The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Miss B complains the Council unreasonably withdrew an offer of accommodation and excluded her from the Housing Register. The Ombudsman has found fault by the Council including in its delay in responding to Miss B’s review request and correcting its error which led to her wrongly being excluded from the Housing Register. The Ombudsman considers the agreed actions of an apology, payment of £300 and procedural improvements are enough to remedy Miss C’s time, trouble and uncertainty.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Miss B, complains the Council unreasonably withdrew an offer of accommodation and disqualified her from the Housing Register in late 2016. Miss B also says the Council has unreasonably delayed acknowledging its errors and remedying these matters. Miss B further complains about the Council's recent new decision that she does not qualify for its Housing Register on local connection grounds.
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 complaints about the provision or management of social housing by a council acting as a registered social housing provider. (Local Government Act 1974, paragraph 5A schedule 5, 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
- I read the papers provided by Miss B and discussed the complaint with her. I have considered some information from the Council and provided a copy of this to Miss B. I have explained my draft decision to Miss B and the Council and considered the comments received before reaching my final decision.
What I found
- Every local housing authority must publish an allocations scheme that sets out how it prioritises applicants, and its procedures for allocating housing. All allocations must be made in strict accordance with the published scheme.
- The law allows each council to decide who it wants to allocate housing to. This means the Council may exclude a person from the register for any number of reasons including a history of rent arrears, anti-social behaviour or having no local connection. The Council must notify the applicant of the right to request a review of these decisions.
- The Council’s Allocation Scheme says persons over 18 years of age and who have been living in Newham for two years continuously before registration, or with a strong local connection with Newham, can normally be registered on the Housing Register. It also says where an existing applicant registered on the waiting list subsequently moves out of Newham, their application will still be considered in the normal way if they continue to fulfil the local connection requirements. The policy sets out the conditions that would provide a local connection.
- The Council’s policy also says applicants will be excluded from the Housing Register, unless exceptional circumstances apply, if their previous behaviour as a tenant of the Council has not been acceptable and there are reasonable grounds to believe the applicant will not be a suitable future tenant. The policy provides the example of where an applicant was previously evicted from accommodation because of serious anti-social behaviour or rent arrears.
- Applicants excluded from the Housing Register have a statutory right to have the decision reviewed. The Council is required to respond to a request for a review within eight weeks.
- The Council operates within a choice based allocation scheme with other housing providers.
- Miss B made a Housing Register application in December 2014. Miss B provided details of her current address in Newham where she was staying with friends and her previous address in the Borough. Miss B confirmed she was employed and provided her employer’s details. The declaration at the end of the application form included an agreement to tell the Council immediately in writing of any changes to the information provided on the form. The form makes clear this would include a change of address even if temporary and if there was a change in job or employment status.
- Miss B had sublet a previous property from a Council tenant and the Council advised her at the time this was an unauthorised occupation and set up a ‘use and occupation’ account into which Miss B made payments. Miss B left the property after the Council obtained an eviction warrant for arrears of the use and occupation charge in March 2015. There is a dispute between the parties about the date Miss B left the property and period she was liable for the charge. Miss B has not complained specifically about this issue to the Ombudsman. However, for completeness I should explain that a complaint about the arrears or period of occupation would be caught by the restriction outlined at paragraph three above as it concerns the Council’s housing management function.
- Miss B did not update her housing application with her new address although she says she did correspond with the Council during this period about the above occupation and arrears issues and so it should have been aware of her new details.
- Miss B bid for a property through the choice based lettings scheme in October 2016 and was ranked as seventh in the list of bidders. For various reasons, the other bidders ahead of Miss B could not be offered the property and so the Council considered Miss B’s bid. However, the Council at this point identified Miss B had been an unauthorised occupant of a Council property and had significant arrears of a use and occupation charge. The Council wrote to Miss B at the end of November to confirm it would not be offering her the property and had excluded her from the Housing Register on these grounds. The Council referred to the following extract of its allocation policy:
A local housing authority may decide that an applicant is to be excluded from the Housing Register if: (a) Their previous behaviour as a tenant of the council, or the behaviour of a member of their household, has not been acceptable and there are reasonable grounds to believe that the applicant will not be a suitable future tenant. An example of this might be where an applicant was previously evicted from accommodation because of serious anti-social behaviour or rent arrears.
- Miss B made a review request to the Council in December 2016 from her new address which was outside Newham. The Council acknowledged Miss B’s request and explained it would respond by mid-February. The Council wrote to Miss B with the outcome of her review request at the end of March 2017 and upheld her exclusion from the Register. The outcome was provided some six weeks outside the eight-week period considered reasonable in the relevant statutory guidance and is a significant delay and fault by the Council.
- Miss B’s solicitor contacted the Council in October to highlight she was not a former tenant and dispute the period of arrears. The Council wrote to Miss B in November to confirm it had reinstated her to the Housing Register from the original 2014 application date. The Council accepts that as Miss B had been subletting the relevant property and was not a tenant herself she was not subject to the policy conditions previously applied. This letter wrongly says Miss B did not have a use and occupation account despite it being evident she had such an account. I do not consider this fault had any impact on Miss B as it had no bearing on her reinstatement to the Register.
- The Council does not consider the fault in the reason used to exclude Miss B from the Housing Register in November 2016 caused her an injustice requiring a remedy as it did not cause her to lose the property for which she had successfully bid. This is because further checks would have identified Miss B had moved out of the Borough and had not updated her housing application as required which would have led to the Council withdrawing the offer. The Council has also advised the Ombudsman that Miss B may no longer have qualified for the additional priority she had for employment as it is not clear if Miss B still met the employment criteria.
- The Council says its letting team did not tell Miss B about the lack of a local connection at the review outcome stage as it was a moot point as it upheld her exclusion from the Register on tenant arrears grounds. The Council has more recently accepted Miss B has a local connection based on details she provided about her father. The Council failed to advise Miss B of this decision in writing which is fault.
- I am satisfied Miss B would have provided the necessary local connection information to the Council much earlier had she been made aware of the issue.
- It is accepted the Council’s decision and review decision were wrong as it wrongly applied a policy only applicable to tenants and former tenants and Miss B was not a tenant. This information was available from the Council’s own records. I consider this fault should have been identified during the Council’s review process. The Council should have responded to and upheld Miss B’s review request by mid-February and sought more information about her move and highlighted she would now need to establish a local connection to remain eligible.
- I accept this process would not have been completed in time for Miss B to be allocated the property she had bid for in October 2016. However, Miss B would have had the opportunity to show a local connection earlier and start bidding again from around March 2017 rather than December 2017 when the Council reinstated her to the Register. Given the variables involved it is difficult to say now if this delay caused Miss B to miss out on making a successful bid for another property. I have also considered that Miss B should have updated her housing application with her change of circumstances. Nevertheless, I consider the Council’s fault outlined above has caused Miss B an injustice in terms of her time, trouble and uncertainty which requires a remedy.
- The Council will:
- provide a written apology to Miss B for the delay in responding to her review request, delay in correcting its error which led to her wrongly being excluded from the Housing Register, the error in its correspondence that referred to her not having a use and occupation account and failing to write to her with its decision on a local connection within one month of my final decision;
- pay Miss B £300 to reflect her time, trouble and uncertainty within one month of my final decision;
- confirm the local connection in writing to Miss B within one month of my final decision;
- contact Miss B about her application to obtain any necessary information to assess her continuing eligibility for her employment priority within one month of my final decision;
- provide the outcome of (d) in writing to Miss B with her right of review within two months of my final decision; and
- review its procedures to ensure relevant information about an applicant’s eligibility is shared between departments including tenancy information within three months of my final decision.
- I have completed my investigation and uphold the complaint. This is because there was fault by the Council but I consider the agreed actions above are enough to remedy Miss B’s injustice.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman