The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council when applying limits under its housing allocations policy failed to properly consider the exceptional circumstances created by harassment. However, through its review it restored a housing applicant to the same priority banding previously awarded resolving the complaint.
- In brief, the complaint is when considering a housing application, the Council failed to:
- Assign the proper priority to an application for housing to move away from harassment from neighbours;
- Lift a limit on the postcode applied to the original priority banding;
- Consider awarding Priority Band B to the application having awarded the lower Priority Band C to the applicant’s current housing application.
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 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 considered the complaint presented on her behalf;
- Put enquiries to the Council and studied its response;
- Researched the relevant law, regulations and guidance;
- Shared with Mrs X and the Council a draft decision and reflected on comments received.
What I found
- The Council is part of the sub-regional choice based letting scheme known as Property Pool Plus with other councils in the area. Each authority manages the scheme in its own way either directly or through housing trusts. For my investigation references to ‘the Council’ include where a housing association takes decisions or actions on the Council’s behalf. The Council remains responsible for housing allocations.
- Under the housing allocation scheme councils award priority bands according to an applicant’s assessed housing need. Band A the highest Priority Band is awarded to applications where the applicant:
- Has an urgent health or welfare need for a move;
- Is homeless;
- Overcrowded needing two or more bedrooms or;
- Should be moved because of area regeneration.
Complaint to the Council
- Mrs X complained to the Council about the failure to continue to offer Mrs X Priority Band B reflecting her complaints of harassment. The complaints Review Panel decided the Council (acting through the housing association) acted properly in considering whether to award priority for harassment. The Police did not assess Mrs X as being at high risk or needing an immediate move. Therefore, it had no grounds to increase her Priority Banding to Band A. Mrs X may well have remained in Priority Band B even if deemed at high risk. The Council says attracting Priority Band B status for more than two reasons (here welfare and harassment) does not automatically warrant awarding Priority Band A to the application.
The impact on Mrs X
- Mrs X hoped by moving to her present home she would still be considered for urgent or high priority for a move following her experience of harassment. She needs to be nearer her family for support. Mrs X says her move has left her more isolated. In responding to my draft decision Mrs X says she had lived in the same area for over fifty years. Having to leave the house she loved had been extremely difficult. Mrs X says with the right support from the Council and its agents the housing association, she might have been able to remain. She now lives far from her support network and is hoping she can return to the area soon.
- In response, the Council says it has considered her concerns, allowed her to register for housing within the first twelve months of her new tenancy and has awarded her Priority Band B. It says her needs do not warrant a higher priority banding. It decided not to backdate the Priority Band B to 2013 the date it first awarded her that priority. It says that reflected the impact on her of the harassment then experienced. Her current award of Priority Band B reflects the impact of the isolation caused by the move on her health, and the impact of the move on the health of her son.
Analysis – has there been fault leading to injustice?
- What happened between 2008 and 2013 occurred too long ago for me to investigate now. Mrs X could have complained about those events nearer the time. I cannot investigate this part of the complaint because it is a late complaint.
- Between 2013 and 2016 the Council applied a postcode exclusion which meant any bid by Mrs X for a property in that postcode area would be bypassed. The aim was to prevent her being offered a home close to those who had harassed her. This led Mrs X to be overlooked for a home she bid for and had been first in line to receive. The housing allocations policy says if bypassed for a property the applicant should be notified and given the opportunity to ask for a review. The policy also says applicants should tell the Council of any change in circumstance that may affect their entitlement.
- Following her bid for the property Mrs X was told she had not been successful. She could then have asked for a review of the exclusion which caused her to be bypassed. In reviewing whether the exclusion should continue the Council would have to consider the new information that the family members who caused it to exclude Mrs X from the area had moved. It is possible therefore, that on review Mrs X may have gained an opportunity to bid for homes nearer to her support network. However, she may also have lost priority on harassment grounds reducing the number of homes on which she could successfully bid.
- I must again consider the question of time. Mrs X says the change in family members’ whereabouts occurred between 2013 and 2016. If she had notified the Council it may have changed the exclusion and she may have moved. However, she did not tell the Council or bring a complaint to the Ombudsman. The application of the exclusion zone is a late complaint (having been imposed in 2013) and there is no certainty removing the exclusion earlier would have affected the outcome because Mrs X may have lost her Priority Band B banding.
- The Council says by moving Mrs X removed herself from the place of harassment and so no longer had a need for a move with which it could help her. It eventually awarded her Priority Band B meaning she is in the same priority band as she was when she first complained about harassment. However, her priority within Priority Band B depends on the date the Council awarded Priority Band B.
- The housing allocations policy says that after a move a tenant cannot make a further application for housing within the first twelve months of the tenancy. All limits should allow for exceptional circumstances. I can see nothing to suggest the Council considered the exceptional circumstances for the move i.e. the alleged harassment when applying the twelve-month rule. Mrs X felt penalised for having freed herself from the harassment. At first the Council refused to accept this presented an exceptional reason to be allowed to register for further housing. It changed its mind on review and backdated the registration to February 2017. That remedied the fault in not properly considering the need for the move. It placed Mrs X in the position she would have been had the Council recognised she acted to remove her family from the harassment she had long been experiencing.
- When the Council reconsidered Mrs X’s housing needs on review it accepted the historic reason for excluding a postcode area (applied in 2013) no longer applied and removed that exception. The complaint about using the postcode is a late complaint however, its use may not have affected the final outcome because her priority banding may have been reduced. Mrs X had not told the Council about the change in her circumstances so it had not reviewed the exclusion she had agreed to in 2013. I cannot see fault in the Council using a postcode exclusion as a fail-safe against moving Mrs X closer to one of the relatives who had harassed her. The use of the postcode exclusion is a tool to reflect the policy which allows bidders to be by-passed from allocations that might place them too close to people who have harassed or harmed them. When the people causing the harassment moved from the area Mrs X did not tell the Council so it could not know it no longer had to bypass her when allocating properties in that area. Therefore, even if this was not a late complaint it is unlikely I would find the Council acted with fault in keeping an exclusion until told of new circumstances that rendered it unnecessary.
- The Council recognised Mrs X continues to have priority need for a move and awarded her Priority Band B. I have seen no evidence the Council would but for any omission or fault have awarded the application Priority Band A and so I cannot find Mrs X is now in any different position than she would have been but for any faults.
- Mrs X said in her complaint she wanted the Council to award her the same banding she had before and allow her to apply for further housing. The Council’s review resulted in the Council awarding Mrs X the same banding priority as before (Priority Band B), lifting the twelve-month prohibition on applications and the postcode limit. It considered Mrs X’s view that it should backdate the priority banding to 2013 but declined to do so. It had all relevant information before it when doing so and therefore I find it acted without fault.
- I find the Council acted in line with its housing allocation policies but failed to properly consider the exceptional circumstances for Mrs X’s move. However, through its review it has restored Mrs X to the same priority banding she had before and lifted restrictions on the postcodes in which she can bid for property thus remedying any injustice arising from this fault.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I may not investigate complaints about housing associations’ management of tenancies including anti-social behaviour or harassment. Those are issues for the Housing Ombudsman.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman