2018, Ms X contacted the Council’s OT to say it was nearly a year since the request for adaptations but there was no sign of the work starting. She also said Y had now pulled the radiator off the wall in his bedroom. The Council’s OT agreed to speak to Metropolitan. The Council later agreed to add replacing the radiator to the DFG. Ms X understood the Council would replace Y’s radiator before Christmas.
- In early February 2019, Ms X contacted the Council’s OT again as she had not heard anything further. The Council’s OT contacted Metropolitan’s surveyor, who said he was in the process of writing the specification. The Council’s OT also suggested Ms X made a formal complaint to the Council to ensure this was properly followed up.
- Ms X did make a complaint but she did not make it clear she was complaining about a DFG so initially the complaint was referred to the wrong team. The Council wrote to Ms X in early March to say it was forwarding the complaint to the correct team.
- Metropolitan approved the DFG in mid March 2019 and Metropolitan sent a letter to Ms X to confirm this. The contract, dated 10 May 2019, refers to a detail specification of 6 March 2019 and states the works will cost £12,332. The Council has provided me with drawings dating between March and May 2019 but not a detailed specification for the work. Ms X said she had not seen a detailed specification and the records show she requested this three times between July and September 2019.
- The Council responded to the complaint in May 2019. It apologised for the delay caused by it sending the complaint to the wrong team initially. It said it had contacted Metropolitan and understood the DFG was approved and work was due to start in mid June 2019.
- Also in May 2019, Metropolitan asked the water company to investigate the low water pressure issue. The water company reported in June 2019 that water pressure to the house was acceptable but the water pressure inside the house was low, which suggested either a pipe was too narrow or was obstructed. They recommended replacing the main stop cock and if that did not work, replacing the pipework from the pavement to the house.
- Work started in June 2019 but quickly ran into difficulties. Ms X said the builders did not have a plan of the bathroom layout when they came on site and had not been briefed about Y’s needs, particularly the need for everything to be robust and tamper proof. She said the builders did not consult the family about fittings and repeatedly ignored information she provided, resulting in the installation of fittings that would not meet Y’s needs because they were not sufficiently tamper proof. And despite having stressed the need for waterproofing the floor under the bath to protect the lower floor from damage due to flooding, this was not done. Ms X also said the builders changed the layout of the bathroom without consulting them. The builders also removed a cold water tank and pump that had previously been used by the family to address the low water pressure issue, despite not having identified an alternative solution to the problem.
- Due to the family’s concerns about the work, work stopped in early July and a site meeting was arranged, attended by the Council OT, Metropolitan’s OT and surveyor and the builders. The meeting agreed a list of 12 work items that needed completing, including further enquiries into the low water pressure issue, and that work on the bathroom would start again in September 2019.
- Metropolitan made some enquiries into the low water pressure issue following the meeting and referred the case to the Council’s Major Adaptations panel in August 2019. The panel recommended a water tank and pump system.
- Also in August 2019, the Metropolitan OT consulted with the National Autistic Society about appropriate adaptations in light of Y’s behavioural challenges.
- The work did not restart in September 2019 and Ms X made a further complaint in late October 2019. She said:
- at the meeting in July she was told the builders would resume work in September but they had not done so;
- she was not satisfied the builders understood Y’s needs and had sufficiently detailed plans for the work;
- she was unhappy with the proposed solution to the low water pressure issue; and
- in light of his experiences, she did not want Metropolitan or their builder to complete the work.
- The Council responded in late December 2019. It said:
- Metropolitan was its provider for implementing major adaptations;
- the provision of equipment and adaptations could not remove all risks for individuals;
- it would fund the installation of a pump to work with the existing boiler but not the water pressurised system that Ms X wanted;
- its standard practice for consulting with families was to provide a written scheme and drawings before work began.
It set out a list of outstanding works, as agreed in July 2019, and said it would ask Metropolitan to provide a timeline for completion of the work.
- In early January 2020, Ms X asked the Council to consider his complaint at stage 2 of the complaints process. She said:
- Metropolitan did not have the relevant experience to complete the work and had made many errors;
- she did not feel her views about Y’s needs had been taken into account
- she had waited over two years for the bathroom work to be done, it was not fit for purpose and Y could not use it as it did not meet his needs; and
- she was unhappy the builders had removed the family’s own system to address the low water pressure issues, that the Council were now recommending an internal pump the builders had discounted earlier, and the family had previously said they did not want because they were not satisfied it would work.
- The Council responded in mid February 2020. It said:
- it accepted the work had started more than 12 months after the DFG was approved;
- it did not agree that Y’s needs had not been properly considered by Metropolitan and the builders, and said the issue of Y’s radiator was still being considered by Metropolitan’s surveyor when the work was stopped;
It suggested three options to resolve the matter, including releasing the balance of the DFG to Ms X so she could arrange for her own builder to complete the works that were agreed to meet Y’s needs.
- Although Ms X did not want Metropolitan or their builder involved, she did not accept the Council’s offer to release funds for the family to arrange their own builder because:
- the wording of the Council’s offer suggested there would be some continued involvement by Metropolitan to ensure the works met the DFG specifications;
- she was concerned the remaining DFG money would not be sufficient, given that additional work was needed as most of the previous work had to be redone and due to the builder’s actions in relation to the water pressure issue;
- the money would be paid in two stages – the new builder would be able to invoice the Council when half the works were completed, which may cause cash flow issues;
- the family would then have to project manage the work, which would be difficult whilst caring for Y; and
- it did not resolve the low water pressure issue, made worse by the builders’ actions, and not covered by the DFG.
- In response to my enquiries, the Council said the DFG could not be used to change the water pipe going into Ms X’s house because a DFG is for adaptations to meet a disabled person’s needs and not for funding general repairs or maintenance. It said:
“It was the responsibility of Metropolitan to have been clear and informed [Mr X] at the start that the DFG would not cover the mains water pressure coming into their property”.
“In an effort to move the works forward, an internal pump has been offered to remedy the water pressure issue”.
- In a further response, the Council suggested Ms X used a project manager to oversee his own project and the cost of this could “be added to the overall project for further consideration” by the Council.
- Ms X asked for assistance with adaptations in October 2017. A Council OT made a home visit, discussed Y’s needs, recommended adaptations to meet them, and made a referral to Metropolitan in accordance with the Council’s process. Ms X has not complained about the Council OT, who she said was the only person to really listen. I have found no fault in the early part of the process, except that there was a slight delay between late December 2017 and early February 2018 in making the referral to Metropolitan. However, this is not sufficient to warrant a formal finding of fault.
Meeting Y’s needs
- There was no delay in arranging for Metropolitan’s OT to do an assessment but the design brief they produced contained no detail about Y’s specific needs. Ms X provided further details and a suggested plan, which Metropolitan “noted” but this information was not shared with the surveyor or the builders and appears not to have formed part of the documentation specifying the work to be completed. This meant Ms X had to repeatedly provide the same information.
- The point of a DFG is to make adaptations to meet the needs of the disabled person. Therefore, it was important that Y’s needs were properly understood and reflected in the specification of works. Despite requesting it twice, the Council has not provided a detailed specification of the works. From the evidence provided, it appears Metropolitan were relying on drawings that simply showed an outline floor plan. On balance, I find Metropolitan did not ensure Y’s needs were reflected in a detailed specification for everyone involved to work to. This was fault.
- Given the particular nature of Y’s needs, I would have expected to see more consultation over the layout and fittings than simply sharing an outline plan and brief description of the works to be included. The fittings needed to be robust and tamper proof, which had not been defined, and no detailed specification was shared with the family who were still requesting this in September 2019. On balance, I find Metropolitan did not consult the family properly and did listen to what they said about key aspects of the work and this was further fault.
- As a result of these failures, Ms X had to repeatedly provide information about Y’s needs and the work done did not meet them. I accept there may have been some difficulty in sourcing fittings that the family considered were sufficiently tamper proof. But if this had been identified and discussed with the family before work began, the family could have made an informed choice about whether to proceed.
Low water pressure issue
- The family had a tank system in place to address the low water pressure issue. This was removed by the builders because Metropolitan considered it was not necessary without having identified a suitable alternative system.
- The Council has explained that resolving the low pressure issue was separate from the DFG and it was not appropriate to use the DFG to fund solutions for that issue. Metropolitan should have made it clear to Ms X that any work to address the low water pressure issue would need to be funded separately from the DFG. I have seen no evidence it did so and that was fault. Given that Metropolitan was acting on behalf of the Council, I hold the Council responsible for this fault.
- Although the water pressure issue could not be resolved using DFG funding, the issue was identified at an early stage, and the records indicate Metropolitan was aware of the importance of resolving this to ensure the new bathroom worked for the family. In particular, it was important that the method chosen to address this issue was considered when planning the bathroom layout.
- This issue should have been resolved before work started, even if that was on the basis of a preferred solution and a fall back position if that did not work. Metropolitan did not make enquiries with the water company until May 2019, which was just before work started on site. Metropolitan should have made enquiries about the issue much sooner than it did. The delay in addressing this issue was fault.
- Ms X sent a signed decision brief form to Metropolitan in late May 2018. The next stage was for Metropolitan to send its surveyor to assess the work, which was in June 2018. Although there were site visits and discussions, I have seen no evidence of any action to move the case forward between May and October 2018.
- There was then a further delay before the drawings and list of works were completed and sent to proposed builders in February 2019. That was further fault. The DFG was approved in March 2019 and work began in June 2019.
- I have seen no evidence to show Metropolitan communicated with Ms X to explain what action it was taking or the reasons for any delays. That was also fault. The delays meant the family had no suitable bathroom for Y to use from December 2017 onwards and Y had no radiator in his bedroom over the winter of 2018-2019.
- Ms X initially complained in February 2019. There was a delay in referring this to the correct team but I do not consider this was due to fault by the Council since Ms X had not made clear the complaint related to a DFG. The Council responded in May 2019. There was no fault in the complaints handling at this stage.
- When Ms X raised concerns about the work in July 2019, Metropolitan’s surveyor agreed work should stop and arranged a site meeting to discuss the issues. At this meeting a list of outstanding actions was drawn up. Metropolitan did make further enquiries about the low pressure issue, including referring the matter to the Council’s panel, although Ms X was unhappy with the outcome of that. Since Metropolitan took appropriate steps to address the complaint, there was no fault.
- It was agreed in July that work would restart in September 2019, but the builders did not return to the site and there was no contact with Ms X about that until she complained to the Council in October 2019. It is unclear why work did not restart but it is likely this was due to the ongoing dispute about how the low water pressure issue would be resolved. Although, the Council or Metropolitan on its behalf, could have kept Ms X better informed, I do not consider this warrants a further finding of fault in addition to the findings I have made about delay.
- From October 2019 onwards, I am satisfied the Council took reasonable steps to resolve the matter, although this was not successful. The Council was not at fault.
Record keeping by Metropolitan
- The Council was not able to provide a number of records requested during the investigation. Metropolitan had no record of its OT’s assessment visit nor the surveyor’s initial visit. The only record of the complaints meeting in July 2019 was a list of outstanding works. There was no record of the discussion nor list of the subjects discussed. No detailed specification for the work has been provided. The failure to keep proper records was fault. Apart from the lack of a detailed specification, the lack of records did not cause Ms X an injustice because I have sufficient information to reach conclusions, on the balance of probabilities, about what happened, I will recommend the Council takes steps to ensure this is put right going forward.
- When a council commissions another organisation to provide services on its behalf it remains responsible for those services and for the actions of the organisation providing them. So, although I found fault with the service provided by Metropolitan, I have made recommendations to the Council.
- The Council will, within one month of the date of the final decision, apologise to Ms X for:
- the failure to ensure Y’s needs were properly understood and to consult with the family adequately about how those needs could be met, and for repeatedly ignoring information provided by the family about this;
- the failure to address the low water pressure issue at an early stage, and to give clear advice about how any action to resolve it could be funded;
- general delay in dealing with the DFG and associated works between May 2018 and February 2019.
- The Council will, within one month of the final decision, pay Ms X £1,000 for the frustration and inconvenience the family suffered as a result of those faults.
- The Council will, within three months of the date of the final decision:
- carry out a fresh assessment of Y’s needs to ensure it has an up-to-date picture of what they are, given the delay since the previous assessment in December 2017;
- as it has already offered, arrange for a plumbing engineer to carry out an assessment of the works required to address the low water pressure issue and the likely costs of the various options identified;
- arrange for a surveyor, who is independent from the Council and Metropolitan, to assess what further work is needed, including remedial work, to ensure the bathroom meets Y’s needs and provide a cost of the works required. Ms X reserves the right to obtain her own quote for the remedial works;
- cover the cost of the required works, whether or not that is covered by the original DFG budget. This should include any work needed to reinstate the previous water pressure system or the cost of an internal pump if that is the solution the family prefer. It would not include the cost of replacing the water pipes to the property if that is what is needed;
- provide recommendations to Mr X of project managers who could oversee his own builders completing the outstanding work, and agree with Mr X and the project manager a budget for the project management costs that the Council will pay;
- discuss and agree with the family an arrangement for funding their own builder to complete the outstanding works that is flexible to meet the family’s needs, which may include completing the project in stages, and avoids causing the family cash flow difficulties relating to the DFG work.
- The Council will, within three months of the date of the final decision, review its DFG processes with Metropolitan, to ensure that:
- proper records are kept, particularly relating to OT assessment and surveyor assessment visits;
- a detailed specification of works is prepared for all DFGs and shared with the applicant;
- Metropolitan consults appropriately with families as well as professionals to ensure that DFG works will meet the needs of the disabled person;
- where Metropolitan encounters difficulty in completing the works, there is a clear criteria and process for referring the case to the Council so the Council can consider what action, if any, it needs to take to address the issue;
- the Council has a point of contact for DFG applicants to raise concerns so these can be addressed without them having to go through the formal complaints process.
- I have completed my investigation. I have found fault leading to personal injustice. I have made recommendations to remedy the injustice and prevent recurrence of the fault.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman