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Bassetlaw District Council (20 001 449)

Category : Housing > Council house sales and leaseholders

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 04 Dec 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr C complained the Council delayed completing on his right to buy application. We find the Council was at fault for its delays in dealing with Mr C’s right to buy application. The Council has agreed to our recommendation to address the injustice caused to Mr C by paying him the equivalent of five months’ rent.

The complaint

  1. Mr C complained the Council delayed completing on his right to buy (RTB) application. He says the Council made its offer without checking the land boundaries of the property, and this has been the cause of the delay. Mr C says the delay meant he paid rent for longer than he expected.

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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 could take the matter to court. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to go to court. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c), 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. I considered information Mr C submitted with his complaint. I made written enquiries of the Council and considered the information it provided in response.
  2. Mr C and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

Right to buy guidance

  1. Section 119 of the Housing Act 1985 gives council tenants the right to buy the property they are living in at a set discount. There is a strict procedure for applications.
  2. Once a council receives an application from a tenant to buy their property, they have four weeks to issue a notice confirming the applicant is eligible (RTB2). They have eight weeks to send the applicant a formal letter under Section 125 of the Act (RTB4). This sets out the price to pay and the terms and conditions of sale.
  3. If a council fails to meet the timescales, the applicant may serve an initial Notice of Delay form (RTB6). A council can counter this by serving a counter notice (RTB7).
  4. If the council fails to respond to the RTB6 within a month, the applicant can send an Operative Notice of Delay (RTB8). Once sent, a council, as landlord, may need to refund rent paid during the period of delay.
  5. If a council still does not act on notices of delay, the tenant may take their dispute to the County Court. Under Section 181 of the Housing Act 1985, the County Court has wide discretion to decide any question arising from the provisions of the RTB scheme, the only exception being the value of the purchase property.

What happened

  1. Mr C applied to buy his house under the RTB process in December 2018. In January 2019, the Council sent Mr C the RTB2 form.
  2. In March 2019, the Council sent Mr C the RTB4 letter. The Council received Mr C’s notice of intention to purchase the property in April 2019. At the beginning of May 2019, the Council emailed Mr C’s solicitor to confirm his instructions. Mr C’s solicitor replied to the Council and asked it to contact the Land Registry as only part of the property being sold was contained within the title plan.
  3. The Council raised the issue with the Land Registry on 14 May 2019. The Land Registry responded to the Council on 21 May 2019 and asked it to apply to amend the title and provide evidence of its ownership.
  4. The Council say that due to a changeover of staff, it could not progress the matter as quickly as it would have liked. On 1 October 2019, it received a RTB6 form from Mr C’s solicitor. Mr C’s solicitor chased the Council for an update on 24 October 2019. The Council responded on the same day and confirmed it was looking into matters.
  5. On 28 October 2019, the Council emailed the Land Registry and provided it with the documents it asked for on 21 May 2019. The Council sent the RTB7 counter notice to Mr C’s solicitor on 29 October 2019. It denied it was delaying matters and said it had written to the Land Registry.
  6. The Council chased the Land Registry for a response in December 2019 and February 2020. As it did not receive a response, the Council applied to the Land Registry again in March 2020.
  7. At the same time, Mr C complained to the Council about the delays. The Council apologised to Mr C for the delays. It explained there was a change of staff in its property department in May 2019. It also said it had to get the relevant evidence to send with the application. The Council said a typical transaction of Mr C’s kind would normally take between four to six months, considering the error at the Land Registry. The Council told Mr C his solicitor would be able to advise him of any legal remedies available to him under the Housing Act 1985.
  8. The Council emailed Mr C’s solicitor in April 2020 and said it had not heard from the Land Registry and it would send a chaser email. Mr C also sent a letter to the Council in April 2020 and asked for his complaint to be reviewed under stage two of its complaints procedure.
  9. The Council responded to Mr C in May 2020. It explained it would continue to chase the Land Registry for an update. It also reminded Mr C of his right to seek a legal remedy under the Housing Act 1985. The Council re-iterated its previous apology for the delay and offered him £100 for his time in trouble in pursuing his complaint.
  10. On 21 May 2020, the Land Registry completed the Council’s request to amend the title. The Council sent the amended title register to Mr C’s solicitor on 27 May 2020.
  11. On 18 June 2020, Mr C’s solicitor raised further enquiries and asked for the Council to remove £150 off the purchase price to cover the cost of the indemnity policies. An indemnity policy is an insurance policy to cover a defect relating to a property. The Council agreed to this on 6 July 2020.
  12. Mr C’s solicitor made a further request to remove £154 rather than £150 off the purchase price, as well as the £100 the Council offered in response to Mr C’s complaint. The Council agreed to this.
  13. The Council completed the sale on 20 July 2020.

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Analysis

  1. Mr C’s solicitor served the RTB6 form on the Council and so he had the right to ask the court to remedy the delay. I have exercised discretion to investigate Mr C’s complaint because the court will not provide a legal remedy under the RTB scheme after the completion of a sale. It would also not have been reasonable to ask Mr C to delay completion to allow the court to settle matters because of the significant delays he had already experienced in trying to buy the property.
  2. The Council has accepted some of the delays Mr C’s experienced. It accepts that because of a changeover in staff in May 2019, it took longer than it should have done to apply to the Land Registry to amend the title. However, the Council also says the Land Registry delayed in responding to its first application.
  3. I accept the Council could not control the delays with the Land Registry. However, it is clear there was a significant delay in the Council progressing the matter from May to October 2019. The Land Registry emailed the Council on 21 May 2019. The Council did not apply to the Land Registry to amend the title until 28 October 2019. This is fault. The Council should have been progressing matters much sooner. I am satisfied this fault has caused Mr C an injustice. He had the uncertainty of not knowing when his property would complete.
  4. When the Council sent Mr C’s solicitor the RTB7 counter notice on 29 October 2019, it denied it was holding up the purchase. However, this was not correct. The Council had failed to progress matters for five months. It should have told Mr C’s solicitor there was a changeover of staff which is why it had not applied to the Land Registry sooner. The Council only explained this to Mr C in response to his complaint in March 2020. The Council failed to give an honest explanation to Mr C’s solicitor in October 2019 and this is fault. This caused Mr C an injustice because he did not know for a significant amount of time what the initial reason was for the delay.
  5. Mr C says the Council should have checked the plans before it confirmed he was eligible to buy the property. However, it is normal practice for the buyer’s solicitor to check the legal title of the property after an offer is made to buy the property. This is what happened.
  6. The Council has already apologised to Mr C. It also reduced the price of the property by £254 (£100 time and trouble payment and £154 for the indemnity policies). This goes some way in remedying the uncertainty he experienced because of the Council’s delays. However, I consider the Council needs to go further in remedying the additional rent Mr C had to pay because if its delays.
  7. Mr C says he was paying rent nine months longer than he originally anticipated. He says the additional rent represents a financial loss because he does not have a mortgage. The Council delayed dealing with Mr C’s purchase for five months (from 21 May 2019 to 28 October 2019). I consider it is more likely than not that if the Council did not delay matters, it would have achieved completion five months sooner than it did. Therefore, on top of the action the Council has already taken, I recommend it pays Mr C an amount equivalent to five months’ rent.

Agreed action

  1. To remedy the injustice caused by fault, by 8 January 2021 the Council has agreed to pay Mr C £1,796.38 which is the equivalent of five months’ rent.

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Final decision

  1. I have found fault by the Council, causing an injustice to Mr C. The Council has agreed to my recommendation and so I have completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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