The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council acted with fault in giving incorrect housing application advice for which it apologised and awarded appropriate backdating so the applicant did not lose out on priority for housing.
- The complaint is when considering a housing application, the Council failed to:
- Properly consider a resident’s housing application before it changed its housing allocations scheme in 2017;
- Properly consider the resident’s housing needs and application after it changed the housing allocations scheme in 2017.
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 Mr X and read the information presented with his complaint;
- Put enquiries to the Council and reviewed its response;
- Researched the relevant law, regulations, guidance and policy;
- Shared with Mr X and the Council a draft of this decision and reflected on any comments received.
What I found
- Mr X lives in a two-bedroom home. His family consists of three children, aged 4 and 2 years and a baby of 2 months. He needs a larger home because his current home is too small to meet the family’s needs. He says the home has a double bedroom and a box room. Mr X says his local Citizens’ Advice Bureau told him under the overcrowding criteria he is entitled to a three-bedroom home.
- Mr X first applied for housing in August 2016 at his neighbourhood office but received the wrong form. The officer told him to complete a change of circumstances form when he needed to complete a new housing application. When Mr X contacted the Council in October 2016 to find out what was happening the Council recognised the officer’s mistake. It apologised and said it would send his new application (received on 6 October 2016) to the housing options team. The Council told Mr X the housing options team faced delays and were assessing applications received in July 2016. The Council also told Mr X about the new allocations scheme and that everyone would have to re-apply in April 2017.
- Under the Council’s former housing allocations policy anyone could join the housing register even if they did not present a current housing need. In line with many other councils the Council adopted a new housing allocations scheme from April 2017. The new scheme only allows those residents who can show a priority housing need to join the register. It no longer keeps an ‘open’ housing register. Councils have adopted these schemes to better reflect the likelihood of someone gaining housing through registration. The allocations scheme gives priority as required in law to those with the greatest assessed housing need.
- Under the new scheme the Council will assess if an applicant shows they have a housing need making them eligible for housing. If not, the applicant will not be registered.
- In March 2017, the Council wrote to Mr X telling him about the new housing allocations scheme. The letter explained that everyone who had already applied for housing must re-apply so the Council could re-assess their application. The letter warned not everyone currently registered and waiting for social housing would be eligible to join the new register.
- The Council had not yet assessed Mr X’s application. So, it would now assess him under the new housing allocations scheme. Even if it had already assessed him, Mr X, like everyone else would have to re-apply with the adoption of the new allocation scheme.
- The Council assessed Mr X’s housing needs under its ‘overcrowding’ criteria in the new allocations scheme. The allocations scheme uses a bedroom standard where a separate bedroom is allocated to:
- Two people (of the same or opposite sex) living together as a couple;
- A person aged 21 years or more;
- Two people of the same sex aged 10 years to 20 years;
- Two people (whether of the same sex or not) aged less than 10 years;
- Two people of the same sex where one is aged between 10 years and 20 years and the other is aged less than 10 years;
- Anyone aged under 21 years in any case where he or she cannot be paired with another occupier of the home.
Difference between the former and new housing allocations scheme.
- Mr X applied for rehousing because of overcrowding and the imminent arrival of a new baby.
- Both allocation schemes award priority for people living in overcrowded conditions where the home does not have enough bedrooms to accommodate everyone. The difference between the schemes is under the former scheme Mr X’s unborn child would be considered as part of the assessment, so he could be awarded priority before the baby arrived. Under the new scheme the baby is only considered once born. The adoption of the new scheme means even if the Council had awarded him priority in November 2016, by April 2017 he would have to re-apply. Under the new rules he would only receive priority for the baby once it had safely arrived.
- The Council says had it assessed Mr X under the former allocations scheme it would award him 40 priority points. Under the new scheme it awarded him Priority Band 3. The priority awarded under each scheme reflects his family’s lack of a bedroom for the size of family.
Handling of Mr X’s application
- Mr X says the local office told him to complete a change of circumstances form when he should have been asked to complete a new housing application form. It took the Council from October 2016 to May 2017 to complete its assessment of his application and at first, he was found ineligible. Mr X says his baby had been born when the Council assessed him and so it should have awarded him priority before he asked for a review.
Did Mr X lose out on a home because of the faults alleged?
- The Council says that between 1 October 2016 and April 2017 it allocated six three bedroom homes to applicants with less than 40 priority points. Those allocated homes had registration dates earlier than 1 August 2016. So even if it backdated the application to August 2016 Mr X could not have successfully bid for those homes. His position in the bid queues exceeded 80. There is no possibility in the Council’s view he could have successfully bid for a new home but for its mistake.
- The Council took longer than six weeks from his application in September 2016 to assess his application. It has therefore offered to backdate Mr X’s registration to October 2016 in recognition of the additional time.
Analysis – was there fault leading to injustice?
- The Council in common with many others has adopted a new housing allocation scheme to better reflect the reality of limited housing stock. The new scheme means an applicant is only registered if they have a housing need and qualify to join the housing register.
- The adoption of the new housing allocations policy means even without the Council’s delay in assessing the application Mr X made in October 2016, by April 2017 Mr X and all other applicants would need to make a fresh application.
- The issue here is delay. But for the delay in assessment Mr X might have bid on properties earlier. The information does not show Mr X would have been successful in making an earlier bid but it is possible.
- The Council accepts it gave Mr X the wrong information in August 2016. It acted with fault. It corrected that fault on 27 September 2016 by advising Mr X he needed to make an application. In response to my enquiries the Council has offered to backdate the time Mr X has been registered to October 2016 although Mr X believes it should be from the date he would have made an application, August 2016.
- Priority for the new born baby arises from the assessment under the new housing allocations scheme in line with all other assessments.
- Mr X now has priority with a date from October 2016 which is the date by which his original application should have been assessed and decided. That means he has the correct time on the register for eligibility. Records show that Mr X has not missed the opportunity to bid successfully for a home because his assessed priority did not bring him anywhere near the top of the queue.
- From the information gathered I find the Council failed to properly advise Mr X to apply for housing but corrected that mistake and has backdated his application appropriately. The Council took too long to decide this application. The apology given and backdating is sufficient remedy because Mr X has not lost out on housing as a result. The Council changed the housing allocations system without fault and under that new system Mr X’s application could only be considered for further priority once his new baby was born.
- I find the Council acted with fault in its delay and in the advice given in August 2016. However, it apologised and backdated the application correctly meaning Mr X has not missed out on the opportunity to bid for housing to meet his family’s needs.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman