The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Miss X complains about the Council’s response to disrepair in her private rented house and then in how it managed her homelessness application and its housing duty after her landlord evicted her. The Ombudsman find the Council acted properly in dealing with Miss X’s concerns about her private rented property however aspects of how it handled her homelessness were fault. In particular, it placed her in temporary accommodation that had several safety defects. This caused Miss X an injustice, although the evidence suggests she may have contributed to the length of time finding alternative accommodation took. The Council has agreed with the Ombudsman’s recommendation to apologise and pay a financial remedy to Miss X.
- Miss X complains the Council:
- Did not do enough when it investigated disrepair at her private rented property in 2016;
- Contributed to her eviction from that property when it wrote a letter in support of her landlord’s case, which was used in court proceedings;
- Assigned two different case officers to handle her homelessness application, leading to confusion and delays;
- Moved her to emergency accommodation outside the Council’s area, which was unsuitable because of her family circumstances, the condition of the property and the distance she had to travel;
- Has not refunded necessary travel costs she incurred as a result of its decision to place her in accommodation outside the Council’s area.
- Evicted her from the emergency accommodation and said it no longer had a duty to house her, but then changed its mind when challenged by her legal representative and moved her to an alternative location.
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 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)
- 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 with Miss X and read her complaint. I then wrote to the Council and asked it questions about its actions and for evidence to support its position. I reviewed that material before reaching this decision.
- I have considered the Homelessness Code of Guidance in reaching my decision. Although it is no longer in force, at the time of the events in this complaint that was the statutory guidance issued by the government. Councils must follow statutory guidance unless they have very good reasons for not doing so.
- I shared my draft decision with Miss X and the Council and I invited them to comment on it.
What I found
- I will deal with each of Miss X’s complaints in turn:
- In late 2016, Miss X was living in a private rented house in the Council’s area. She complained about damp and dead flies in her kitchen and officers from the Council’s housing enforcement team carried out an inspection. Miss X says pest controllers had found the flies were a significant health hazard. The Council’s inspector did not find damp and said the flies, which were dead, were not a public health risk. It said they would be a ‘low Category 2 hazard’. The Council says it spoke with the landlord’s agent about some other issues and agreed a plan and timescale for completing the necessary work.
- There was more contact between Miss X and the Council in the first few months of 2017. The landlord’s agent said it could not gain access to carry out the work and the Council asked Miss X to allow entry. Officers carried out a further inspection at Miss X’s request but found nothing else of concern. It says it told her to let them know if the problems carried on but, having not heard from her for over two months it closed the case.
- Miss X says the Council did not help her enough but I do not agree. Councils have limited powers to intervene when there are issues with a privately rented property, as any dispute is between the landlord and the tenant. The Council in this case found Miss X’s issues to be minor in nature and, although it worked with her landlord’s agent to try to resolve the problem, ultimately there was nothing else it could or should have done.
- Miss X says her landlord later evicted her from the house she had complained about. She told the Ombudsman the Council wrote a letter in support of the landlord which then became evidence in court proceedings about the eviction.
- The Council agrees an officer from its housing enforcement team wrote a letter to the landlord’s agent in June 2017. It says he wrote the letter because the agents wanted proof they had not done the work agreed with the Council because Miss X would not allow access. It says such letters are not an ‘everyday occurrence’ but it provides them sometimes to show the facts of a case. The officer who wrote the letter says he did not known the landlord would use it in court.
- I have seen the letter. It summarises the Council’s actions in the case and contact between it and the landlord’s agent. The officer did not address the letter to a court and it is consistent with emails written around the time of the events in this case. It is presented in a factual way, without expressing any opinions about Miss X. This is not fault.
- In early 2017, Miss X went to the Council because her landlord had served her with a notice asking her to leave. The Council says Officer A saw her and decided the homelessness prevention team should deal with the case. Officer B then started to work on the case.
- Around a week after Miss X’s appointment with Officer A her representatives from a community legal advice group wrote to the Council about her case. The letter was passed to Officer A and she says she tried to contact Miss X without success. While Officer A was making her enquiries Officer B was also working on the case.
- Later in the year Miss X says a domestic abuse support worker emailed Officer B on her behalf. She says Officer A still had involvement around this time and there was confusion about which officer was leading on her case. The Council says Officer A had already closed the homelessness application because Miss X was not homeless and there had been no further contact. It says when it received the support worker’s email it assigned the case to a new team in line with the new risk of homelessness. It says it provided her with temporary accommodation within four days of that email.
- The Council accepts it should have forwarded the initial letter in early 2017 to Officer B rather than Officer A. However, it defends assigning Officer A to the case at first as being the result of Miss X giving wrong information on her homelessness form.
- Although I understand Miss X found the allocation of officers to be confusing, I am satisfied this was not due to fault by the Council. There was some fault when it allocated a letter to Officer A rather than Officer B in early 2017, but I cannot see that led to any injustice for Miss X.
- Miss X says when the Council put her in temporary accommodation later in 2017 the house she was given was unsuitable. She says it was too far away from her home, friends and her children’s schooling. Miss X also complains about the condition that house was in when she moved in.
- The Council says Miss X’s needs, including her having three children and listing several areas to avoid being relocated to, meant the property was the only one available at the time. However, it also accepts the condition of the property was poor enough to make it unsuitable from the beginning.
- The Homelessness Code of Guidance in force at the time said accommodation would only be suitable if it was fit for habitation. It recommends accommodation should be free of the most serious hazards, as defined under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System. It says where a council places someone ‘out of district’ the responsibility for doing this is with the council who moves them there.
- With respect to location the Code of Guidance says councils, “should avoid placing applicants in isolated accommodation away from public transport, shops and other facilities, and, wherever possible, secure accommodation that is as close as possible to where they were previously living, so they can retain established links with schools, doctors, social workers and other key services and support essential to the well-being of the household.”
- Although someone should be placed as close as possible to where they come from, if there is only one property available of the right size it cannot be fault for the Council to use it on that basis alone. However, the evidence I have seen clearly shows the property was unsuitable due to its condition. When an officer visited in September 2017 he identified 13 issues. These included patchy mould, missing smoke detectors, a broken carbon monoxide detector and exposed wires from the electric consumer board. The Council says it believed the landlord was going to carry out repairs and only found out it had not when Miss X complained. As the Council was the ‘placing authority’ it is responsible for the condition of the property, even though it does not own it. It was therefore at fault.
- This fault caused a clear injustice to Miss X. She had to live with her children in unsuitable accommodation for around five months. Although she does not claim they suffered any injury as a result, the worry this risk caused and her frustration at the time taken by the Council to resolve the problem is an injustice.
- I do however note the Council offered Miss X alternative accommodation. She did not agree the alternative was suitable and challenged the Council’s decision. I will cover these events at part (f) below, but I consider they reduce the injustice suffered by Miss X as I am not satisfied she ever provided the Council with evidence to show why the alternative offer was unsuitable. I will reflect this in the remedy I propose.
- Miss X is unhappy about the costs she incurred because of travel between her temporary accommodation and the Council’s area. She says she had to pay for a taxi to get her to the temporary accommodation on the day the Council allocated it, costing her £86. She accepts the Council offered to pay for train travel but she did not want to use a train with her three children and a double buggy. She says she also later paid £124 for taxis so she could attend a GP appointment in the Council’s area.
- The Council says it offered to pay so Miss X could get a train from its area to the temporary accommodation on the day it allocated it. It says wider travel costs however are related to the suitability of the property’s location and it has no budget or responsibility to pay ongoing expenses.
- Although I accept the Council’s position on ongoing travel costs is not fault, I am not satisfied it took a common-sense approach to Miss X’s move to the temporary accommodation. She was at the Council offices late in the afternoon, with three children and some possessions. The Council knew she was fleeing domestic violence from a neighbouring borough. Although offering to pay her train fare was a reasonable first step, officers could have done more to explore alternatives when she refused. The train journey in question is around one hour long and involves one change at a major station. An online mapping service suggests it is then around a 10-minute walk from the train station to the temporary accommodation. The train would also have taken Miss X through, and stopped in, the neighbouring borough she was looking to avoid.
- I have concluded it was fault for the Council not to use its discretion to pay for Miss X’s taxi to get her to the temporary accommodation given the circumstances of the case. This has caused her an injustice as she is £86 out of pocket and its clear from her complaint this caused her stress on the day too.
- Miss X was eventually evicted from this temporary accommodation. She told me this was because of rent arrears. The Council however said the landlord evicted her due to concerns and complaints from neighbours and staff she was behaving antisocially. It says rent arrears were never an issue because of how she paid her rent.
- In late October 2017, the landlord asked the Council to cancel Miss X’s booking but the Council asked it to let Miss X stay at the property while it found her alternative accommodation. The Council then made Miss X two offers of other places to live but she rejected both. On each occasion this was because of the number of steps to access the property, although the Council says Miss X never produced any medical evidence to support this. It says it incurred costs keeping the properties on hold for Miss X while she continued to refuse to move to them.
- In December 2017, the Council wrote to Miss X and said it was considering ending its housing duty to her because it considered her refusal of suitable accommodation was unreasonable. This did not happen however and the Council offered Miss X a further property towards the end of January 2018 which she accepted.
- I have read through correspondence between Miss X, her representatives and the Council around this time. It is fair to say there were delays from both sides in replying when the other asked for information. The Council asked Miss X’s representatives to provide evidence of her relevant medical conditions more than once without receiving it.
- The decision on whether to end the Council’s housing duty to Miss X was a professional judgement for a suitably qualified officer to take. The reports of anti-social behaviour or unreasonably refusing alternative accommodation offers could have justified it, so the threat itself was not fault. And the evidence clearly shows the Council never took this action anyway. The property Miss X eventually agreed was suitable did not become available until late January and the Council immediately reserved it for her the same day.
- By 12 March 2019, the Council has agreed to:
- Write to Miss X and apologise for placing her in temporary accommodation that was unsuitable because of its condition and for not properly considering whether it should pay her taxi fare on the day it allocated the property to her.
- Pay Miss X £500 in recognition that she had to live in unsuitable temporary accommodation for five months.
- Pay Miss X £150 in relation to the taxi fare. That is £86 for the taxi fare itself and a token amount extra in recognition of the stress caused to her by its failure to consider reasonable alternatives instead.
- There was fault when the Council failed to use its discretion to pay for a taxi for Miss X to get to her allocated temporary accommodation outside the Council’s area. The property itself was then unsuitable and, although the Council quickly recognised this and carried out some repairs, it could not agree a move to alternative accommodation with Miss X for five months.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman