The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs D complains the Council failed to deal effectively with anti-social behaviour which arose after it moved homeless people into hotels near her home during the COVID-19 lockdown. We have not found fault.
- Mrs D complains the Council failed to deal effectively with anti-social behaviour which arose after it moved homeless people into hotels near her home and business during the COVID-19 lockdown. Mrs D says the Council placed too many people in a small, unsuitable area and only took action after significant chasing by local residents and several police attendances. She also complains the Council ignored her when she raised concerns.
- Mrs D says the Council’s failure caused significant distress for the family, affecting their physical and mental health and damaging their business. She says her children were kept awake and felt scared within their home and too scared to leave it.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. 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)
- This complaint involves events that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government introduced a range of new and frequently updated rules and guidance during this time. We can consider whether the Council followed the relevant legislation, guidance and our published “Good Administrative Practice during the response to COVID-19”.
- 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 spoke to Mrs D about her complaint and considered the information she sent and the Council’s response to my enquiries.
- Mrs D and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
The “Everyone in” initiative
- Following the Government's announcement of a national lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic on 23 March 2020, on Thursday 26 March 2020 the Government wrote to every local authority asking them to urgently procure accommodation so that rough sleepers and other vulnerable homeless people were supported into appropriate accommodation “by the end of the week”. This “everyone in” directive was to help people self-isolate during the COVID-19 outbreak, protect their health and reduce transmission.
- The Government initially told providers of holiday accommodation to close, as people were required to stay at home. This guidance was revised on 26 March to allow B&B's, hotels and caravan parks to remain open if they were accommodating key workers or homeless persons.
- Councils were asked to support homeless people and where possible, to accommodate people who had significant drug and alcohol needs separately from those who did not. The Government advised councils to:
- focus on people who are, or are at risk of, sleeping rough, and those who are in accommodation where it is difficult to self-isolate, such as shelters and assessment centres.
- make sure that these people have access to the facilities that enable them to adhere to public health guidance on hygiene or isolation, ideally single room facilities.
- Anti-social behaviour is behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to any person. It may include verbal and physical threats and harassment. Councils have a duty to take action to combat anti-social behaviour and work with partners such as the police. (Section 17, Crime and Disorder Act 1998).
- Councils can discharge their duty in a variety of ways. This includes informal intervention and use of powers under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, such as issuing community protection warnings and notices. The Council has a team to respond to and investigate complaints about anti-social behaviour, which liaises with the police and other agencies including drug and alcohol outreach services as necessary.
- The Crime and Disorder Act also established a right for the public to request a review of how their reports of anti-social behaviour are dealt with. This is known as the “community trigger”. The Council’s Pan-Dorset Community Trigger Procedure sets out how victims of anti-social behaviour can request a review of their case. It says to activate a Community Trigger there must have been three reports from one person regarding three separate incidents of anti-social behaviour reported to any local agency within a six-month period.
- If the trigger is activated, there will be a review meeting between partner agencies to consider what actions have been taken and whether other actions are needed. The outcome will be reported to the person who had requested the review.
The Council’s complaint process
- If someone is not happy with the Council’s initial response to their concerns, they can make a formal complaint which will be investigated by a complaints’ officer. The Council aims to reply within 20 working days. If still dissatisfied, the Council will consider whether further investigation is needed.
- There has been a great deal of correspondence between the Council and Mrs D on this matter. It is not necessary for me to detail it all here. I have set out the key events leading to Mrs D’s complaint.
- In response to the “everyone in” directive, on 26 March 2020 the Council asked about 70 businesses to accommodate rough sleepers and homeless persons who were being asked to leave shared accommodation. The Council says only a small number of hotels were prepared to provide this accommodation and many had already closed and furloughed staff. The Council block booked 134 beds; 75 of these beds were in two hotels close to the guest house Mrs D runs and lives in with her family. 35 people had moved in to these two hotels by 29 March.
- The hotels were known to the Council, which had previously found them suitable as temporary accommodation. The Council says it placed people where it could, according to where they had connections and support networks. Individual support and risk assessments were carried out for each occupant and housing officer interviews were done to assess their needs. The Council briefed the lead councillor but did not have time to consult with the police or all councillors before it had to house people.
- In response to my enquiries, the Council said it had worked with local agencies and the NHS to support those accommodated. Methadone prescriptions were available and boxes used for needles put into hotels. The homeless charities provided mobile phones and the Council provided advice and contact details for support agencies including access to drug and alcohol workers. The Council advised the hotels in relation to social distancing and COVID-19. It also offered cooked meals and breakfasts. The police implemented plain clothes patrols of the area from 26 March 2020.
- Over the next few days Mrs D reported a number of incidents of anti-social behaviour to the police and she advised one of the hotel owners that she had witnessed drug-dealing outside their premises.
- On 7 April 2020 four individuals were moved to alternative premises and a weekly rough sleeper group was formed to co-ordinate action. Daily visits from various support workers started from 14 April and security was increased from 21 April.
- Mrs D contacted the Council’s Housing team in mid-April. She raised concerns about the level of anti-social behaviour happening around the hotels, which included violence, intimidation, drunken, aggressive and lewd behaviour and language, drug taking and dealing, and sexual acts.
- A tactical meeting was held on 27 April involving the police, the Council’s anti-social behaviour team and other agencies. Following this CCTV was installed, community protection warnings were issued and security guards placed at the hotels from 29 April. Problems continued. Three further people were re-located, and weekly meetings with the police started.
- Throughout this period, Mrs D continued to report anti-social behaviour incidents almost daily to the Council and the police. She also raised concerns about the Council's lack of action to tackle the problems. Local councillors and other residents also raised concerns. The Council and police visited her on 2 June 2020 to discuss the situation.
Mrs D’s complaint
- Mrs D remained concerned that the Council was taking insufficient action. She asked for a community trigger review on 25 June and made a formal complaint on 1 July 2020. She said:
- The Council had been naïve placing so many people with drug and alcohol, mental health, and behaviour problems together, and there had been a lack of planning, consultation and knowledge of the local area.
- Some of those housed had not been homeless but had come from hostels and some had “given up rooms in houses, knowing they would be added to the housing list immediately.”
- The Council had failed to safeguard local residents, including other vulnerable people and had not acted quickly enough. A curfew and security guards should have been in place from the start and the Council should have removed individuals, as the hotels’ leases with the Council stated that tenants should not cause a nuisance.
- One of the hotels was not suitable as it did not have an up-to-date fire certificate or window locks.
- The Council had been dismissive of her concerns and had not responded to her emails.
“The Community Safety and ASB team should been involved at an earlier stage. Need to improve communications between departments and ensure the right representation at tactical meetings. A vulnerable victim assessment should be done of Mrs D/family & support considered. A needs assessment process should be in place as part of [housing association’s] allocation process.”
- Mrs D complained to the Ombudsman.
- Mrs D complains the Council failed to act promptly or effectively to deal with the anti-social behaviour she was reporting. It is clear this behaviour was distressing and frightening for Mrs D and her family, during a time that was already difficult due to the national lockdown.
- Mrs D initially reported incidents to the police, which took enforcement action including community protection warnings and arrests. Mrs D contacted the Council in mid-April; by then four individuals had been moved and a weekly group established. I have seen no evidence of drift or delay by the Council in responding to the early reports of anti-social behaviour.
- I have reviewed the actions the Council took from early April onwards. It put security in place, installed CCTV, held weekly meetings with the police and re-located a number of residents. There were support visits to the residents and community protection warnings were issued. Mrs D considers the Council’s actions were insufficient and failed to prevent the behaviour continuing. The Council is entitled to determine how best to respond to reports of anti-social behaviour and it is for council officers, not the Ombudsman, to determine what actions to take. I cannot criticise the Council’s actions or decisions without evidence of fault in the way they were made.
- The Council investigated the incidents, considered its powers, and liaised with the police and other agencies. I have considered the actions the Council took and I am satisfied it took appropriate steps, did not delay in taking that action, and worked appropriately with other relevant agencies. I find there was no fault by the Council in how it dealt with Mrs D’s reports of anti-social behaviour. The fact that the anti-social behaviour continued is not evidence of fault by the Council.
- I have seen no evidence that Mrs D’s reports were dismissed, ignored or not acted upon. Due to the daily incidents, Mrs D sent the Council a large number of emails so I would not expect it to reply to every one, but it replied to many, including her formal complaint, and held a community trigger review meeting to consider her concerns. It also met with her, invited her to public meetings, and sent her community updates.
- Mrs D complains the Council failed to properly plan or consider the impact on local residents when it decided to place 35 homeless people in the hotels near her home. She considers the “timelines, directives and Covid19 are not adequate excuses” for this alleged failure. I disagree. The Council was required by the Government to accommodate homeless people within a few days due to COVID-19. It contacted a large number of accommodation providers, but only a few were available. Mrs D says they were not suitable, but they had been previously assessed as suitable by the Council and used as temporary accommodation for homeless people. As the Council was required to place people urgently, it had no option than to book the hotels that were available. It was unfortunate two of these were near Mrs D’s home, but this was not caused by fault.
- The Ombudsman’s Principles of good administrative practice during COVID-19 acknowledges councils may need to take decisions under emergency conditions and that normal expectations on the need to consult may not be feasible. In these circumstances, councils should record their decisions and reasons for them. The Council did this, it briefed its lead councillor and has explained its decision to Mrs D. There was no fault in the way it placed people.
- Mrs D is concerned that some of those housed were not homeless as they had come from hostels or shared accommodation. The Government’s directive asked councils to accommodate people who “were, or were at risk of, sleeping rough, and those who were in accommodation where it is difficult to self-isolate, such as shelters and assessment centres.” There was therefore no fault by the Council in accommodating people who were not street homeless. Nor could the Council only accommodate people near Mrs D who were from that local area, as it is not legally possible for the Council to restrict the placement of a homeless person to a particular town.
- There was no fault. I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman