The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms X complains about how the Council dealt with her suitability review request. Ms X says the Council did not complete one within the required statutory timescales. She says this caused her an injustice because she had to stay in accommodation she felt was unsuitable and the disrepair issues caused damage to her belongings. The Ombudsman finds fault with the Council for failing to complete the suitability review. We recommend the Council pay Ms X £1350.
- Ms X complains about how the Council dealt with her tenancy after she was made homeless and believes the Council failed in its statutory duties towards her.
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. 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)
- 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 with Ms X and considered the information she provided.
- I sent a draft decision to Ms X and the Council and considered their comments
What I found
- The law says councils must ensure all accommodation provided to homeless applicants is suitable for the needs of the applicant and members of his or her household. This duty applies to interim accommodation and accommodation provided under the main homelessness duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 206 and (from 3 April 2018) Homelessness Code of Guidance 17.2)
- Councils must complete the review within eight weeks of receiving the review request. This period can be extended but only if the applicant agrees in writing. If the applicant wishes to challenge the review decision, or if a council takes more than eight weeks to complete the review, they may appeal on a point of law to the County Court (Housing Act 1996, sections 202 and 204)
- The Council has a ‘Temporary Accommodation Placement Policy’. The policy states the Council will prioritise households occupying unsuitable accommodation according to the time since it assessed the accommodation as unsuitable. If an applicant occupying unsuitable accommodation has not been moved after a reasonable period, the Council has discretion to appoint the household as having an overriding urgency to move.
- The policy does not outline any timescales for when the Council should move a household out of unsuitable accommodation, only that it should be completed within a reasonable amount of time.
- The Council accepted the main homelessness duty to Ms X. Ms X and her two children moved into temporary accommodation in January 2017.
- Ms X asked for a review of the suitability of her accommodation in February 2017. Ms X highlighted the location and disrepair of the accommodation as the reasons for her review request. The Council accepted the review request in March 2017 and told Ms X it would complete the review by the end of April 2017. The completion date provided was within the eight-week timescale set out in legislation.
- Ms X told the Council in the beginning of April 2017 her toilet had leaked. As the toilet was above the children’s bedroom, the leak had damaged her children’s belongings and damaged the bedroom ceiling. Ms X sent the Council photos of the damage and the Council said it carried out repair works on the same day. Ms X said the Council did not repair the damage caused to the ceiling. There is no supporting evidence to show what repairs the Council carried out.
- Ms X said she contacted the Council several times in April and May 2017 about an increased infestation of rodents at the property. Ms X also sent the Council a picture to demonstrate the problems she was having. Ms X said the Council did not respond to any of her emails. There is no evidence the Council took any action in response to Ms X’s information. The Council said it did not have any record of Ms X reporting a rodent infestation.
- Ms X contacted the Council for an update on her review request in May 2017. The Council did not provide Ms X with any information on her case and did not update her on the status of her review request.
- Ms X emailed the Council about another leak in June 2017. The photos Ms X sent to the Council showed there were several large cracks in the ceiling of her children’s bedroom and water marks on the walls. There is no evidence the Council responded to Ms X’s email or repaired the damage caused by the leak. The Council said it had no record of having received these photos.
- In November 2017, Ms X said she asked the Council to fix the damaged ceiling. The Council said it would arrange this. Again, there is no evidence the Council repaired the damage following this correspondence.
- Ms X said she emailed the Council several times in January 2018 about the damage to the ceiling. Ms X said she received no reply from the Council and therefore made a formal complaint.
- In its complaints correspondence, the Council accepted a decision on the suitability of Ms X’s accommodation was overdue. The Council explained it had not completed the review because it had been hoped Ms X would be offered an alternative private rental accommodation. The Council also explained it would only have a duty to offer alternative accommodation if Ms X’s current property was found to be unsuitable.
- The Council also said that individually, it was unlikely the disrepair concerns would have made the accommodation unsuitable. However, it said it would have taken into consideration the persistent nature of the issues and what impact their collective effect might have been.
- The Council offered Ms X another temporary accommodation in April 2018, which she accepted. The Council did not decide on the suitability of Ms X’s original accommodation and closed her review request because she accepted the other accommodation.
- Ms X was unhappy with the Council’s complaint response as she felt the Council was biased and unsympathetic. Further, the Council had not taken responsibility for the damage caused to Ms X’s belongings by the disrepair issues she raised.
- My view is the Council was at fault. This is because the Council delayed, and failed, to respond to Ms X’s suitability review. Also, the evidence strongly suggests the Council did not respond to the disrepair issues reported by Ms X.
- Legislation sets out that councils must ensure all accommodation provided is suitable. Homeless applicants can ask the Council to carry out a suitability review on their accommodation and the Council has eight weeks to complete this review.
- Ms X asked for a suitability review in February 2017. The Council should have completed its review by the end of April 2017. The Council accepts it did not complete its review and never decided on the suitability of Ms X’s accommodation. This was fault.
- Ms X could have appealed to the County Court when the Council failed to decide on the accommodation’s suitability within the required timescales. However, I do not consider it was reasonable to have expected Ms X to have done this. This is because she was not aware of this right of appeal as the Council did not signpost her and she could not be expected to know the law.
- As well as asking for a suitability review, Ms X also reported several disrepair issues while she was living at the property.
- Ms X first told the Council about a leak in her property at the beginning of April 2017. The evidence suggests the Council acted appropriately in response to this information by sending someone to fix the issue. Ms X’s account supports this as she said the Council had sent someone to fix the leak. While it is not clear what repairs the Council made, Ms X did not contact the Council about any further damage or repairs. This suggests the work completed was suitable. Therefore, I do not find fault with the Council’s actions in dealing with the reported leak in April.
- Ms X says she contacted the Council several times about an increase in an infestation of rodents in April and May 2017. I acknowledge the Council has said it does not have a record of this information but Ms X has provided the Ombudsman with a copy of the emails she sent. I am therefore satisfied Ms X had informed the Council about a rodent infestation. There is no evidence the Council acted to address the alleged infestation or even to find out if there was any infestation. The Council should have investigated this issue raised by Ms X. Therefore, this was fault.
- Ms X reported another leak to the Council in June 2017. Ms X sent the Council photos of the damage caused to the ceilings and walls. Again, I note the Council has said it did not receive these photos. However, Ms X has provided the Ombudsman with a copy of the photos sent to the Council. The photos showed there were several large cracks in the ceiling of her children’s bedroom and water damage. There is no evidence the Council acted to address the damage and no evidence to suggest it carried out any repairs. Again, the Council should have investigated this issue. Therefore, this was fault.
- I consider the faults identified caused Ms X an injustice.
- There is evidence to support Ms X’s accommodation was damaged. The photos provided by Ms X has gone some way to reflect the condition of the property from June 2017 onwards. As there is no evidence the Council fixed the damage shown in the photos, it suggests the accommodation remained at that level of disrepair for the time Ms X lived in the property. There is also evidence to support Ms X had reported several other disrepair issues, including an infestation of rodents.
- The Council has said that individually, it is unlikely that any of the disrepair concerns would have made the accommodation unsuitable. However, the Council would have considered the persistent nature of the issues and what impact their collective effect might have been. The Council explained that while it would only have a duty to offer alternative accommodation if Ms X’s current property was found to be unsuitable, it had discretion to move households outside of any duty.
- In Ms X’s case, the Council offered an alternative accommodation even though it had not decided on the suitability of Ms X’s current accommodation. The Council therefore used its discretion to move Ms X into alternative temporary accommodation. The Council has recognised this approach was not helpful.
- On balance, if the Council had completed its suitability review, I find it more likely than not the Council would have found Ms X’s accommodation to be unsuitable from June 2017. This is because there is evidence to suggest the property was not suitable in terms of the frequent disrepair issues and the extent of the disrepair issues.
- The Council has not provided any evidence it considered the property to be suitable. I am therefore unable to consider this when deciding if, on balance, the property was unsuitable.
- As the Council failed to act appropriately to fix Ms X’s reports of disrepair, the evidence suggests Ms X remained living in accommodation that was unsuitable for her needs for ten months. However, I have considered the Council’s temporary accommodation placement policy and noted the Council should be allowed a reasonable amount of time to move an applicant out of unsuitable accommodation. I consider two months to be a reasonable amount of time.
- Therefore, I find Ms X remained living in accommodation that was unsuitable for her needs for eight months. This was an injustice.
- In addition, Ms X has described how her housing experience impacted on her emotionally and mentally. This was distress. The Council would have made this distress worse because of the lack of response to the issues Ms X reported. The Council’s failure to respond to Ms X would also have left her with uncertainty about what was happening with her accommodation and what the Council was doing to address her concerns.
- To remedy the faults identified, the Council should pay Ms X £150 in recognition of the failure to act appropriately to address some of the disrepair issues raised, and for not completing its suitability review within the required timescales.
- The Council should also pay Ms X £150 for each month she remained living in unsuitable accommodation.
- The total amount the Council should pay Ms X is £1350.
- The Council has asked if this payment can be made to offset Ms X’s temporary accommodation arrears. The Ombudsman agrees to this request.
- The Council should complete the above remedy within four weeks of the final decision.
- I find fault with the Council for failing to act appropriately to address some of the disrepair issues. I also find fault with the Council for not completing its suitability review within the required timescales.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman