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City of York Council (20 009 245)

Category : Housing > COVID-19

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 21 Jun 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss X complained about the way the Council handled her homelessness applications, the cost of emergency accommodation provided during the COVID-19 pandemic and its housing register decision. The Council was at fault for not reviewing its housing register decision when Miss X provided further information in February 2020. It should apologise and carry out a review of that decision.

The complaint

  1. Miss X complained about:
    • the way the Council handled her homelessness application from January 2020 onwards;
    • charges made for emergency accommodation provided during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she said she had not been told about;
    • the Council’s decision to refuse her housing register application because she owned a caravan; and
    • Council officers were rude.
  2. Ms X said the lack of support caused her avoidable distress and led to her remaining homeless.

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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. 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)
  3. 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)
  4. This complaint involves events that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government introduced a range of new and frequently updated rules and guidance during this time. We can consider whether the council followed the relevant legislation, guidance and our published “Good Administrative Practice during the response to COVID-19”.
  5. 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:
    • the information Miss X and the Council provided;
    • relevant law and guidance, as set out below;
    • the Council’s allocations policy, available on its website; and
    • our guidance on remedies.
  2. Miss X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision and I considered their comments before making a final decision.

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What I found

Relevant law and background

Homelessness

  1. Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities (the Code) set out councils’ powers and duties to people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
  2. Where councils are satisfied a person threatened with homelessness and is eligible for assistance, they must help them take steps to secure their accommodation. This is called the prevention duty. Councils can end this duty in certain circumstances, at which point they should write to the person setting out their reasons and information about their right to ask for a review of the decision.
  3. Where councils are satisfied a person is homeless and eligible for assistance, they must take steps to help them secure accommodation. This is called the relief duty. Councils can end this duty in certain circumstances, at which point they should write to the person setting out their reasons and information about their right to ask for a review of the decision.
  4. The Code says a person is homeless if their accommodation is a vehicle and there’s nowhere it can be lawfully placed to provide accommodation. (Homelessness Code of Guidance, paras 6.4 & 6.22)
  5. Councils must secure interim (or emergency) accommodation for the person and their household if it has reason to believe they may be homeless, eligible for assistance and have a priority need. (Housing Act 1996, section 188)
  6. Examples of priority need are:
    • People with dependant children;
    • Pregnant women;
    • People who are vulnerable due to serious health problems, disability or old age.
  7. After accepting a homelessness application, councils will make enquiries to decide whether it owes a main housing duty and will write to the person with their decision. If it is a negative decision, the letter must fully explain the reasons.  All letters must include information about the right to request a review and the timescale for doing so. (Housing Act 1996, section 184, from 3 April 2018 Homelessness Code of Guidance 18.32 and 18.33)

COVID-19 and rough sleepers

  1. In March 2020, the Government announced emergency funding for councils in England to help rough sleepers self-isolate during the COVID-19 outbreak. This became known as the Everyone In initiative. Many councils booked empty hotel and hostel accommodation to accommodate rough sleepers.

Housing allocations

  1. There is a national shortage of social housing. Councils maintain a list called the housing register of those waiting for social housing. Councils must publish an allocations scheme that sets out how it prioritises applicants, and its procedures for allocating housing.  All allocations must be made in strict accordance with the published scheme.  (Housing Act 1996, section 166A(1) & (14))
  2. 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 medial or welfare grounds;
    • people who need to move to avoid hardship to themselves or others.

(Housing Act 1996, section 166A(3))

  1. If the Council decides to suspend or close an application it must write to the applicant and give its reasons. It must also inform the application of the right to request a review of these decisions. (Housing Act 1996, section 166A(9))

This Council’s allocations policy

  1. This Council operates an allocations policy jointly with several neighbouring councils called North Yorkshire Home Choice. The policy was last updated in October 2019.
  2. It says some people do not quality to join its register, including:
    • those who own their own home (whether or not they live in it); and
    • those who have sufficient income, savings and/or assets of £60,000 or over and are assessed as being able to meet their own housing need.
  3. The policy says in some cases the above criteria may not apply, such as homeless applicants who are owed a main housing duty under Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 (as amended).
  4. Successful applicants will be allocated a band in line with their assessed housing need: Emergency, Gold, Silver and Bronze.
    • The emergency band is for exceptional circumstances and for a limited period of time.
    • The gold band includes applicants who are owed a main housing duty. The policy says they will be given a single offer of suitable accommodation, which may be social housing, housing association or private rented accommodation.
    • The silver band includes applicants who are owed a relief duty but not a main housing duty, for example, because they are found to be intentionally homeless or not in priority need.
    • The bronze band is for applicants who are assessed as being adequately housed with no priority housing need.

What happened

Homelessness application – January 2020

  1. Miss X asked the Council for help with her homelessness in January 2020. She was living in a caravan on a residential site, which had closed for a month. She told the Council she had not been able to find an alternative site. The Council gave her advice about finding private rented accommodation and also referred her to a local charity that could help with emergency accommodation. Miss X said she would prefer to sleep in her caravan rather than access emergency accommodation. The Council accepted a prevention duty because she was “threatened with homelessness” and sent her a letter explaining its reasons and her appeal rights.
  2. In response to my enquires, the Council provided relevant records and said:
    • it did not consider Miss X was homeless at this point because she had not been given a valid notice to leave;
    • as far as it was aware Miss X did not actually leave the caravan site;
    • it was not able to issue a personalised housing plan (PHP) because Miss X had not provided sufficient documentation for it to satisfy itself about her housing situation, although it did give her general advice about its housing register and finding private rented accommodation.

Housing register application

  1. Also in January 2020 Miss X applied to the Council’s housing register. The Council wrote to her in late January 2020. It said she was not eligible because she owned her own home (the caravan) and it considered she was able to resolve her own housing issues. It asked her to contact it within 28 days if she disagreed with its decision. The Council said Miss X did not respond to that letter.

Homelessness application – February 2020

  1. In mid February 2020, the caravan site offered Miss X a fresh contract and she asked the Council for help with the costs involved. The Council refused because Miss X was working and it considered she could afford to pay the costs. The Council ended the prevention duty because it said she now had suitable accommodation that would remain available to her for at least 6 months. It wrote to her to explain its reasons and her appeal rights.

Complaint – February 2020

  1. Miss X complained in late February. She said:
    • The warden at the site said she could not live there as her sole residence and could not receive post there. She had been told to provide another residential address, which she could not do;
    • She was working in retail, having moved to the Council’s area after separating from her partner;
    • She had bought the caravan with her share of the proceeds of the sale of the home she had jointly owned with her former partner; and
    • She was in priority need due to her health needs.
  2. It is unclear whether Miss X intended this as a challenge to the homelessness decision or the housing register decision or both.

Homelessness application – March 2020

  1. On 26 February Miss X reported she had been given verbal notice to leave the caravan site at the end of March. She said she had not been able to find an alternative site and was considering putting the caravan into storage. She said if she did so she would have nowhere else to live. The Council’s record shows it told her:
    • it did not consider she was homeless or threatened with homelessness at this point because she had not had formal notice to leave;
    • she should check her contract to see what it said about notice periods;
    • if she did become homeless it considered she would have the resources to address this because she was working and said she had a mortgage offer in principle from a lender;
    • if she needed emergency accommodation she could contact the local charity she had been told about before, which ran a drop-in service.
  2. On 9 March 2020, Miss X was evicted from the caravan site. She told the Council she may need to put the caravan into storage. The Council accepted a homelessness application. It advised her to book bed and breakfast accommodation or to contact the local charity if she was not able to do so. In response to my enquiries, the Council added there were other caravan sites Miss X could have moved to at that stage if she wished.
  3. On 22 March 2020 the Council accepted a relief duty. It wrote to her to say it had decided she was homeless and eligible for assistance. It said it had no reason to believe she was in priority need and therefore it did not have a duty to provide emergency accommodation. The letter explained she could ask for a review of its decision.
  4. On 23 April 2020 the Council wrote to Miss X to say it had decided she was homeless and eligible for assistance. It referred to an assessment of needs, which it had carried out with Miss X the day before, and said it would complete and send her a personalised housing plan (PHP). In late April/early may the Council worked with Miss X to produce a budget to show how much she could afford to pay for housing. Council records show its officer considered Miss X could afford private rented accommodation.
  5. On 10 May it sent her a PHP. It asked her to provide evidence of her identity, proof of her income and statements to show how much she had in savings. It also sent her a guide to private renting, which included information about housing benefit and a scheme to assist with a deposit and the first month’s rent for those eligible.

Emergency accommodation

  1. In mid April the local charity, on behalf of the Council, arranged emergency accommodation for Miss X at a local hotel under the Government’s Everyone In initiative in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She stayed at the local hotel until 1 June 2020.
  2. Miss X said she was not told about the costs of the accommodation until mid June, which was after she had left it. At that point the Council told her she owed £2,450 in rent for the hotel. This was later reduced to £1,408.51 following a payment of housing benefit. There was a delay in deciding how much housing benefit Miss X was entitled to because Miss X did not provide documents to show her income and savings. Council records show it asked for relevant documents on 6 May and confirmed this in writing as part of a personalised housing plan (PHP) on 10 May 2020. It eventually obtained information about her income from HMRC (the tax office) on 10 June 2020.
  3. Council records show Miss X was aware there would be a charge in late May and told the local charity a solicitor was assisting her with a claim against the caravan site for unlawful eviction, which she thought would cover any rent due for the hotel. In response to my enquiries, the Council:
    • said it did not tell Miss X the emergency accommodation would be free of charge. It said she was told there would be a charge but the amount she had to pay would depend on how much housing benefit she was entitled to;
    • stated the cost of the emergency accommodation was £50 per night, which I understand included utilities and some meals;
    • confirmed it did not send any invoices during Miss X’s stay in the emergency accommodation because it could not assess how much she owed due to the delay in deciding how much housing benefit Miss X would get;
    • confirmed it has taken no action to recover the outstanding amount.

Offer of housing – June 2020

  1. In early June 2020, the Council offered Miss X private rented accommodation. It said this was suitable for her because it was a one bedroom flat and it assessed her as needing one bedroom. It also said the rent was affordable for her based on the income and expenditure sheet she had completed.
  2. The offer letter said it was ending the emergency accommodation because Miss X could not claim housing benefit for the costs of two properties. The Council also explained the relief duty had ended because it had offered her suitable accommodation. It explained her right to a review of the decision to end the relief duty and to a review of the suitability of the accommodation offered. Miss X did not ask the Council to review either decision.
  3. Miss X initially accepted the offer. She later refused it because she said to was too close to a relative of her manager, who she had had difficulties with in the past. She didn’t provide any other information about this other than to say “something happened at work and it involved the police”.
  4. Miss X then complained she was not able to proceed with the private rented accommodation because the Council refused to assist her with the deposit and first month’s rent, despite having previously promised to do so.
  5. The Council denied it promised this assistance. It said it advises all applicants at the outset that this may be available if they meet the scheme criteria. Its officer recorded they would “need to consider [Miss X’s] savings before accepting her onto [the] scheme”. The information sent with the PHP provided information about the scheme and said this may be available if the criteria was met, although it did not set out what the criteria was.
  6. In response to my enquiries about the scheme criteria, the Council said it considers each case individually “as to whether they need financial assistance from the public funds” as part of its budget and affordability assessment. Applicants are not eligible for the funding if they have sufficient income or savings to pay the deposit and first month’s rent themselves.
  7. Miss X said she lost out on support because the Council thought she had more savings than she had. The records show a Council officer misunderstood an email Miss X sent them, which led them to think she had savings of £10,000, although in her homelessness application she said she had savings of £2,000.
  8. The Council responded to the complaint in June 2020. It said:
    • Miss X had not provided all the evidence requested for it to assess her homelessness application, although it accepted her position changed in March 2020 when the caravan park closed, and in April the charity arranged emergency accommodation on its behalf;
    • Miss X had not provided the documents requested for it to decide if she was eligible for assistance with the deposit and first month’s rent, and its housing duty ended when Miss X refused an offer of suitable accommodation;
    • it accepted there was an error in the information given to the local charity about the amount of Miss X’s savings but that had not affected the support she received;
    • Miss X owed the Council £2,450 for the emergency accommodation although this may be reduced by a housing benefit payment. The delay in finalising the housing benefit was due to Miss X not providing all the information needed.
  9. Miss X was unhappy with the response and complained to us. She said she wanted the Council to provide her with a home, pay her £10,000 compensation for her distress and provide further training for its staff.
  10. In response to my enquires, the Council said the case was complicated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Council was under pressure to accommodate people under the Everyone In Initiative, at the same time as it was having to adjust its working practices due to the closure of its “ordinarily accessible” main building to keep everyone safe. It also noted that the information Miss X provided was often vague, and she provided information about historical issues with other councils but generally did not provide the specific information it requested for the current applications. As a result, it was difficult for the Council to verify her situation and needs.

My findings

  1. Miss X told the Council she was threatened with homelessness in January 2020. The Council accepted a prevention duty and started making enquiries about her housing situation. Before it had completed those enquiries, the caravan site offered Miss X a further contract so the Council discharged its prevention duty. The Council was not at fault.
  2. Also in January 2020, the Council considered her housing register application. In her application form, Miss X ticked the box to say she owned her own home and stated this was a caravan. Based on the limited information Miss X provided, the Council decided she was not eligible for the housing register because she owned her own home and because she had sufficient resources to resolve her own housing issues. It wrote to her to explain its decision and asked her to contact it within 28 days if she disagreed with its decision.
  3. The Council said Miss X did not respond to that letter. However, she did make a formal complaint in late February (see paragraph 29). I have not seen a written response to that complaint and there is no indication the Council treated it as a request for a review of its decision. Given that the complaint provided information relevant to the housing register application, I consider it should have treated it as a request for a review. The failure to review its housing register decision in light of the additional information provided in late February 2020 was fault. This caused uncertainty for Miss X because it is not clear whether and how the Council considered whether a touring caravan without a year round pitch should be treated as owning a home for the purposes of its allocations policy. I will therefore recommend it reviews its decision now so it can consider this further.
  4. Miss X contacted the Council again in March 2020. She said she had been evicted from the caravan site. The Council accepted she was homeless but said it had no reason to believe she was in priority need. Therefore, it did not have a duty to provide accommodation for her. Miss X had the right to ask for a review of that decision but she did not do so. It was reasonable for her to have asked for a review if she was unhappy with the decision.
  5. A local charity, acting on behalf of the Council, arranged emergency accommodation under the Everyone In Initiative in mid April 2020. This scheme was introduced by the Government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and was not available when Miss X approached the Council in March 2020.
  6. I have seen no evidence the local charity or the Council gave Miss X any information about the costs of that accommodation, although on balance I find they did not tell her it would be free of charge. Since the Council did not send any invoices, Miss X had no knowledge of the actual costs until mid June, by which time she had left the accommodation.
  7. In normal circumstances, I would expect to see a record to show they told her the cost was £50 per night, which may be reduced by any housing benefit entitlement. However, I note this occurred at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when the Council was dealing with a higher than usual demand for its services, at a time when staff were having to adjust their ways of working as the Council’s main offices were closed, and there may have been fewer staff available to maintain normal service delivery due to sickness absence and the need for social isolation. Taking all this into account, I do not consider the lack of a record to show Miss X was advised about the likely cost warrants a formal finding of fault.
  8. The records show the delay in deciding how much housing benefit she was entitled to was due to Miss X’s failure to provide the documents the Council requested and not due to any fault by the Council.
  9. The Council offered Miss X private rented accommodation in early June 2020, which Miss X initially accepted. It told her the relief duty had ended and that she could ask for a review of that decision. It was reasonable for her to have asked for a review if she was unhappy with the decision.
  10. Miss X changed her mind about accepting the accommodation offered. She did not say at the time this was because the Council had not paid the deposit and first month’s rent. I have seen no evidence the Council told her it would do so. It offered to consider this in May 2020 and again in June 2020 if Miss X provided relevant documents to show her income and savings but she did not provide them. Based on the information she provided about her income and savings in the homelessness application, the Council decided she could meet the costs from her own resources. There was no fault in the way it decided this.
  11. The Council accepted an officer misread an email Miss X sent it leading to a misunderstanding about how much Miss X had in savings. This was quickly clarified and the officer apologised. I do not consider this was sufficient to warrant a finding of fault and, in any case, the Council apologised, which was appropriate.
  12. Miss X complained Council officers were rude. She told me they lacked empathy and were unhelpful. Whilst I accept Miss X considers the Council could have done more to assist her, I have not found any evidence officers were rude or unhelpful. Officers did try to assist, including responding to her current housing situation and signposting her to other sources of help for the historical issues she raised.

Agreed action

  1. The Council will, within one month of the date of the final decision:
    • apologise for not treating Miss X’s complaint in February 2020 as a request for a review of its housing register decision; and
    • offer Miss X a further opportunity to submit any further information in support of her housing register application.
  2. The Council will, within three months of the date of the final decision:
    • review its housing register decision and write to Miss X with the outcome and its reasons;
    • remind relevant staff to provide clear information in housing register decision letters about how to request a review of the decision; and
    • remind relevant staff to consider whether a complaint should actually be treated as a request for a review of a housing decision so the Council can respond appropriately.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. I have found fault causing personal injustice. I have recommended actions to remedy the injustice and prevent recurrence of the fault, which the Council has agreed.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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