Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 08 Jan 2021
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: the complainant complains the Council delayed designing and completing adaptations to her home resulting in her sharing a room with one of her children for longer than necessary. The Council says the delay reflects some of the changes in design the complainant wanted. The Council also sought alternative housing for the complainant but without success. The Council recognised faults and offered a remedy. The Ombudsman finds the Council acted with fault and recommends a further remedy.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mrs X, complains the Council took too long to approve and carry out adaptations at her home or find a suitable four-bedroom house for the family.
- Mrs X says the delay has meant her children have to share with her causing family stress. Mrs X wants the Council to either agree works to her home of find the family a suitable four- bedroom home.
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)
- If 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
- In considering this complaint I have:
- Contacted Mrs X and read the papers presented with her complaint;
- Put enquiries to the Council and reviewed its response;
- Researched the relevant law, guidance, and policy;
- Shared with Mrs X and the Council my draft decision and reflected on any comments received before making this final decision.
What I found
- Mrs X and her family live in a three-bedroom Council owned property. Mrs X has a disabled son, Y who needs his own room. An occupational therapist assessed Y’s needs and sent a report to the Council in December 2018 recommending it create a fourth bedroom in the family’s home. By April 2019, the Council had not approved the recommendation. The Council had yet to assign the application to a surveyor for assessment.
- A surveyor attended a site meeting in April 2019 and the Council began looking at ways of designing the adaptation, but the property proved difficult to adapt. In May 2019, the Council said it would need an architect to look at the property and provide professional advice. Meanwhile the Council began looking for suitable four-bedroom properties as an alternative to adapting the family home.
- In June 2019, the Council identified a four- bedroom property that may be suitable for the family. Mrs X could not visit the property until the Council received the keys back from the former tenant. However, before the Council arranged a viewing Mrs X discovered the property had been let to someone else. The Council said it would still consider her for the property should this letting fall through.
- In July 2019, the Council offered a property for viewing but the occupational therapist who visited with Mrs X said the property would be too small, so the Council continued to look for other properties.
- The architect visited Mrs X’s home in July 2019. Mrs X says despite agreeing at the site meeting to design a rear extension, the architect suggested to the Council a side extension. On receiving the plans in August 2019 Mrs X objected and the Council agreed to ask the architect to revisit. In November 2019, the Council arranged for a different architect to draw up plans and shared those with Mrs X.
- Mrs X rejected the proposals in these plans. The Council asked for a third set of plans in December 2019 and the Council received them in January 2020. Mrs X could not accept these and so the architect drew up a fourth plan which Mrs X accepted. In February 2020, the Council told Mrs X the architect would draw up a planning application and present it that month. The Council said it expected a planning decision in six weeks.
- In April 2020, the Council received planning approval for the extension. The Council now sought funding and contractor approval for the adaptations to begin.
- In May 2020, the Council told Mrs X the Covid-19 pandemic had caused delays to the financial approval. In July 2020, the Council’s surveyor met with Mrs X on site to explain the work procedures. Construction began in July 2020 and the work completed in October 2020.
- Mrs X complained to the Council about the time taken to design, approve and start adapting her home. Mrs X said it had taken eight months before an architect visited her home to begin designing the extension needed. Mrs X said she often and unsuccessfully called Council officers or emailed them but did not receive a call back or a reply. Mrs X says in desperation she had to speak with the contractors appointed by the Council to make progress. Mrs X said through these telephone calls she discovered the contractors had not begun work on the adaptations because they were waiting for the Council to pay them a fee.
- In response to Mrs X’s complaint the Council said:
“…I can see that this has taken longer than we would like to conclude…even taking into account the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and as a gesture of goodwill, I would like to offer you £250 in full and final settlement of this complaint.”
- Mrs X rejected the offer because she felt her family had waited so long it did not reflect the impact on the family. The Council’s response had not in Mrs X’s view recognised the poor customer service she says she received. Mrs X says the Council failed to return her calls or answer emails. She says the Council did not adhere to timescales given for completing each stage of the adaptations’ procedure. Mrs X recognises the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and accepts that it is responsible for some delay. Mrs X received the offer in June 2019 before work began on her property and therefore says she could not accept something in ‘full and final settlement’. Her experience led Mrs X to expect she may need to make further complaints before the Council completed the work on her home.
- The Council tried to find an alternative home but without success in finding one Mrs X could accept. One shown to Mrs X the Council then let to another applicant causing frustration to Mrs X.
- The Council says it offered £250 having considered the Ombudsman’s guidance on remedies.
Analysis – was there fault leading to injustice?
- My role is to decide if the Council has acted without fault in managing the adaptation procedure. If the Council is at fault, I must decide what impact that had on Mrs X and what the Council should do to put that right.
- The Council tried to find and offer Mrs X an alternative property to meet her family’s needs but without success. Larger homes are difficult to find, however the Council handed the proposed allocation poorly. I find it acted with fault in its search for alternative accommodation.
- We expect councils to complete adaptations with minimum delay because any delay means the person needing the adaptations lives longer than they should without them.
- Mrs X accepts the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to the delays she experienced. However, it does not explain fully the time taken, or address some of the customer service issues such as poor communication she says she experienced.
- After an occupational therapist has assessed someone for adaptations and made a referral, we would expect a surveyor to visit within three months of the referral. An architect should visit within two months of the surveyor’s visit. We would usually expect the architect to design a plan or revise plans for the adaptations within six weeks. Where several revisions prove necessary the Council should produce them without delay.
- The surveyor first visited Mrs X in April 2019, five months after the referral. The architect in July 2019, eight months after the referral. I find the Council at fault for the delay in those visits.
- The Council experienced staff absence through ill health resulting in it passing Mrs X’s application to another architect to complete the designs. This took from August to November 2019. The occupational therapist made the referral in December 2018 therefore by August 2019 I would expect the Council to hasten any revisions of the plans. I find the Council at fault for the delay in passing the revisions to another architect.
- Once Mrs X agreed the plans the Council applied for planning permission which took longer than the expected six weeks. From approving the plans in February 2020, it took until July 2020 for the grant of planning permission, funding, and the start of the works. With the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic I find the Council did not delay in gaining planning permission, funding, and starting the work.
- Overall, it took from December 2018 until October 2020 to complete the adaptations Y needed. Mrs X raised objections to the plans presented to her by the architect. That contributed to the time taken to agree on plans for the adaptations. Taking that into account however, I find it took too long for the Council to adapt the property to meet the family’s needs. This resulted in Y’s sibling sharing a room with Mrs X because Y could not share with another person. The family lived therefore in unsuitable accommodation for longer than they would but for the avoidable delay.
- This caused distress and inconvenience. Our guidance on remedies suggests payments of between £150 to £350 per month for living in unsuitable or un-adapted accommodation. It also suggests a payment of between £100 and £300 in recognition of any distress or inconvenience caused by any service failures. The Council offered a payment at the higher end of this latter scale.
- Allowing for the severity of the impact of the delay I have recommended a payment of £200 per month of delay. I have estimated the delay as: two months longer waiting for the surveyor’s visit than we would usually expect (£400). Mrs X waited three months longer for the architect’s first visit than we would usually expect (£600). I have added one month’s delay while waiting for the Council to re-assign preparing designs to another architect (£200). Mrs X also experienced distress and inconvenience from customer services issues such as difficulties accessing Council officers and I recommend therefore an extra £250.
- To address the injustice arising from the faults I have found in this investigation I recommend, and the Council agrees to within four weeks of my final decision:
- Apologise in writing to Mrs X;
- Pay Mrs X £1,450 recognising the impact of the delayed completion of the adaptations her family needed; and in recognition of the time, inconvenience and distress caused.
In completing my investigation, I find the Council at fault for the delay to the adaptations.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman