The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The complaint is about a delay in completing disabled adaptations to a property the Council had found for the complainants to move to. And about a lack of updates. The Ombudsman upholds the complaint and has agreed remedies with the Council.
- The complainant, whom I shall describe as Mr G, is complaining on behalf of Mr and Mrs H. They complain about a delay in adapting a property the Council has allocated for Mr and Mrs H to move into. The Council has not kept in touch with them about the move. They suspect work has only started as a result of a complaint they made.
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 investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
- 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
- As part of the investigation, I have:
- considered the complaint and the documents provided by Mr G;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered its response;
- spoken to Mr G.
What I found
Legal and administrative background
- The law regarding local authority housing allocations can be found in Part VI of the 1996 Housing Act. This requires councils to devise allocation schemes for determining priorities between applicants for housing. It gives councils a good deal of discretion over how they allocate their housing stock.
- The Council operates a banding scheme for allocating its housing. One of the reasons for awarding the most urgent need to move is for people with a with severe disability problems, which make it difficult for them to manage in their homes.
- Mr H suffered a severe stroke in 2013. Since October 2014 he has been a resident of a neurological care centre. Mrs H visits Mr H a minimum of five times a week, involving a round trip of over 70 miles. Mrs H is herself a wheelchair user.
- In 2015 Mr and Mrs H applied to the Council for re-housing. It first refused the application and then a delayed its review. Then in September 2016, it awarded them Band B on its housing register. This was after the Council’s occupational therapy team’s assessments. The occupational therapist made several recommendations for adaptations Mr and Mrs H needed. The assessments’ conclusion was Mr and Mrs H’s current home was not adaptable.
- In February 2017 a manager in the housing team, responsible for re-housing, responded to an enquiry from a Councillor. She advised the Councillor she had reviewed Mr and Mrs H’s housing application and decided the banding did not meet the urgency of their housing need. So she had re-banded it to Band A – an urgent need to move. She accepted Mr and Mrs H had not received correct advice. So she had backdated the start date of the A banding.
The events I have investigated
- The restriction outlined in paragraph three applies to this complaint, because some of the events Mr and Mrs H complain about took place over a year before their complaint to the Ombudsman (they complained first in May 2019). The Ombudsman has discretion and can disapply this rule if there are good reasons. I have decided to use my discretion to look back beyond 12 months before the complaint to the Ombudsman. I have decided that I should consider matters back to the beginning of 2018, which is when the Council found suitable properties for Mr and Mrs H. I have not investigated matters before that, because:
- I understand Mrs H has been under the pressure of visiting Mr H for the period under complaint and is also disabled herself. But I can see from the Council’s records she was contacting it herself (and with the aid of a Councillor and MP) in the earlier period. So my view is it is reasonable to take the view she could have complained earlier.
- In any case, it seems likely any investigation into the earlier period would find Mr and Mrs H would not have been allocated a property earlier if the Council had banded them correctly at the start. I say this because, when the Council discovered its error, it backdated Mr and Mrs H’s entitlement to the highest band. And, as discussed below, by December 2017 they were not at the top of the banding. So my view is it is unlikely anything suitable would have become available sooner. While I understand how frustrating this must have been for Mr and Mrs H, any investigation would be unlikely to conclude this was due to fault by the Council.
- “As for email, reports, visit records etc, due to some staffing changes I have not be able to source the required information.”
- In its complaint response, the Council had given Mr and Mrs H wrong information about the reasons for the delay.
- The works began on 31 March 2019.
- It accepted a gap in the timeline between Mr and Mrs H accepting the property in May 2018 and work beginning in March 2019.
- It accepted the evidence suggested the Council had not kept Mr and Mrs H updated.
- The predicted date for the completion of the works was 29 November.
Was there fault by the Council?
- I note the Council’s comments about how much the adaptions have cost. And that they needed planning permission. Both of those facts indicate the extensive nature of the adaptations. So drawing up plans, getting planning permission and arranging a start date with its contractor was always likely to have meant a delay between Mr and Mrs H accepting the application and them moving.
- Planning permission was granted in July 2018. The Council says the extent of the works meant it took some time to arrange a start date with its contractor. But Mr and Mrs H say Officer 1 told them work would start on 1 October 2018. On the evidence available and on the balance of probabilities, I have taken this date as the start date for the period of avoidable delay. Works began at the end of March 2019. So my view is the works were delayed by six months.
- The lack of records and communications with Mr and Mrs H in the period I have investigated is also fault. My view is, at a minimum, there should have been a record of the meetings. And also regular updates to Mr and Mrs H acknowledging any delay and advising them of the withdrawal of the earlier offer of accommodation.
- The above faults were compounded by a complaint response that incorrectly gave problems with drawing up plans and gaining planning permission as the only reasons for the delay. This was factually incorrect, as the works did not start until several months after planning permission was granted.
Did the fault cause an injustice?
- My view is the avoidable delay in the starting the work had a significant impact. Mr H was not able to live at home. And Mrs H had the significant inconvenience of visiting him most days; no doubt compounded by her own mobility difficulties. The challenge in finding suitable housing would always likely have meant they would have faced this situation for some considerable time. But my view is the delay meant it continued for longer than was likely necessary.
- Mr and Mrs H will have been caused an extra amount of stress and uncertainty because of the lack of updates and inaccurate response to their complaint.
- The Ombudsman’s guidance on remedies gives a likely range of between £150 and £350 per month for delays in allocating or adapting housing. Comparing the current complaint, with the examples given in that guidance, leads me to conclude the appropriate monthly figure is at the top of the range. So my view is a suitable remedy for the six month avoidable delay is £2100.
- Our guidance’s suggested remedy for uncertainty and distress is lower – often between £100 and £300. Given the multiple faults that led to extra distress, I recommend a payment of an additional £250 for these injustices.
- So I recommend a total payment to Mr and Mrs H of £2350.
- I also recommend the Council write to Mr and Mrs H apologising for the faults I have identified.
- The Council has agreed to my recommendations. I ask it to complete them within a month of this decision.
- I uphold the complaint. As the Council has agreed to my recommendations, I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman