The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council’s delay assessing medical information was fault. It has already provided a suitable remedy for this. The Council’s failure to provide suitable temporary accommodation is also fault. The Council has agreed to apologise, pay Ms X £1800, and take action to improve its services.
- Ms X complains that the Council failed to offer her suitable temporary accommodation when it identified that her current temporary accommodation was unsuitable.
- She also complains the Council took too long to assess the medical information she provided in relation to her housing register application.
- As a result, Ms X says she remains in a property where she is unsafe. She also says that she missed an opportunity to secure a property of the size she needs because of the Council’s delay.
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)
- We may investigate matters coming to our attention during an investigation, if we consider that a member of the public who has not complained may have suffered an injustice as a result. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26D and 34E, 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 to Ms X about the complaint and made written enquiries of the Council.
- I considered relevant law and guidance, including the Housing Act 1996 as amended, the Homelessness Code of Guidance, and the Council’s Allocations Policy.
- I referred to the Ombudsman’s Guidance on Remedies, a copy of which can be found on our website.
- Ms X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
- Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities set out councils’ powers and duties to people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
- If a council is satisfied an applicant is homeless, eligible for assistance, and has a priority need the council has a duty to secure that accommodation is available for their occupation. This is called the main duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 193)
- 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)
- The accommodation provided under the main homelessness duty is called temporary accommodation. Councils meet this duty in different ways, including:
- the council’s own housing stock
- dedicated hostels or purpose-built accommodation
- properties procured from housing associations or other Registered Providers of social housing
- properties leased from private landlords
- Every local housing authority must publish an allocations scheme that sets out how it prioritises housing applicants, and its procedures for allocating properties. 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))
- Ms X has been homeless since 2004. Since then, she and her children have lived in temporary accommodation.
- In May 2020, Ms X told the Council she was assaulted near her home. She said this made her feel unsafe in the property. The Council decided that as the assault was an isolated incident, there was no continuing risk of violence to Ms X that would make her temporary accommodation unsuitable.
- In October, Ms X reported threats of further violence to both her and one of her children.
- The Council took no action until December, when it added Ms X to its Temporary Accommodation Transfer List. The Council accepted that Ms X’s current temporary accommodation was unsuitable.
- Ms X’s complaint is that she is still living in this unsuitable accommodation because the Council has failed to move her somewhere more suitable.
- Ms X says the family continue to receive threatening messages and feel unsafe in their home.
- The Council says the supply of the size of property Ms X needs is very limited.
- It has only 75 five-bedroom and 218 four-bedroom units of temporary accommodation. Of these, only 47 are in the borough. Since April 2021, the Council has let seven four-bedroom units of temporary accommodation. Only one of these was in the borough.
- The Council says it is working to procure more temporary accommodation of the larger size needed by many of the households on the Transfer List.
- In August 2021, it offered Ms X alternative accommodation in a neighbouring borough. Ms X refused this accommodation. She said it was too far for her disabled children to travel to school. The Council says it considers this was a suitable offer. Ms X did not ask for a suitability review of the offer. The Council says it exercised its discretion to withdraw the offer rather than end its duty to Ms X.
- In March 2020, Ms X submitted medical information to the Council about the needs of her children, two of whom have a disability.
- The Council did not assess the medical information until December. Throughout this period, Ms X contacted the Council several times to ask for an update.
- In December, the Council decided Ms X needed 5 bedrooms, as it accepted that her disabled children could not share a room. Ms X says that this was not the purpose of providing the information. Ms X says the purpose of this information was to support her request that the Council make her a direct offer of a permanent home.
- In response to Ms X’s complaint about the delay, the Council accepted fault. It apologised and offered a remedy of £200. It says the delay did not result in any missed offers of accommodation and therefore the injustice to Ms X was limited to frustration and time and trouble.
- Ms X told the Council about the threats she received in October. The Council failed to act until December. This is a delay of two months and is fault. This caused avoidable distress and frustration at an already difficult time. This is an injustice to Ms X.
- The Council’s records show that it has not taken active steps to source suitable accommodation for Ms X and her family specifically. Rather, it relies on properties in its existing stock becoming available or its wider procurement strategy to increase supply.
- In the last five years, however, the Council has procured an additional 300 properties. Of these, over 100 are within the borough and all are family sized (two or more bedrooms).
- Despite this, 4% of the more than 2,700 households in temporary accommodation are waiting for a transfer out of unsuitable accommodation. 49 of these households have been waiting for more than a year. There are 35 households currently on the Transfer List who need a property of the size Ms X needs.
- The Council has been unable to provide Ms X or the 119 other homeless households on the transfer list with suitable accommodation.
- The Council is working hard to procure more temporary accommodation and is flexible in how it uses available properties. It is not for lack of trying by the Council that Ms X had to remain in unsuitable accommodation. Nevertheless, the law is clear that the Council has a duty to provide accommodation to homeless applicants which is suitable. It has not done so. This service failure is fault.
- As a result, Ms X continued to live in unsuitable accommodation where she was in fear of violence. This is an injustice to Ms X. There is also injustice to the other homeless households in unsuitable accommodation who have not complained.
- In response to my enquiries, the Council said:
“The intention is that the purchase and procurement of properties going forward are targeted more specifically at meeting the needs of individual households where particular accommodation is required due to the household size and composition, with new procurement informed directly by the temporary accommodation tenant transfer list.”
- This proposal is welcome as a means of reducing this service failure in future.
- The Council made Ms X an offer of temporary accommodation in August 2021. The Council considered that this would be suitable accommodation. Ms X refused it because she says it was too far for her disabled children to get to school. Ms X did not, however, ask the Council to review the suitability of the offer, which she had a statutory right to do. The Council could have ended its duty to Ms X, but it exercised its discretion not to. Therefore, I find that the injustice to Ms X ended in August 2021.
- The Council accepts it took too long to review the medical information Ms X provided. It has apologised and agreed to pay Ms X £200. Given Ms X did not miss out on any offers of accommodation due to the delay, I consider this to be a suitable remedy for the injustice caused.
- Once it reviewed the medical information, the Council decided Ms X needed a five-bedroom home. Under the Council’s allocations scheme, this means she can bid for three-, four- or five-bedroom properties.
- Ms X says she provided medical information to the Council because she wanted it to make her a direct offer of permanent accommodation, not to increase her bedroom entitlement.
- The Council’s allocations policy says it will make a direct offer in certain circumstances, including “where we have a statutory duty to re-house the applicant into suitable accommodation”.
- When she first provided the medical information in March, Ms X’s accommodation was suitable. However, the delay assessing this information means by the time it did so, Ms X’s accommodation was unsuitable.
- It was not fault for the Council to consider the medical information and decide that it meant Ms X needed a larger property. This is in line with the allocations policy.
- The Council told Ms X it could make her a direct offer of a three-bedroom property or she could continue to bid for four- and five-bedroom properties. The Council’s policy says applicants can bid for properties up to two bedrooms smaller than they need. Therefore, it was not fault for the Council to offer Ms X a smaller property.
- The Council has provided evidence that it offered Ms X a three-bedroom direct let because that was the largest size of property available. However, I do not consider that its communication with Ms X makes this clear. Rather, the Council gave the impression that it would only agree to make Ms X a direct offer if she accepted a three-bedroom property.
- In other words, Ms X thought the Council was asking her to choose between her short-term safety and the long term needs of her disabled children, which would be significantly impacted by a smaller property.
- The Council should have better explained the reasons for its offer of a three-bedroom property to Ms X. Its failure to do so was fault. This caused Ms X avoidable distress and confusion at an already difficult time. This is an injustice to Ms X.
- To remedy the injustice to Ms X from the faults I have identified the Council has agreed to:
- Apologise to Ms X in writing
- Pay Ms X £150 for each month she remained in unsuitable accommodation until August 2021, for a total of £1,500
- Pay Ms X £300 in recognition of her avoidable distress and uncertainty
- what it will do to meet its statutory duty for those currently waiting; and
- how it will seek to prevent such problems in future
- I have completed my investigation. There is fault by the Council. The action I have recommended is a suitable remedy for the injustice caused.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman