Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 23 Feb 2018
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: There was no fault by the Council during Miss X’s Right to Buy house purchase. It had given her information about the legal remedy available to her but Miss X was unaware of this right until the sale had nearly completed and it was too late to use it.
- Miss X complains that in November 2016 the Council provided her with incorrect advice about the Right to Buy delay process during a telephone call. She says that as a result she was unaware she needed to submit a form to the Council and missed the opportunity to be compensated for 16 weeks of 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. 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 read the complaint made by Miss X to the Ombudsman and have spoken to her on the telephone about it. I made enquiries to the Council and have considered all the material it sent to me.
- I have considered the law about Right to Buy, which is found in the Housing Act 1985 (‘the Act’).
- I shared a copy of my draft decision with Miss X and the Council and invited them to comment on it. I discussed Miss X’s views with her.
What I found
- Right to Buy is a Government scheme which allows tenants of social landlords to buy their home at a discount, providing they meet the criteria.
- Section 153A of the Act provides information about how a tenant can serve notice on a council in the event of delay. If a tenant believes the Council has delayed completing the right to buy process they can issue an initial notice of delay form to the Council known as the RTB6. Within one month the Council must then either move the sale process forward or serve a counter notice, known as the RTB7. The counter notice will say either the Council has already replied or explain why the Council cannot speed the process up.
- If the Council does not respond within one month the tenant can issue an operative notice of delay form which is known as the RTB8. Service of that form means any rent the tenant continues to pay while waiting to hear from the Council could be deducted from the sale price.
- As this scheme is set up by statute the delay process is fixed and applies throughout England, regardless of which local council is considering the application. A Notice of Delay cannot be served retrospectively.
- Miss X was an eligible tenant living in a council house in the Council’s area. She sent an application to the Council to take up her Right to Buy on 11 October 2016. The Council should have replied by 8 November but instead did not do so until 23 December. This was a delay of six weeks.
- The Council should then have sent a formal offer letter by 17 February 2017 but it was delayed until 4 April. This was a further delay of six weeks. Draft legal documents were then sent to Miss X’s solicitor on 7 August but it took eight weeks to process them rather than the normal four weeks.
- Miss X did not serve any Notices of Delay on the Council. She says she had a telephone conversation with someone from the Council’s Right to Buy team in November 2016 when chasing up her application. Miss X says the phone line was only open for two hours a day and only two members of staff were working at the time. She is insistent she was told ‘not to worry’ and that she would be reimbursed.
- The Council says it has no record of any call from Miss X in November 2016. It disputes that any of its staff would have given her advice other than to direct her to the Right to Buy website run by the Government.
- Miss X says she was unaware that she actively needed to issue a Notice of Delay to start the process towards obtaining reimbursement of the rent she was paying. She says she was first told about the RTB6 form when she spoke to one of the Council’s legal assistants working on its behalf in August 2017.
- Miss X complained to the Council the same month. She said she thought the Council should either pay her compensation automatically or have made her aware of her right to issue a Notice of Delay.
- The Council responded by saying it was only following the law in expecting a Notice of Delay to be served on it. It also said to Miss X that it had already sent her information about what to do if there were delays, and pointed out information was on the Government website and there was a telephone line for advice about Right to Buy as well.
- The Ombudsman asked the Council to provide a copy of the information sent to Miss X. It sent a copy of its information pack which it sent with the application form (also known as form RTB1). In a section called ‘How to Apply’ it says:
“However, we sometimes experience delays during busy periods so please refer to Page 17 of the booklet to find out what you can do if this happens. More information can be found on the Government Right to Buy web page at [website address].”
- The booklet referred to is the Government’s official Right to Buy guide for tenants. It is not produced by the Council itself. At page 17 it explains that a landlord must deal with a Right to Buy application within the timescales allowed or the buyer “could get a reduction in the sale price.” It also provides an Internet link.
- Miss X says she did not receive this leaflet from the Council. The Council says it is ‘inconceivable’ that it was not sent to her as it includes one with every application pack.
Analysis and Conclusions
- As there is no evidence supporting Miss X’s version of events, I cannot say the Council told her not to worry about any delays as she would be reimbursed. Miss X has not named the person she spoke to and the Council has no record of a telephone conversation in November 2016.
- The Council does not have to automatically reimburse people when there are delays in the Right to Buy process. Parliament has laid out the process to be followed and it specifically requires the tenant to serve a Notice of Delay on the Council. If it intended councils to reimburse people automatically it would have made the law reflect that position.
- I accept that Miss X was unaware of her rights about delays until she contacted the Council’s legal assistant in August 2017. That much is clear from her conversation with the Council’s legal assistant. However, the information was available in the information pack sent to her and online. Miss X could also have called the Government’s advice line or asked her own legal representative for advice. It is reasonable to assume Miss X’s own solicitor could have advised her if she was unaware of the process of serving a Notice of Delay on the Council.
- As there is no evidence of fault by the Council I cannot uphold Miss X’s complaint.
- There was no fault by the Council in relation to Miss X’s Right to Buy house purchase. It had given her information about the legal remedy available to her but Miss X was unaware of this right until the sale had nearly completed and it was too late to use it.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman