The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Ombudsman found fault by the Council on Miss D’s complaint. The Council failed to allocate her preference points when it accepted her as homeless. This caused no injustice as successful applicants had earlier qualifying dates. The Council accepted delays responding to her correspondence. The Council properly considered whether temporary accommodation was suitable. There was no fault on her complaint about it wrongly telling her she could not go on the housing register. This followed policy.
- Miss D complains the Council:
- Wrongly advised she could not go on the housing register when it accepted it owed her a duty following her homeless application in December 2015;
- Offered unsuitable temporary accommodation while it made enquiries on her application;
- Offered unsuitable private accommodation which she could not afford to live in when the government introduced the benefits cap in January 2017; and
- Delayed responding to correspondence.
What I have investigated
- The paragraph at the end of this statement explains why I did not investigate complaint c).
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered all the information provided by Miss D, the notes I made of our telephone conversation, as well as the Council’s response to my enquiries, a copy of which I sent her. I sent Miss D and the Council a copy of my draft decision. I considered their responses.
What I found
- In November 2015, Miss D approached the Council about making a homeless application.
- In early December, Miss D was placed in temporary emergency accommodation (property A) for one week when the Council accepted she was unintentionally homeless. As this property was a 40-minute bus ride away from her family, and she needed their support as she had a high-risk pregnancy, she argues it was unsuitable. In addition, the ground floor flat windows would not lock.
- The Council has no record of Miss D raising any concerns about the property. It notes that apart from distance to her support network, there were no other relevant factors for her to remain within borough. The Council is short of accommodation and cannot always find a place locally.
- A week later, the Council discharged its housing duty to her by offering accommodation in the private sector (property B). The Council would not place her on its register as it discharged its homeless duty to her by making this offer. All applicants are removed from the register and have no entitlement to bid once this duty is discharged. The letter advised her of her right to ask for a review if she considered the property unsuitable for her needs.
- The Council amended its Housing Allocation Scheme in May 2016 which affected about 1,400 applicants.
- The Council allowed her to join its register in September 2016 with a qualifying date of 2 December 2015. The qualifying date is used to prioritise applications. For homeless applicants, it is the date they moved in to temporary accommodation. This decision was made following a stage 1 complaint outcome under its complaints procedure. Miss D wants a 2-bedroom house. She is unhappy officers failed to tell her about, or award her, 200 reasonable preference points, earlier than it did.
- Miss D argues that had the Council put her on the register, she would not have moved in to property B as she would have bid for Council properties. Several months after moving, the Council’s website said homeless applicants could now join the register. The Council initially refused to award her the preference points although later agreed to do so when it allowed her to join the register. It also allowed her to keep the points for a period of 2 years to help with her bids. It offered her £200 for delays responding to correspondence.
- Miss D is unhappy the Council failed to award her reasonable preference points:
- Before she was offered her current accommodation, which ended the Council’s homeless duty to her; and
- Promptly following its review of the Scheme.
- In 2015, the Council reviewed its Scheme. It decided that for all cases where it owed a homeless duty after 2012, applicants would get reasonable preference points. The new Scheme is dated 16 November 2015 but the changes were not carried out until May 2016, 6 months later.
- The Scheme explains how it assesses applications for housing and allocates social rented homes it and its partner housing associations own to those on its housing register. It states homeless applicants:
- before 9 November 2012 who are placed in private rented accommodation are not eligible to go on its register; and
- after 9 November 2012 to whom the Council owes a full duty are entitled to 200 reasonable preference points. If a homeless applicant accepts or refuses an offer of private accommodation in discharge of the Council’s duty, the Council removes the 200 points.
- I consider the Council failed to promptly allocate her preference points when it accepted her as homeless on 2 December 2015. By this time, the Council had amended, but not implemented, its policy. This is fault.
- I am not satisfied this caused her a significant injustice. This is because her entitlement to these points ended about 9 days later when she accepted the offer of privately rented accommodation. After this date, Miss D had no entitlement to the points. The Council confirmed those with 200 preference points in the same group as Miss D who successfully bid for properties were all placed in temporary accommodation in 2013 and 2014. This means they all had an earlier qualifying date than Miss D. Even if the Council gave her the points immediately, any bid she made would not have succeeded.
- Under its Scheme, homeless applicants post 9 November 2012 placed in privately rented accommodation are not eligible to join its register. The Scheme gave her the right to ask for a review of this decision.
- I found no fault on the Council’s refusal to allow Miss D on to the register. This is because the decision followed policy.
- The Council only allowed Miss D on to its housing register in September 2016 after exercising discretion to do so following a decision at stage 1 of her complaint. A later email confirmed she would retain the 200 points for 2 years from December 2015.
Unsuitability of property A
- The Council placed Miss D in this property for a week before offering her privately rented accommodation.
- The Council considered the following when allocating her this property:
- Disruption to work, caring responsibilities, education and social services involvement;
- Medical reasons to stay in borough;
- Local services; and
- Miss D was not working at the time. Nor was her young son at school. Apart from the support network, the Council decided there were no other relevant reasons for her to remain in-borough. There was also a shortage of in-borough accommodation. The property found was a 15-minute car drive from Enfield or 40 minutes by bus. The Council explained it cannot inspect every interim emergency property but aims to inspect within 2 weeks of a placement. All properties are sourced from known property providers and are not expected to have any category 1 or 2 hazards. Managing agents are expected to investigate problems about conditions initially. There is no record of Miss D reporting any problems about repairs.
- On balance, I am satisfied the Council properly considered the suitability of this property for Miss D. I have seen no medical evidence saying she needed to be near her family because of her pregnancy. While I appreciate she did not consider this property ideal, the Council provided it on an emergency basis. In addition, she remained in it for about 8 days before moving in to privately rented accommodation.
- The evidence shows the Council apologised in October 2017 for failing to respond to an email Miss D sent in January. Miss D’s email was about an officer’s failure to respond to 2 previous emails.
- I also note the Council offered £200 in recognition of the delays responding to her and for any inconvenience caused.
- I considered our internal guidance on remedies. I also took account of the £200 already offered by the Council and it allocating her 200 preference points for a period of 2 years.
- The Council agreed to take the following action within 4 weeks of the final decision on this complaint:
- To provide Miss D with a written apology for the delays in implementing the allocation scheme revisions and the delays responding to her correspondence; and
- Consider what steps it can take to ensure these delays are not repeated in the future.
- The Ombudsman found fault on Miss D’s complaint against the Council. The agreed action remedies any avoidable injustice caused.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I did not investigate complaint c) because she had the right to ask for a review of the suitability of the private accommodation at the time with a right of appeal to the County Court if she remained unhappy with its response.
- The Council was not responsible for the introduction of the benefit cap.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman