The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complains there was unreasonable delay deciding his partner’s homelessness application and her temporary accommodation was unsuitable. We found the homelessness decision was delayed unreasonably but there was no fault with the decisions it reached about accommodation. The Council apologised for the delay which was a reasonable remedy to the complaint.
- Mr X complains that there has been a delay in dealing with his partner’s homelessness application. I have referred to Mr X’s partner as Ms Y in this statement. He also complains the Council failed to provide suitable accommodation for Ms Y and her children. He complained about multiple issues with the temporary accommodation provided. He felt the Council failed to adequately respond to their concerns.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. 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)
- 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 Mr X and considered the information he provided. I asked the Council for information and considered its response to the complaint. I sent a draft decision to both parties to enable them to comment before I made a final decision. I considered the comments I received on the draft decision.
What I found
- Ms Y originally presented to the Council as homeless on 16 November 2016. The Council did not make a decision on her homelessness application until 21 June 2017. The Council has not explained the reason it took so long.
- The Homelessness Code of guidance states wherever possible, housing authorities should aim to complete their enquiries on a homelessness application and notify the applicant of their decision within 33 working days. It states in many cases it should be possible for authorities to complete their enquiries significantly earlier.
- In response to Ms X’s complaint the Council acknowledged the delay and apologised to Ms Y for any distress this caused. The Council stated it has also addressed this with the relevant case worker and her manager.
The law and relevant guidance
- The law states a council may provide interim accommodation while considering someone’s homelessness application. This is a discretionary power. However, a council has an immediate duty to provide interim accommodation if it has reason to believe they may be homeless, eligible for assistance and have priority need. This is often referred to as a council’s interim duty to accommodate someone.
- When a council completes its enquiries and formally decides someone is homeless, a council has a duty to secure accommodation for them and for any other person who normally resides with them. The law says the accommodation must be suitable for them to occupy.
- The Housing Act 1985 defines what constitutes overcrowding. It states the “room standard” is breached if two people of the opposite sex have to share a bedroom (where they are not married). The room standard disregards children under ten years of age. The ‘space standard’ (in the circumstances that apply here) says that no more than two people should share one room. The space standard disregards children under one year old and considers children under ten years should be counted as ‘a half’.
Accommodation provided to Ms Y
- On 29 November 2016, the Council provided Ms Y with interim accommodation. This was provided while it made enquiries on her homelessness application. At the time Ms Y required accommodation for herself and her two daughters aged seven and three years old.
- The property the Council provided to Ms Y was a one-bedroom flat on the fourth floor.
- Ms Y told the Council she was pregnant in January 2017.
- When the Council decided Ms Y’s housing application in June 2017 it accepted she was homeless. The Council wrote to Ms Y to confirm this. In its letter, the Council stated it considered the Ms Y’s existing accommodation was suitable as ‘temporary accommodation’. The Council’s letter told Ms Y, she had the right to request a review of its suitability if she wished to.
- Ms Y consulted a solicitor who requested a review of Ms Y’s accommodation in June 2017.
- In correspondence with Ms Y’s MP on 29 June 2017, the Council explained that Ms Y had not yet registered for the Council’s choice based letting’s scheme. As a result up until that time she could not bid on properties.
Complaints about the property
- I understand Mr X first complained about the property in May 2017. He stated he and Ms Y had been raising concerns with the team managing it and they were not happy with their responses.
- In this complaint and his subsequent complaints to the Council Mr X explained that his partner was pregnant and had been feeling feint on occasions. He said that Ms Y’s eldest daughter had learning difficulties. He raised a number of concerns about the property. These included;
- The property was too small for Ms X and her children and there was not sufficient space for food storage;
- There was no washing machine;
- The property had gaps in the skirting bathroom unit, skirting board and kitchen and as a result there were mice within the property;
- Noise and fumes from a nearby bus depot;
- Problems with the lift in the property;
- Fire alarms going off frequently; and;
- There were issues with rubbish and an unpleasant smell from the drains.
- Ms Y had a right to challenge the suitability of ‘temporary accommodation’ through the courts, however, this right does not exist for interim accommodation. Ms Y’s accommodation was initially provided under the Council’s interim duty to accommodate her and her children. It only later became ‘temporary accommodation’. In the circumstances, I have exercised discretion to investigate all of Ms Y’s complaint.
- The law requires accommodation to be suitable for someone to occupy. The homelessness code of guidance refers to the Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) and legislation about overcrowding as a potential measure of this. HHSRS focusses on a risk assessment of a property. There is evidence that the Council manages fire safety properly. Although I recognise Ms Y and Mr X have a number of other concerns about the standard of the property, there does not seem to be evidence of significant or serious flaws that would render the property hazardous. I am satisfied the Council has sought to address issues that Mr X and Ms Y have raised as far as possible.
- In paragraph ten of this statement I summarise the legal definitions of overcrowding. Based on Ms Y’s circumstances there is no evidence of statutory overcrowding in this instance.
- The Council found no reason to find alternative accommodation for Ms Y on medical or health grounds. It noted lifts were out of action on occasions and it noted the information concerning Ms Y feeling feint but it felt these were not issues that rendered the property unsuitable. These are decisions the Council is entitled to make.
- The Council has properly considered and responded to the concerns Mr X and Ms Y raised about the accommodation the Council provided.
- There was fault by the Council in terms of Ms Y’s homelessness application. The Council took six times longer to reach a decision on the application than it should have. The Council apologised to Ms Y for this and stated it had been discussed with the relevant staff. Although the delay represents fault, I am not persuaded it led to a significant injustice in this case. I say this because Ms Y was not registered to place bids for housing during this period, so it could not have affected her priority to place bids. The Council also accommodated Ms Y throughout this period. As a result, I consider the apology the Council provided is a reasonable remedy for the complaint.
- There was fault by the Council which it has remedied. I have now completed my investigation and closed my file.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman