London Borough of Waltham Forest (17 012 975)

Category : Housing > Allocations

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 14 Feb 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complained about the way the Council dealt with his and his wife’s application for council housing. The Council was at fault as it delayed assessing his application and there were administrative errors and poor communication in the way it dealt with his and his wife’s medical assessment and application. The Council also failed to explain why it awarded the level of priority it did to this application. The Council has already revised its procedure for dealing with medical assessments. It should provide evidence of this, and how this will address the problems identified, to the Ombudsman. The Council has already apologised to Mr X. It has agreed to pay him £250 to acknowledge the time and trouble and frustration Mr and Mrs X were put to by the Council’s faults.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complained about the way the Council dealt with his and his wife’s application for council housing. He says the Council communicated with him poorly, providing misleading information and delayed in assessing their medical needs for rehousing.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  2. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have considered information from:
  • Mr X’s complaint and from further information and telephone conversations with him; and
  • the Council’s complaints procedure and its response to our enquiries.
  1. I gave Mr X and the Council the opportunity to comment on a draft of this decision.

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What I found

  1. Mr and Mrs X used to live mainly with Mr X’s family. Mr and Mrs X both have medical conditions. Mrs X’s condition makes her particularly prone to infection. If someone in the household was ill, Mrs X moved in temporarily to another family member’s household.

Mr and Mrs X’s housing application

  1. In mid-July 2017 Mr and Mrs X jointly applied online for council housing. They wanted the Council to take their individual medical conditions into account. So they each completed one of the Council’s Disability and Health Questionnaires (DHQ). They submitted Mrs X’s DHQ with the online application. Mr X says they were unable to upload two DHQs with one housing application so could not upload his form. Four days later, they arranged for Mr X’s DHQ to be emailed to the Council, asking for it to be included within the same housing application reference.
  2. The Council’s records show it received two DHQ’s for Mrs X, one online version and one manually uploaded version. The records show the Council has one DHQ for Mr X. The records do not show when the Council received the forms.

The Council’s Housing Allocations Policy

  1. The following parts of the Council’s Housing Allocations Policy are relevant to this complaint:
  • The Council places housing applications into four bands, from low to high: no preference; reasonable preference; additional preference; and additional preference plus. Within each band applicants may get extra points depending on their particular circumstances.
  • The Council awards additional preference where it, “decides that the wellbeing of the applicant or a member of his/her household is being seriously damaged or threatened to the extent that s/he needs to be rehoused urgently.”
  • The Council awards reasonable preference and three points where it “has decided that the health or wellbeing of the applicant or a member of his/her household is being significantly damaged or threatened to the extent that it is desirable for him/her to be rehoused on a non-urgent basis.”
  • The Council awards reasonable preference and three points where the applicant is not living in self-contained accommodation.
  • The Council awards reasonable preference and three points for each bedroom required where the applicant is living in accommodation that is overcrowded in comparison to the Council’s size rules. The Council’s size rules say a couple needs one bedroom.
  • The Council’s Social Needs Panel can award three points if it decides an applicant is occupying insanitary or unsatisfactory housing that poses an ongoing and significant threat to the health and wellbeing of the applicant or a member of their household.
  1. In some cases, the Council will also recommend the type of property an applicant should have. The Council takes into account property recommendations when it decides which applicant it should offer a particular property to. A category E property recommendation is for step free general needs accommodation with a step free approach/entrance. An E+ recommendation means minimal steps or no more than four steps to access the front door.

The Council’s assessment of Mr and Mrs X’s application

  1. The Council’s independent medical adviser, Company A, assessed Mr X’s DHQ on 26 July 2017. The adviser recommended the award of reasonable preference. The adviser also made a property recommendation for a ground floor property or a property with a lift, either step-free or with only up to four steps to the front door (categories E/E+).
  2. On 26 July 2017, the Council awarded the application reasonable preference and six points - three points for overcrowding and three medical points for Mr X. In error, the Council recorded the property recommendation as for step-free only (category E only).
  3. The Council accepts there were problems finding Mrs X’s original online DHQ in its system. Mr X had a long email exchange with the Council about what DHQs the Council had received and whether any further information was needed. He found this frustrating.
  4. Company A assessed Mrs X’s medical condition on 22 September 2017. The assessment was that non-urgent medical priority applied (reasonable preference). Company A said Mrs X’s future housing needs were to be in self-contained accommodation, have central heating, be on the first floor at most if there was no lift, or any floor with a lift. It also said the current accommodation was not suitable because of the risk of infection from overcrowding.
  5. On 27 September 2017, the Council awarded the joint application a further three medical points to recognise Mrs X’s needs. The Council decided this still meant the application should be placed in the reasonable preference band. It backdated the medical points award for Mrs X and treated Mr and Mrs X’s application as having six medical points from 26 July 2017 onwards. The overall property recommendation stayed the same for E/E+. So overall the application was assessed as reasonable preference.
  6. In late October 2017, Mr X had an interview with the Council as he was reserve for a property he bid on. The Council says during the interview Mr X said, in their current house, he and Mrs X had a room for their sole use. The next day the Council removed the three points it had awarded for overcrowding.
  7. Mr X emailed the Council in November 2017 requesting a referral to the Social Needs Panel. He queried the property recommendation for step free (category E) accommodation as he said he could manage a few steps. He also queried why he had lost points for overcrowding and wanted to be able to bid on two bedroom properties not just one bedroom. Mr X asked to appeal against the decision to award reasonable preference only. He said infections Mrs X contracted were always potentially life-threatening so merited the higher award of additional preference.
  8. In response, the Council noted Company A’s medical recommendation for Mr X was for ground floor or lifted properties E or E+ (step free or up to four steps). It realised it had wrongly recorded that Mr X required category E properties only (step free). It apologised and updated its records. It considered Mr and Mrs X needed one bedroom not two as, if required, he or his wife could sleep in the living room as a way of controlling infection. It said it would not reassess their medical priority as other applicants with similar medical conditions had also been awarded reasonable preference so it would not reassess the application.
  9. Following further communication, the Council reassessed Mrs X’s medical priority in November 2017. The Council remained of the view Mrs X should be in the reasonable preference band.

Complaints procedure

  1. In October 2017 Mr X complained to the Council about its delay in assessing their application, it provided contradictory and conflicting information and about poor communication. Mr X believed he missed out on a property in August because of the Council’s delay in assessing Mrs X’s DHQ and her medical needs.
  2. In November 2017 Mr X complained to the Ombudsman. We referred the complaint to the Council as it had not yet responded to Mr X’s complaint. The Council responded at stage 1 of its complaints procedure in December 2017. Mr X remained unhappy and the Council responded at stage 2 in January 2018.
  3. In its responses to Mr X’s complaint the Council:
  • acknowledged the delay in assessing Mrs X’s medical application;
  • apologised for the lack of clarity in its original medical assessment;
  • explained it did not identify an extra bedroom as medically essential;
  • did not consider Mr X had missed out on a property as a result of its errors;
  • apologised for the conflicting and contradictory information it provided when assessing their housing application; and
  • advised it had put the three overcrowding points back on Mr X’s application on 22 November after Mr X explained he and Mrs X shared their room on a rotating basis with another relative.

Social needs panel

  1. In November 2017 Mr X asked for the Council’s Social Needs Panel to consider their case. The Council agreed to put it to the Panel in December 2017.
  2. At the December meeting, the Panel decided it had insufficient information to assess Mr X’s case and it would consider it again at the next meeting in January 2018. This did not happen. Mr X complained about the delay in the referral. He also asked about the process and how applications were assessed.
  3. The Council passed Mr X’s case to the Panel in February 2018. The Panel did not award Mr X social needs priority as it considered the overcrowding and impact on his household’s health was already recognised by his medical and overcrowding points. In response to Mr X’s complaint the Council apologised for the poor communication, the delay in considering his case at the Social Needs Panel and the failure to explain the role of the Panel or how it assesses cases.

The properties Mr X bid for

  1. Mr X says, had the Council not delayed completing its assessment of his housing application he would have been in first position for a property in August 2017. They bid for the property when their application had only six points but should have had nine.
  2. The successful bidder had nine points but from a later date than 26 July 2017. The Council explained it had advertised the property wrongly at first as a ground floor property when it was on the first floor and without a lift. The Council said the property was therefore the wrong type to have been offered to Mr and Mrs X, based on their assessed needs, even had they had nine points at the time.
  3. The Council has provided details of the property Mr X says he missed out on in August 2017. The details show it is a first floor bedsit/studio flat classed as having no separate bedroom. There is no lift access to it.
  4. Mr X considers he also lost the opportunity to bid for more properties between 26 July and 27 September 2017. He says had he had the correct nine points during that period he would have bid for more properties and been successful. He only had six points, less than he was entitled to. He says he did not consider it worthwhile to place bids for some properties where other bidders clearly had more than six points.
  5. The Council has provided details of 10 other properties Mr X bid for from July 2017 to January 2018. The details show the top bidders for those properties all had either the higher priority of additional preference or more reasonable preference points than Mr and Mrs X.
  6. Mr X says the delay and confusion caused by the Council has caused stress, anxiety and further health problems for him and his wife.

Mr and Mrs X’s current situation

  1. In spring 2018 Mr and Mrs X have since accepted a property through the Council’s allocation scheme. When they bid for the property they appeared seventh or eighth in line on the Council’s bidding system. When Mr X queried this, the Council recognised it had made a mistake and Mr and Mrs X should have been first. The Council therefore allocated the property to Mr and Mrs X.

Findings

Assessment of housing priority

  1. Mr X says they were unable to upload two DHQs for him and his wife with one on-line housing application. The Council says multiple DHQs for different members of the same household can be submitted with one housing application.
  2. The Council’s records do not show when the Council received the completed DHQ forms from Mr X and Mrs X. There is no evidence to explain why the Council did not consider Mr and Mrs X’s DHQ forms at the same time in July. The Council accepts it gave Mr X apparently conflicting information about what applications it had and had not considered during that period. The Council’s poor record-keeping and poor advice is fault and caused Mr and Mrs X some frustration.
  3. The Council assessed Mr X’s medical application in July 2017. It did not assess Mrs X’s application until September 2017. This two-month delay was fault. But it backdated Mrs X’s medical priority award to July to ensure Mr and Mrs X’s priority was correct for the future.
  4. The Council also delayed its initial response to Mr X’s complaint. It did not respond until after Mr X complained to the Ombudsman. This is fault and caused Mr X additional frustration.

Mr X’s bids

  1. Mr X says if it had not been for the Council’s delay assessing Mrs X’s DHQ, he would have bid for other properties between 26 July and 27 September 2017 as he would have had more points. He says he would have made a successful bid and would have been rehoused sooner. There was nothing to stop Mr X from bidding for any property during this period. The Ombudsman would never be able to say he missed out on bidding for a particular property because of the Council’s accepted delays. The Ombudsman can only take into account properties Mr X did bid for during that period. The evidence shows in the two months when Mr X had six points when he should have had nine the Council would not have offered him any of the properties he bid for even if he had the correct nine points. Apart from one property, the Council allocated the properties he bid for to people with more priority than him even if he had had nine points.
  2. Had the Council awarded Mr X nine points earlier he would have been in first place for one property which was allocated to someone with nine points and a later registration than Mr X. However, the Council had wrongly advertised this property as ground floor when it was a first-floor property without a lift. This was fault. This did not cause Mr and Mrs X to miss out on the property as the Council would not have offered it to them because it did not meet their specific property recommendations for a ground floor property with no more than four steps. It is also likely that, if it had been advertised properly, Mr X would not have bid for it as it was on the first floor with no lift. This error did, however, cause Mr X some time and trouble in bidding for the property and frustration when he believed he had missed out on a property he should have got.

Medical preference

  1. The Council has failed to explain why it gave Mr and Mrs X’s application reasonable preference rather than additional preference. The reasoning the Council has given – that it awarded reasonable preference to other people with similar conditions - is not enough. The Council should be able to explain why it considered Mr and Mrs X’s particular circumstances did not warrant urgent rehousing on health grounds. The failure to explain this properly was fault. However, this does not necessarily mean the Council’s decision to award reasonable preference was wrong.
  2. If Mr and Mrs X had not now accepted a property, I would have recommended the Council properly explain its decision to award them reasonable preference in light of their personal circumstances. That is no longer worthwhile in the circumstances. But Mr and Mrs X are left with some uncertainty about why their application did not warrant additional preference.

Social Needs Panel

  1. The Council delayed passing Mr X’s application to the Social Needs Panel. He requested it in November but the Council’s Panel did not make a decision until February. This was fault. However, as the Panel did not award Mr X any points this did not cause him a significant injustice. The Council failed to answer Mr X’s queries about the role of the Social Needs Panel and how it assessed applications. This was fault and caused Mr X time and trouble. Had it done so, Mr X would have understood its role and may have decided not to pursue this option further.

Current property

  1. Mr and Mrs X were only successful in getting their current property because Mr X queried why they were not in first position on the list of bidders. The Council says when it entered their medical details it failed to update Company A’s recommendation that Mr and Mrs X needed a ground floor/step free/up to four steps or lifted property (E/E+). It wrongly recorded them as E+. This was fault. Their current property was category E (step free ground floor). This meant when the system ranked the bids Mr X’s bid was not in the correct position but was placed below other applicants requiring a category E property.
  2. The Council says it has recently implemented a new procedure for assessing DHQs and the monitoring and auditing aspects of the procedure should be in place in the New Year.

Agreed action

  1. The Council has already apologised to Mr X for failing to explain properly why it awarded their application reasonable priority rather than additional priority. Within one month of the final decision, it has agreed to pay Mr X £250 to acknowledge the frustration, uncertainty and time and trouble caused to Mr and Mrs X by its delays and administrative errors in dealing with their housing application.
  2. The Council says it has implemented a new process for assessing DHQs. Within two months of the date of the final decision the Council should provide the Ombudsman with evidence of:
  • the auditing and monitoring procedures in place for the new DHQ assessment process; and
  • how the new procedure is ensuring that applicants’ correct priority and property recommendation are accurately recorded.
  1. Within two months the Council should also review its procedures to ensure it clearly explains to an applicant why their medical circumstances mean they qualify for either reasonable or additional preference.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. I have found evidence of fault leading to injustice for which I have recommended a remedy which the Council has agreed to.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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