London Borough of Southwark (18 009 536)

Category : Housing > Allocations

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 21 Mar 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Council had reason to believe Ms C might be homeless but failed to take a homeless application. Ms C lived in potentially unsuitable conditions for 18 months; the Council will pay £2700 to recognise the impact of this. The Council will give guidance to relevant officers to prevent future problems.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I will call Ms B, is an advocate acting for Ms C. Ms B says the Council failed to take a homeless application for Ms C when she approached in 2014 and 2016. The Council turned her away without assistance. The homelessness team, housing allocations team, and environmental health team, left her living in unsuitable accommodation for longer than necessary. The Council failed to add a working household and overcrowding star, so failed to act under its policy. Long delays and poor communication made the process drawn out, distressing and confusing. The Council never translated any correspondence, which added to the confusion. The Council failed to protect the children under the Children’s Act, despite knowing they were living in overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation. The family were vulnerable, living in appalling housing conditions all in one room, with English not as a first language. It was a stressful and worrying time, and went on for longer than necessary.

Back to top

What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated the events from 2016 onwards. The final section of this statement contains my reason for not investigating the rest of the complaint.

Back to top

The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended). We exercised discretion to consider the events in this case from 2016 on the basis any earlier issues could have been raised by the advocate at that time.
  2. 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)
  3. We may investigate complaints made on behalf of someone else if they have given their consent. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26A(1), as amended)
  4. 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)

Back to top

How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered:
    • Information provided by Ms B and the Council.
    • The Council’s ‘Housing Allocations Scheme’ published in November 2013.
    • The Housing Act 1996.
    • The Housing Act 1985.
    • The ‘Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities’ issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government.
    • Responses to a draft of this statement.

Back to top

What I found

  1. Ms C lived in private rented accommodation with her husband and their three children. They lived in one room of a house, and had shared access to a kitchen and bathroom. They were on the Council’s housing register to rent a Council property.
  2. The Council and Ms B both confirm that in May 2016 Ms C told the Council she thought the family were statutorily overcrowded. This was the first time the issue of overcrowding was brought to the Council’s attention, as well as earlier concerns of disrepair. Ms C’s third child was born in March 2016, so presumably made the living situation worse.
  3. When a person applies to a Housing Authority for accommodation and it has reason to believe they may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, a number of duties arise, including:
    • To make enquiries;
    • To secure suitable accommodation for certain applicants pending the outcome of the enquiries;
    • To tell the applicant of the decision in writing and the right to request a review of the decision.
  4. A person does not have to fill in a form, or approach a particular department, to engage the Council’s duties to consider them as homeless or threatened with homelessness. Although Ms C and her family had accommodation, the law says, “A person shall not be treated as having accommodation unless it is accommodation which it would be reasonable for him to continue to occupy”.
  5. The Council failed to consider whether Ms C and her family may be homeless on the basis they were overcrowded and living with disrepair, so it may not be reasonable for them to continue living there.
  6. The Council says in August 2016 an enforcement officer visited Ms C’s accommodation because of concerns of disrepair. This work was by its Private Sector Housing Enforcement service. The Council officer noted Ms C and her family were overcrowded but did not ‘flag it up’ at the time. The Council missed this, and other, opportunities to make enquiries about Ms C and her family potentially being homeless. The Council also missed opportunities to serve the landlord with a formal notice under the Housing Act 1985 about overcrowding at the property. All of which could have improved Ms C and her family’s living situation.
  7. The Council says its procedures have changed since the events in this case. Private Sector Housing Enforcement officers now make automatic referrals to Housing Options if they establish there is overcrowding at a dwelling.
  8. The Council eventually rehomed the family in November 2017. It is not clear from the Council’s reply to my enquiries whether this was because of Ms C successfully bidding on a property from the housing register, or because of intervention from the Council’s Social Welfare panel. The Council should have clear records to show what happened in individual cases.
  9. In response to Ms B’s complaint the Council said “I also advised your good self in writing for [Ms C] to approach the Housing Solutions service to seek assistance through the homelessness framework if [Ms C] could not be reasonably expected to continue to live in the accommodation. Unfortunately, this advice was not followed, as the Council could have provided [Ms C] with alternative accommodation.” I refer to paragraph 11, the law only requires the Council to have reason to believe that someone might be homeless or threatened with homelessness. This is a low threshold.
  10. Ms C feels she didn’t have enough housing priority for the time she was on the housing register, she says the Council should have given her priority stars for overcrowding and for being a working family. Ms B also says the Council failed to consider the welfare of the children under the Children’s Act 2004. I have considered these issues, but have not included the detail in this statement, I give my reasons in paragraph 23 below.
  11. Ms C does not have English as a first language. The Council’s ‘Housing Allocations Scheme’ says “Where a language need is identified, from whatever source, and the applicant has no other means, all written material given to an applicant must be translated into the relevant language. This will be given together with a copy of the English version.” The Council says Ms C and her family had been able to engage in employment, get accommodation and seek out the Council’s services so could access translation services for all letters received.

Was there fault causing injustice?

  1. The Council failed to take a homeless application from Ms C. Had it done so she and her family may not have remained living in a potentially unsuitable property for as long as they did.
  2. Ms C should not have had to personally approach the Housing Solutions service to engage the Council’s duties, the Private Sector Housing Enforcement service, could have alerted the Housing Options department to trigger its duties. They are both departments within the Council’s housing services. A service user would not know which Council department to approach, and you would expect all housing services to be aware that some cases may need to be referred to other departments for assistance, particularly in relation to homelessness.
  3. I have considered the Ombudsman’s ‘Guidance on good practice: Remedies’. This says, “where a complainant has been deprived of suitable accommodation during what would inevitably have been a stressful period in their life, our recommendation for financial redress is likely to be in the range of £150 to £350 per month”. I have considered the family did have accommodation, and access to cooking and bathing facilities, so am recommending the lower figure in this case. I also take account of the homelessness code of guidance which says that statutory overcrowding may not be enough to determine reasonableness but may be a contributory factor; I do not know if the family were statutorily overcrowded.
  4. I am not satisfied the Council has adequately shown how it determined there was no language need, or if there was the applicant had other means to translate documents. However, I also have no evidence that Ms C, or anyone helping her, asked the Council to translate any letters. Ms B says as Ms C had an interpreter present it should have been obvious to the Council, but this would show the need for translation was being met by other means. As Ms C had advocates helping her, and I have no evidence they asked the Council to translate letters, I find it reasonable the Council took the view Ms C’s translation needs were being met by other means.
  5. Because I am recommending a remedy for the period May 2016 to November 2017, I have not focussed on the housing register priority or Children’s Act issues. Any fault and injustice in those areas would not improve the remedy I am recommending for this period.

Agreed action

  1. To acknowledge the impact on Ms C and her family, the Council will:
      1. Pay Ms C £2700 to recognise they lived in potentially unsuitable accommodation because the Council failed to take a homeless application.
      2. Give guidance to housing staff to enable them to identify cases which might need a referral to the Housing Options service to take a homeless application, and to make such referrals as necessary.
      3. Give guidance to the Social Welfare panel about recording its findings and decisions.
  2. The Council should complete the actions within one month of the Ombudsman’s final decision, and provide evidence to the Ombudsman of its compliance.

Back to top

Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation on the basis the agreed action is sufficient to acknowledge the impact on Ms C, and to prevent future problems.

Back to top

Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I did not investigate events before 2016, even though the complainant raises issues from 2014. These are late complaints, as explained in paragraph three. I considered whether to exercise discretion to investigate these late complaints. I recognise that Ms C’s first language is not English and it may be difficult for her to make a formal complaint, however from 2016 Ms B was involved and could have complained about the earlier issues. Ms C did also have an advocate involved in 2014 who could have helped her to complain sooner.

Back to top

Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

Print this page

LGO logogram

Review your privacy settings

Required cookies

These cookies enable the website to function properly. You can only disable these by changing your browser preferences, but this will affect how the website performs.

View required cookies

Analytical cookies

Google Analytics cookies help us improve the performance of the website by understanding how visitors use the site.
We recommend you set these 'ON'.

View analytical cookies

In using Google Analytics, we do not collect or store personal information that could identify you (for example your name or address). We do not allow Google to use or share our analytics data. Google has developed a tool to help you opt out of Google Analytics cookies.

Privacy settings