The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Halton Housing Trust delayed registering Mr B’s housing application documents and delayed carrying out a home visit to complete a housing options assessment. The Council then failed to follow the correct procedures for reviewing Halton Housing Trust’s decisions. These failings caused Mr B some frustration and put him to avoidable time and trouble. The Council has agreed to apologise, make a payment to Mr B and take action to prevent similar failings in future.
- Mr B complains about the way the Council has dealt with his housing application. In particular, that it:
- delayed unreasonably in processing his application;
- has not given his application sufficient priority in view of his son's disability; and
- did not adhere to its policy in the way it carried out its review of his case.
- 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 investigate complaints about councils and certain other bodies. Where an individual, organisation or private company is providing services on behalf of a council, we can investigate complaints about the actions of these providers. (Local Government Act 1974, section 25(7), 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 have:
- considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant;
- discussed the issues with the complainant;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council has provided; and
- given the Council and the complainant the opportunity to comment on my draft 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. (Housing Act 1996, section 166A(1) & (14))
- An allocations scheme must give reasonable preference to applicants in the following categories:
- homeless people;
- people in insanitary, overcrowded or unsatisfactory housing;
- people who need to move on medical or welfare grounds;
- people who need to move to avoid hardship to themselves or others. (Housing Act 1996, section 166A(3))
Background to the complaint
- In 2010, Mr B moved into a new build four-bedroom housing association bungalow with his wife, Mrs B, his step-son and their two sons. The property had been specifically adapted for Mr B’s disabled son and his disabled step-son, who both use a wheelchair.
- Mr B’s step-son moved out in around 2013. Mr and Mrs B later separated and Mrs B moved out, leaving Mr B and their two sons living in the adapted bungalow.
- In 2015, Mr and Mrs B divorced and Mrs B gained custody of their two sons. It was agreed that Mr B would move out of the bungalow and Mrs B would move back in.
- In July 2017, Mr and Mrs B’s two sons went to live with Mr B in his two-bedroom privately rented flat. Mrs B stayed living in the adapted bungalow.
- Mr B’s private flat was not suitable for their needs and so in September 2017, he applied to join the social housing register. Halton Housing Trust placed Mr B’s application in priority band B, with a three-bedroom housing need.
- Mrs B gave up her tenancy of the adapted bungalow and it was advertised on the social housing website in December 2017. Mr B placed a bid on it.
- Mr B found out that his bid had not been successful and he asked Halton Housing Trust to review its decision. He said that he considered their application had been incorrectly banded. Mr B explained that he was waiting for a home visit to be carried out and he had been told that band A status could only be awarded after the home visit.
- Halton Housing Trust reviewed its banding decision and decided that Mr B’s application had been correctly placed in band B.
- Mr B then asked for a stage 2 review. He appealed against the decision to give the tenancy of the adapted bungalow to another family. Mr B said that the successful applicant’s effective date on the housing register was 1 November 2017, and if there had been no delays processing his application, he would have had an earlier effective date.
- The Council invited Mr B to a review hearing. The Council says the review was due to start at 10am but Mr B says the letter he received said the review would start at 10.30am. As Mr B had not arrived by 10am, the review started without him. Mr B says that he was waiting outside until gone 11am, by which time one of the panel members had left. The Council offered to rearrange the review but Mr B decided to put forward his case to the remaining panel member.
- Mr B later decided that he would like another review hearing. One was arranged but the Council cancelled it due to adverse weather. The Council rearranged it but Mr B decided that he would approach the Ombudsman instead.
- The Council wrote to Mr B with the outcome of his review. It accepted that Halton Housing Trust had delayed registering the documents Mr B provided to support his application. It also accepted that Halton Housing Trust had taken longer to complete the health and welfare assessment for his application than for some other applications. It told Mr B that the delays did not disadvantage his application.
- The Council upheld Halton Housing Trust’s decision to place Mr B’s application in band B with a three-bedroom need. The Council explained that the successful applicant met the relevant criteria and had a four bedroom need so would fully occupy the property.
- Mr B says that no other social housing has been advertised which would be suitable for their needs. In July 2018, Mr B and his sons moved into a privately rented three-bedroom bungalow. Mr B says that the property is not suitable for their needs and he remains on the social housing register.
- I have studied the Housing Allocations policy. Band A is for applicants who have severe, long-term health conditions causing substantial disabilities who are unable to leave their home and are unable to access all the essential facilities in their current accommodation. Mr B says that his son is only able to access essential facilities and leave the home with assistance, and so they meet the criteria for band A. The Housing Allocations Policy says that applicants will be deemed as unable to access facilities if they rely on someone else to help them, and help is not available. As Mr B’s son is able to access these facilities with help, and help is available, Halton Housing Trust decided to place the application in band B. I have found no evidence of fault in the way this decision was reached.
- The Council’s records show that when a home visit was carried out in January 2018, Mr B said that he will need a fourth bedroom because his son will need overnight care in the future. The officer recorded that she advised Mr B to provide a supporting letter so that his application could be updated. Mr B does not recall this. But in any event, he had not provided any evidence to show that the family had a need for four bedrooms by the time the Council carried out the stage 2 review. I have found no evidence of fault in the way Halton Housing Trust and the Council decided that Mr B had a three-bedroom need.
- Halton Housing Trust delayed registering Mr B’s housing application documents and did not backdate them when they were registered. The Council says that if there had been no delays dealing with Mr B’s application, his effective date on the housing register would be 12 October 2017, rather than 5 December 2017. Halton Housing Trust also delayed carrying out a home visit to complete a housing options assessment. These failings caused Mr B frustration and put him to avoidable time and trouble. However, they did not affect Halton Housing Trust’s decision to offer the adapted bungalow to another family.
- The Housing Allocations Policy says that nomination to adapted or purpose built disabled persons accommodation will be on the basis of greatest need and suitability of the accommodation for an individual’s needs. The adapted bungalow was advertised with preference to applicants who required a four-bedroom, ground floor, adapted, wheelchair accessible property.
- The family offered the property and the family in second place both met all the relevant criteria and had a four-bedroom need. And so regardless of the effective date, they would have been shortlisted above Mr B’s family. The family in third place had a three bedroom need but their effective date was several months before Mr B applied to join the housing register. I have found no evidence of fault in the way Halton Housing Trust decided to offer the bungalow to another family.
- Both the Council and Mr B have provided copies of the letter inviting Mr B to the review hearing. The letter the Council has provided says that the start time is 10.00am; the letter Mr B has provided says that the start time is 10.30am. On the balance of probabilities, I consider it likely that the letter Mr B received stated that the start time was 10.30am. Starting the review before 10.30am was fault and as a result, Mr B lost the opportunity to present his case to both panel members.
- Mr B should have had the opportunity to present his case to three panel members. The Housing Allocations Policy says that the review will be carried out by a representative from the Council and at least two scheme landlords, not including Halton Borough Council. The Council did not follow its policy when it arranged for the review to take place with only one scheme landlord. This was fault. However, Mr B was given the opportunity to put forward his case on another day to three panel members – a representative of the Council and two scheme landlords. As explained above, I am satisfied that there was no fault in the way Halton Housing Trust decided that Mr B’s application should be placed in band B, with a three-bedroom need. It therefore follows that if there had been no fault in the review process and it had been properly heard by the panel, it is unlikely to have been successful. I do not consider the failure to properly follow the review process affected the outcome of the review. However, the error in the letter and the failure to arrange a review with three panel members caused Mr B frustration and put him to avoidable time and trouble.
- When a council commissions another organisation to provide services on its behalf it remains responsible for those services and for the actions of the organisation providing them. So although I have found fault with the actions of both the Council and Halton Housing Trust, the recommendations I made were to the Council.
- Within four weeks, the Council will apologise and make a payment of £100 to Mr B. It will also ensure Halton Housing Trust has backdated Mr B’s effective date to 12 October 2017.
- Within eight weeks, the Council will:
- Remind relevant officers that review panels must consist of at least two scheme landlords;
- Ensure Halton Housing Trust reviews its procedures to ensure it does not delay registering housing application documents, it backdates documents appropriately and does not delay carrying out home visits to complete housing options assessments.
- I have completed my investigation and uphold Mr B’s complaint. There was fault by the Council which caused injustice. The action the Council has agreed to take is sufficient to remedy that injustice.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman