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London Borough of Bromley (18 010 312)

Category : Housing > Allocations

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 25 Mar 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complains about the way the Council has dealt with his homeless application and its failure to provide him with suitable temporary or permanent accommodation. There was fault in the way the Council dealt with Mr X’s homeless application, and this fault has caused Mr X an injustice.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mr X complains about the way the Council has dealt with his homeless application and its failure to provide him with suitable temporary or permanent accommodation. Mr X complains the Council:
    • lost confidential medical documents;
    • provided inaccurate information about storing his possessions;
    • failed to put him in the correct band on the housing register;
    • failed to process his bids for properties;
    • failed to properly explain the bidding process to him; and
    • delayed in identifying that a property offered was not fit to let, and in withdrawing the offer

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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. The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone can appeal to a tribunal. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to appeal. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(a), as amended)
  3. 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. As part of the investigation, I have:
    • considered the complaint and the documents provided by Mr X;
    • made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided;
    • sent a statement setting out my draft decision to Mr X and the Council and invited their comments. I have considered Mr X and the Council’s responses.

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What I found

  1. When a person applies to a council 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 notify the applicant of the decision in writing and the right to request a review of the decision.
  2. There are no statutory time limits for completing enquiries, however the Homelessness Code of Guidance, issued by the Government in 2006, recommends councils aim to complete their enquiries within 33 working days.
  3. The law says councils must ensure all accommodation provided to homeless applicants is suitable for the needs of the applicant and members of his or her household.  This duty applies to interim accommodation and accommodation provided under the main homelessness duty.  (Housing Act 1996, section 206 and (from 3 April 2018) Homelessness Code of Guidance 17.2)
  4. There is a right to request a review of the suitability of any accommodation offered or provided once the Council has accepted the main homelessness duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 202)
  5. Where the council owes a housing duty, it must protect the applicant’s personal property if there is a risk it may be lost or damaged. A council may make a reasonable charge for storage and reserve the right to dispose of the property if it loses contact with the applicant. (Housing Act 1996, section 211)

Key facts

  1. Mr X contacted the Council in June 2016 as his landlord had served a notice seeking possession of his property. This required Mr X to leave the property by 29 July 2016. Mr X met with a Housing Options officer, Officer 1 on 5 July 2016. There is no record of what was discussed or the Council’s advice to Mr X at this time.
  2. On 9 September 2016 the court issued a possession order which required Mr X to leave the property by 29 September 2016. The court also ordered that Mr X pay his landlord’s legal fees of £355. Mr X took these documents to the Council. He states Officer 1 advised him to remain in the property until he was physically evicted. Mr X asked Officer 1 about the legal fees, and states Officer 1 told him not to pay them.
  3. The Council has confirmed it received a copy of the possession order, but as it is not dated stamped, it is unable to confirm when. The Council cannot therefore confirm when it became aware of the date Mr X had to leave the property.
  4. The Council accepted a homelessness duty to Mr X on 20 October 2016, but did not offer him temporary accommodation until 28 November 2016, when he was evicted. Mr X states he visited the Council offices and was offered accommodation that was unsuitable given his disabilities and illnesses. He states officers told him they did not have his hospital/ consultant’s letters and he was not considered to have any disabilities or illnesses.
  5. Mr X spoke to a housing allocation officer (Officer 2) the following day who confirmed they had Mr X’s medical forms and letters. Officer 2 arranged temporary accommodation while they looked into Mr X’s disability and health issues. Officer 2 also requested an occupational therapist (OT) assess Mr X’s needs.
  6. Mr X did not accept the temporary accommodation and asked for a review of the suitability. He told the Council he had trouble opening and getting through the security doors, and would be unable to use the communal kitchen, toilet or bathroom due to his medical conditions. He advised the Council he would need self-contained accommodation as he needed someone to cook and wash up for him, and needed help washing and bathing.
  7. Rather than stay in the temporary accommodation, Mr X stayed with his parents. Mr X questioned why an OT had not assessed his needs earlier, as he had provided evidence of his medical conditions in June and September 2016. He questioned whether the Council had lost this information. Officer 1 confirmed the Council had not lost this information, and that an OT assessment was necessary to see what kind of accommodation he needed.
  8. An OT visited Mr X on 22 December 2016. The report states Mr X was sleeping on the sofa at his parents’ property and had difficulty to access the stairs and first floor WC/ bathroom. The OT confirmed Mr X needed ground floor accommodation with level access; no heavy fire doors; no steps; level access showering facility, proximal parking; and to be close to public transport links.
  9. In early January 2017 Mr X asked the Council for help with his storage costs. He had arranged for storage of his possessions when he was evicted, and the initial contract would soon expire. Mr X also asked for help with moving and transport costs.
  10. Officer 2 confirmed they had received the OT’s report, and was looking to offer Mr X social housing, rather than temporary accommodation. This would avoid further storage costs. The Council had identified a property, but the OT advised it would not be suitable for Mr X
  11. Mr X applied to join the housing register in November 2016 and was placed in Band 2H. The Council increased Mr X’s priority in January 2017, to Band 1H to reflect the needs identified by the OT’s report.
  12. On 24 January 2017 the Council made Mr X a direct offer of Property 1. The Council advised Mr X it considered the property was suitable and if he refused it, the Council will have discharged its homeless duty to him and would not make any further offers of any sort. The Council also advised Mr X of his right to request a review of the suitability of the property.
  13. Mr X viewed the property and advised the Council he could not accept it. Mr X stated the property had an overwhelming smell of damp and mildew which was caused by a leak from the flat above. Although the property had a wet room, it was old and dirty. The hall way was also in a poor state of repair and would require plastering. In addition, the hall way floor was uneven and he had almost slipped during the viewing. Mr X also considered the kitchen, front room and bedroom required extensive work to bring them up to an acceptable standard, and he had concerns about the garden.
  14. The Council advised the OT had assessed Property 1 as suitable for Mr X’s needs. It expected Mr X to accept the property and would not withdraw the offer unless it felt the issues Mr X raised rendered the property uninhabitable. The Council was not satisfied this was the case.
  15. The Council noted the leak had been resolved and the smell would pass, and the age of the wet room did not make the property unsuitable. The Council acknowledged the property would need some work, but this did not make it unsuitable. The Council contacted the housing association, who agreed to carry out some work to Property 1 and to provide Mr X with a decorating pack.
  16. Mr X was not happy this would resolve the issues with Property 1 and continued to raise concerns. He also asked for assistance with his ongoing storage costs which were causing him financial difficulty. The Council asked Mr X to provide copies of his storage invoices and to complete an income and expenditure form.
  17. The housing association completed the works and on 6 June 2017 the Council wrote to Mr X confirming its final decision on the offer of accommodation at Property 1. The Council was satisfied Property 1 was suitable and that the offer discharged its homelessness duty to Mr X. The Council again advised Mr X he had the right to refuse Property 1, but that the Council had no further duty to make another offer. It also advised Mr X of his right to request a formal review of the suitability of Property 1.
  18. Mr X provided copies of his storage invoices and income and expenditure form. By June 2017 Mr X had paid over £1500 in storage charges. The Council advised Mr X it did not have an automatic duty to assist with storage. The Council had assessed whether it owed Mr X a duty to protect his property, and decided it did not. The Council was satisfied there was no likelihood of loss or damage to Mr X’s property because of his inability to protect it himself and make suitable arrangements. Mr X’s property was in storage and not at risk of loss or damage, and the Council had offered Mr X unfurnished accommodation to alleviate any financial difficulties with meeting storage costs.
  19. Mr X disagreed with the Council’s decision and asserted his possessions were at risk due to his financial hardship. The Council suggested that if Mr X’s property was now at risk of loss or damage, he should provide evidence of this from the storage company. The Council also offered to assist with the cost of moving the stored items to Property 1.
  20. When Mr X attended Property 1 to sign the tenancy agreement he noticed a leak from the flat above. The leak affected the electrics at Property 1, and Mr X was unable to move in. Mr X states he was subsequently told the works had been completed, and arranged a further sign up appointment for 8 September 2017. When Mr X returned to the property he found no remedial works had been carried out.
  21. Mr X complained to the Council as the issues at Property 1 had not been resolved and he was still homeless. The Council contacted the housing association and established Property 1 was not fit to let. It then wrote to Mr X and confirmed it could:
    • withdraw the offer so that Mr X could bid for alternative accommodation and the Council could look to make a further direct offer, or
    • let Mr X keep the offer but allow him to continue bidding in case something else suitable came up.
  22. Mr X agreed the Council should withdraw the offer. He asked the Council to review his priority on the housing register, and amended the areas he would consider. Mr X also raised the issue of his storage charges again.
  23. The Council agreed to give Mr X emergency banding to enable him to secure accommodation as quickly as possible. The Council also confirmed that if Mr X did not have accommodation, it would offer temporary accommodation until Mr X secured settled accommodation. It also asked Mr X to confirm whether his stored items were now at risk of loss or damage.
  24. Mr X confirmed that he would like temporary accommodation. He also noted that his priority on the housing register had not been amended and asked for this to be updated as soon as possible. The Council made an offer of temporary accommodation on 10 October 2017. Mr X did not move into the temporary accommodation and requested a suitability review.
  25. The Council completed a suitability review in November 2017 and confirmed the accommodation was not suitable as it was accessed through heavy fire doors. The Council did not offer further temporary accommodation, but states it negotiated for Mr X to remain at his parents’ property.
  26. The Council also responded to Mr X’s formal complaint in early November 2017. It confirmed it was satisfied the Council has acted lawfully and followed correct procedures in offering Mr X Property 1. It recognised Mr X was unhappy with the offer, but considered it had handled the offer properly. The Council said it was unaware of a further leak at Property 1, or the delay in Mr X signing for the property, and was discussing this with the housing association. The Council was also satisfied that since it withdrew the offer of Property 1 it had taken appropriate action.
  27. In addition, the Council reiterated that it had a duty to consider whether Mr X’s possessions were at risk of loss or damage. But it did not have a duty to store his belongings.
  28. Mr X successful bid on a property, Property 2 in late May 2018. He moved into Property 2 in November 2018.
  29. Mr X is unhappy with the way the Council has dealt with this matter and has asked the Ombudsman to investigate his concerns.
  30. In response to my enquiries the Council acknowledges there were errors in the way it handled Mr X’s case. The Council has provided partial copies of the housing assessment, and interview notes. It has not retained the original documents and did not scan the full documents onto its electronic system. Without full records, it is not possible to confirm what advice the Council gave Mr X, or whether it fully considered his circumstances.
  31. In addition, the Council cannot confirm when it became aware of the date the possession order expired. But states it should have sought temporary accommodation from 28 days prior to the expiry of the possession order, or from the date it accepted a homeless duty at the latest. Not doing this was contrary to the Council’s policy and procedure. It also meant the Council missed the opportunity to carry out an OT assessment and source suitable temporary or social housing earlier.
  32. The Council has since carried out extensive training so that officers are aware of the need to request temporary accommodation.
  33. Although there was a delay in requesting temporary accommodation, the Council considers officers followed correct procedure from that point onwards. It carried out an OT assessment and made an offer of suitable social housing. The Council states there were delays due to Mr X’s concerns about the decorative state and damp in Property 1, but the Council considered these were resolved by June 2017. The offer of this property fell through due to circumstances outside the Council’s control.
  34. The Council states that during the period February to August 2017 there were only two properties that met Mr X’s criteria. Mr X did not bid on either property, but had he done so, he would not have been successful.
  35. Mr X bid on 6 properties between November 2017 and September 2018. He came first for each property, but two were not suitable on medical grounds, and he did not meet the age criteria for two others. Mr X was declined for the final bid as he had an offer for Property 2.
  36. The Council states there were seven properties offered between 9 October 2017 and 28 May 2018 which met Mr X’s needs as assessed by the OT. Mr X did not bid on these properties, but had he done so he could have secured any of the properties. Mr X had higher banding priority than all of the successful applicants.
  37. The Council states that the delay in Mr X being able to move into Property 2 was due to the housing association introducing a new IT system and way of working. This created a backlog which took some time to clear. The Council states that as Mr X’s offer of Property 2 was only provisional it would not have prevented him from bidding on other properties. It has not provided details of any suitable properties that became available between May and November 2018.
  38. In relation to Mr X’s storage charges, the Council states there was no reason to believe a danger or loss of possessions was likely due to Mr X’s inability to make suitable arrangements.
  39. In response to the draft decision Mr X asserts the Council’s actions have left him at a major disadvantage financially and in relation to his health. He reiterates that the offers of temporary accommodation offered were unsuitable, and that he notified the Council from the outset that Property 1 was not in a suitable condition. Mr X states the Council told him it would not make any further direct offers when Property 1 was withdrawn.
  40. Mr X also asserts that the seven properties identified by the Council as suitable between September 2917 and May 2018 did not fall within acceptable areas. He states he did not bid on them as they would not have been suitable given his need for a quiet area.
  41. In addition, Mr X has reiterated that he repeatedly told the Council his property was at risk as he was experienced increasing difficulty in paying the storage costs. He considers the Council should make a significant contribution towards these costs for the full time his property was in storage.
  42. Mr X would also like the council to pay his moving costs, and the interest charges he has paid on for defaulting on other debts so that he could pay the storage charges.

Analysis

  1. The documentation provided shows there were errors in the way the Council dealt with Mr X’s homeless application. The Council delayed in accepting a homeless duty and in offering Mr X temporary accommodation. These delays amount to fault. As does the failure to keep proper records.
  2. There is no evidence the Council lost Mr X’s medical forms and letters, but the Council does not appear to have had regard to this information or the subsequent OT assessment when offering temporary accommodation. The Council twice offered Mr X temporary accommodation which was unsuitable for his needs. When it offered temporary accommodation in October 2017 the Council had received recommendations from an OT, and should have been aware the property would not be suitable. Mr X exercised his right to request a review of these decision.
  3. The Council would also have been aware that Mr X was staying with his parents, in conditions that were unsuitable, but did not offer any further temporary accommodation.
  4. There were also delays in Mr X being able to take up offers of permanent accommodation. Neither Property 1 nor Property 2 were in an appropriate condition for Mr X to move into when the Council offered them to Mr X. The Council suggests these delays were due to circumstances outside its control, and that it was unaware of the full extent of the disrepair at Property 1. I consider there was an onus on the Council to ensure that the properties offered to Mr X in discharge of its homeless duty were suitable and available for Mr X to move into in a timely manner. The delay in ensuring these properties were fit for occupancy and the lack of communication between the Council and the housing associations in this respect amounts to fault.
  5. There is no evidence the Council advised Mr X he could, or should continue to bid on other properties while he waited for either Property 1 or Property 2 to be made ready for him to move in.
  6. Mr X is concerned about errors in the way the Council managed his priority on the housing register and the way it processed his bids. The documentation shows the Council gave Mr X information on the bidding process when it accepted his application in November 2016. There is no evidence the Council did not consider Mr X’s bids. Although Mr X initially placed first for the properties he bid on, he was not offered them as he either did not meet the criteria, or they were not suitable for his needs. We would not expect the Council to offer Mr X these properties.
  7. Since being evicted in November 2016 Mr X has incurred almost £7,500 in storage charges. This caused Mr X financial hardship, and he considers the Council was wrong not to provide him with assistance. The Council considered whether it owed Mr X a duty to protect his property, and decided that as there was no risk it may be lost or damaged, it did not. Mr X disagrees with this decision, but it is one the Council was entitled to make. I also note that had the Council considered it owed Mr X a duty, it would not necessarily have protected his property free of charge. The Council could have made a reasonable charge for storage, so Mr X would still have incurred fees.
  8. Having identified fault, I must then go onto consider whether this has caused Mr X an injustice. The delays in dealing with Mr X’s homeless application, and in discharging the Council’s homeless duty, together with the failure to provide temporary accommodation have meant that Mr X had to stay in unsuitable accommodation for longer than was necessary. This has caused Mr X frustration and distress, and has impacted on his health. It has also meant that Mr X’s property has been in storage for longer than was necessary, and incurred additional costs. Mr X has also been put to unnecessary time and trouble in trying to resolve this matter.
  9. In determining an appropriate remedy for this injustice, I am mindful of the fact Mr X did not miss out on other suitable permanent accommodation whilst waiting to move into Property 1. But there were other properties Mr X could have successfully bid on between October 2017 and May 2018. Had Mr X bid on these properties, or the Council made a direct offer, Mr X may have been suitably housed sooner.
  10. However it is not possible to speculate on how much sooner Mr X could have been housed. Although there were properties that met Mr X’s assessed needs, I note that some had age criteria which Mr X did not meet. As Mr X was bypassed on other properties for not meeting the age criteria, it is possible he would also have been bypassed for these properties. In addition, there is no evidence as to whether these properties would have been available for Mr X to immediately move into. It is also unclear why the Council did not make Mr X a direct offer of one of these properties if it considered them suitable for Mr X.
  11. Mr X states he did not bid on these properties as they were in unsuitable areas and would have had a detrimental impact on his health. I note however that one of these properties is on the same street as Property 2, where Mr X now lives, and another is on an adjoining street.
  12. Where a complainant has had to live in unsuitable accommodation for longer than necessary because of delay by the Council, our guidance on remedies recommends financial redress. In this case I consider a payment of £200 per month would be appropriate for the period November 2016 to October 2017. There should also be a further payment for the period November 2017 to November 2018. I recommend this is at a lower level, of £100 per month, as there were suitable properties that Mr X could have bid on during this period.
  13. In terms of Mr X’s storage charges, it is likely that he would have incurred some charges while waiting for permanent accommodation. Property 1 was the only suitable permanent accommodation available to Mr X between January and October 2017. Even if the Council had offered Mr X temporary accommodation it is unclear whether this would have enabled him to remove all his possessions from storage. As set out above I am also unable to speculate on how much sooner Mr X could have moved into permanent accommodation had he bid on other properties between October 2017 and May 2018. However, it is clear there was a delay in him being able to move into Property 2, and this extended the amount of time his possessions were in storage.
  14. In the circumstances, I consider the Council should contribute towards Mr X’s storage charges, but not at the level Mr X suggests.
  15. I do not consider the Council is responsible for Mr X’s moving costs as he did not incur these through any fault on the part of the Council. Mr X’s landlord wanted his property back, so Mr X would have incurred moving costs in any events. Nor do I consider the Council should reimburse Mr X for the interest charges he has incurred.

Agreed action

  1. I recommended the Council:
    • Apologise to Mr X for the faults identified above;
    • Pay Mr X £3,500 in recognition of the frustration, distress and impact on his health caused by living in unsuitable accommodation for longer than was necessary;
    • Pay Mr X £1,500 as a contribution towards his storage charges;
    • Review its policies and procedures to ensure that properties offered in discharge of its homeless duty are suitable and available for applicants to move into in a timely manner. The Council should have procedures in place to monitor and identify any delays in these properties being made available. This should include effective communication with those providing the accommodation.
  2. The Council has agreed to these recommendations. It should apologise and make the payments to Mr X within one month of the final statement. It should carry out the review of its policies and procedures within three months of the final decision.

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Final decision

  1. There was fault in the way the Council dealt with Mr X’s homeless application, and this fault has caused Mr X an injustice.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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