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Ashford Borough Council (18 011 675)

Category : Housing > Homelessness

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 17 May 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss B complains about the Council’s handling of her request for housing help when she and her son were made homeless. We find the Council’s handling of Miss B’s homelessness application was affected by fault, particularly the Council did not comply with the Relief duty it owed Miss B. This has caused Miss B distress and uncertainty about what would have happened had there been no fault by the Council. The Council has agreed to make a payment to put right the injustice suffered by Miss B and to learn from this complaint.

The complaint

  1. Miss B complains about the Council’s handling of her request for housing help after she was made homeless. Specifically, Miss B complains:
    • Her Housing Officer did not do what she said she would do in the Personalised Housing Plan, and did not update the Plan.
    • Her Housing Officer did not contact her for 36 weeks and ignored her contacts.
    • The Council only invited her to two face-to-face meetings.
    • The Council said it would allocate her a new Housing Officer but this did not happen.
    • The Council did not issue her with a decision on her homelessness application.
    • The Council accused her of failing to attend an appointment which the Council had actually cancelled.
    • Council staff have been rude and shown no compassion at all.
    • The Council’s response to her complaint did not answer the issues she complained about.
  2. Miss B says because of the lack of housing help from the Council she had to stay at her friend’s parents’ property before she was able to secure housing after approaching a different local authority for help.

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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.
  2. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’.
  3. 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)
  4. 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 have considered Miss B’s complaint and have discussed the complaint with her. I have made enquiries to the Council and have considered the information provided by the Council in response. I have also shared a draft version of this statement with Miss B and the Council, and have considered the comments I received in response.

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What I found

  1. Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities set out councils’ powers and duties to people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
  2. The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 came into force on 3 April 2018. This Act amended Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996.
  3. Someone is threatened with homelessness if, when asking for assistance from the Council on or after 3 April 2018, he or she is likely to become homeless within 56 days. (Housing Act 1996, section 175(4))
  4. Councils must complete an assessment if they are satisfied an applicant is homeless or threatened with homelessness. The Code of Guidance says, rather than advise the applicant to return when homelessness is more imminent, the housing authority may wish to accept a prevention duty and begin to take reasonable steps to prevent homelessness. Councils must notify the applicant of the assessment. Councils should work with applicants to identify practical and reasonable steps for the council and the applicant to take to help the applicant keep or secure suitable accommodation. These steps should be tailored to the household, and follow from the findings of the assessment, and must be provided to the applicant in writing as their Personalised Housing Plan (PHP). (Housing Act 1996, section 189A and Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraphs 11.6 and 11.18)
  5. If councils are satisfied applicants are threatened with homelessness and eligible for assistance, they must help them to secure that accommodation does not stop being available for their occupation. In deciding what steps they are to take, councils must have regard to their assessments of the applicants’ case. This is called the Prevention duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 195)
  6. Councils must take reasonable steps to secure accommodation for any eligible homeless person. This is called the Relief duty. The council is required to take reasonable steps to help the applicant secure suitable accommodation with a reasonable prospect that it will be available for their occupation for at least six months. The reasonable steps to be taken by both the council and the applicant to help secure accommodation must include those set out in the PHP, which should be reviewed once the Relief duty is accepted.
  7. When a council decides the Relief duty has come to an end, it must notify the applicant in writing. (Housing Act 1996, section 189B)
  8. A council may decide the Relief duty has come to an end when it has complied with the Relief duty and 56 days have passed since the duty was accepted.
  9. Assessments and PHPs must be kept under review throughout the Prevention and Relief stages, and any amendments notified to the applicant.
  10. If a council is satisfied an applicant is homeless, eligible for assistance, and has a priority need the council has a duty to secure that accommodation is available for their occupation (unless it refers the application to another housing authority under section 198). This is called the main housing duty. But councils will not owe the main housing duty to applicants who have turned down a suitable final accommodation offer or a Housing Act Part 6 offer made during the Relief stage, or if a council has given them notice under section 193B(2) due to their deliberate and unreasonable refusal to co-operate. (Housing Act 1996, section 193 and Homelessness Code of Guidance 15.39)

What happened

  1. Until recently Miss B was living with her partner and their son at a privately rented property.
  2. Miss B and her partner asked the Council for housing help in March 2018. The Council closed the application because it says Miss B did not respond to the Council’s contacts.
  3. On 23 April Miss B and her partner approached the Council for housing help again. The Council accepted a new homelessness application. This was after the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 came into force. Miss B and her partner had been served a notice which required them to leave their privately rented property by 27 May.
  4. The Council accepted the Prevention duty to Miss B and her partner because it was satisfied they were threatened with homelessness within 56 days.
  5. On 30 April Miss B’s housing officer interviewed Miss B by telephone about her homelessness application. On the same day, the housing officer:
    • wrote a PHP and sent this to Miss B;
    • sent Miss B an information pack and asked her for more information about her income and outgoings; and,
    • referred Miss B for floating support to help with Miss B’s tenancy situation.
  6. In early May Miss B and her partner separated. Miss B tried to speak to her housing officer about this on 9 May. The Council says the housing officer was not available and Miss B agreed to phone back.
  7. Miss B had a face to face meeting with her housing officer on 14 May. Miss B said she had separated from her partner, who was abusive. Miss B said she had been staying with her son at her friend’s parents’ house, which I will call Property A, in the Council’s area.
  8. On 25 May Miss B sent an email to her housing officer saying she had not returned to the private rented property because her ex-partner was still there. Ms B said he was moving out on 4 June.
  9. On 31 May Miss B told the Council that she had returned to the private rented property, but the locks had been changed and her possessions were outside the property.
  10. On 1 June Miss B’s housing officer phoned Miss B about what happened. This was in response to several calls Miss B made to the Council. The Council says it then amended the PHP because of the change to Miss B’s circumstances
  11. On 7 June Miss B’s housing officer phoned Miss B. The Council’s records say the officer mentioned the Council could look to provide emergency accommodation but this was likely to be bed and breakfast or short stay accommodation.
  12. On 14 June the Council moved Miss B’s homelessness application from the Prevention duty to the Relief duty. The Council wrote a letter to Miss B to tell her this. The Council was satisfied it was not possible for Miss B to return to the privately rented accommodation, so she was now homeless. This was after the Council had made enquiries to find out if the eviction was lawful. The Council told Miss B it would do a new assessment and write a new PHP. The Council told Miss B it had a duty to provide her with interim accommodation, but Miss B had told the Council she would rather make her own arrangements than be offered emergency accommodation.
  13. In an email sent to Miss B on 15 June, the housing officer said a new PHP was needed because there had been a substantial change in her circumstances.
  14. On 20 June Miss B had an interview at the Council offices. The Council says a new PHP was written. On the same day Ms B put in a stage 1 complaint.
  15. The Council says during this period the head of the household at Property A had not formally asked Miss B to leave. The Council made a payment to Miss B’s friend’s parents to help towards the costs of accommodating Miss B and her son.
  16. On 12 July the Council responded to Miss B’s complaint at stage 1 of the Council’s complaints procedure. The Council did not uphold Miss B’s complaint.
  17. The Council also provided further explanation of its actions on 13 July. On the same day Miss B put in a stage 2 complaint.
  18. On 22 August Miss B spoke to the Housing Operations Manager who agreed to review the case and the contact there had been from the housing officer.
  19. On 23 August the housing officer sent an email to Miss B saying she was aware Miss B had been trying to contact her that week, but she had been away from work for a while. The housing officer asked Miss B for an update on her current situation. Miss B responded the same day saying she had been trying to contact the housing officer for eleven weeks, not just one week. Miss B asked the officer to explain why she had no contact from her for eleven weeks.
  20. The Council’s Housing Operations Manager responded on 31 August. The Manager outlined Miss B’s contacts with the Council during the three previous months. The Manager said a decision on her homelessness application now needed to be made. The Manager asked Miss B for some information so this decision could be made.
  21. The Council provided its final response to Miss B’s complaint on 4 September. Miss B asked if there was another stage to the complaints procedure. The Council said there is no further stage, but offered Miss B a meeting.
  22. The Council planned a meeting with Miss B for 24 September. On 21 September the Council sent an email to Miss B saying one of the officers may not be able to attend the meeting so it would be wise to re-arrange the meeting. The Council said it would send some further dates.
  23. The Council says it tried to speak to Miss B on the morning of the planned meeting but she did not answer the call. The meeting on 24 September did not go ahead.
  24. Miss B later contacted the Council to say the Council had not contacted her. The Council then re-arranged the meeting for 5 November.
  25. In October Miss B complained to us. On 5 October the housing officer sent an email in response to an enquiry from Miss B’s MP. The response included the following comment about the meeting planned for 24 September:
    • ‘She [Miss B] was unable to attend but it is unclear as to the reasons for this and contact was made in advance of the scheduled appointment to confirm attendance’.
  26. On 18 October Miss B’s housing officer sent an email to Miss B asking for an update on her situation at Property A.
  27. The meeting on 5 November went ahead. The Council has not provided a record of this meeting. But, the Council says at the meeting Miss B said:
    • She did not want to live in the Ashford area;
    • She was not currently under formal threat of homelessness at Property A; and,
    • She would not want to accept the offer of temporary accommodation the Council had made.
  28. The Council says it agreed to take several actions including:
    • allocating Miss B a new housing officer;
    • reviewing information on file and clarifying Miss B’s position on the housing register;
    • establishing if Miss B was homeless or not.
  29. The Council says on 6 November it allocated the case to a different officer. Miss B says the Council did not tell her this and the new officer did not contact her. Miss B says she received no further contact from the Council. The Council says during this period it made further enquiries.
  30. Miss B says during this period she suffered a relapse in her mental health because of the lack of help from the Council and she took an overdose.
  31. Also in November, Miss B put in a homelessness application to a neighbouring council. Miss B says the other council helped her find privately rented accommodation, which she moved into in January 2019. Miss B says this was only possible because she had help from her MP and councillor and had to borrow money. The neighbouring council then decided she was no longer homeless.
  32. The Council’s response to my enquiries included the following comments:
    • The Council does not accept the housing officer did not update Miss B or update the PHP, apart from the period from early September to 6 November when there was less direct input from the housing officer. But, Miss B had been agreeable to contact from the Head of Service, Senior Allocations Officer, and Housing Operations Manager, during this period.
    • It did not issue a decision on Miss B’s homelessness application, but it was trying to resolve the matter to Miss B’s satisfaction.
    • A decision that Miss B was not homeless from Property A might have been made earlier, but this was not done.
    • The case was reassigned to a different officer after the meeting on 5 November 2018 but there is no record of the Council contacting Miss B to tell her this.
    • There were concerted efforts (after the complaints procedure had ended) to genuinely address Miss B’s housing situation and this was the broader basis for the meeting going ahead.
    • There is no evidence that staff have been rude or lacked empathy in dealing with Miss B’s homelessness application.

Analysis

  1. I will now address Miss B’s complaints. For clarity, I have grouped some of Miss B’s complaints together.

Her Housing Officer did not do what she said she would do in the Personalised Housing Plan, and did not update the Plan

The Council did not issue her with a decision on her homelessness application

Her Housing Officer did not contact her for 36 weeks and ignored her contacts

The Council said it would allocate her a new Housing Officer but this did not happen

  1. When Miss B approached the Council in late April 2018 as homeless the changes introduced by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 had taken effect. Miss B’s housing officer correctly accepted the Prevention Duty and wrote a PHP with Miss B. The housing officer also provided Miss B with advice and assistance.
  2. During the following weeks Miss B separated from her partner and started staying with her friend’s parents, who live in the Council’s area. The Council made some enquiries to find out if the eviction was lawful and whether there was any possibility for Miss B to continue to live at the private rented property. These enquiries were relevant to the Council’s consideration of Miss B’s homelessness.
  3. Once the Council was satisfied Miss B could not return to the property, and the eviction was unlikely to be unlawful, the Council accepted the Relief duty in June 2018. Apart from a delay between 1 June, when Miss B became homeless, and 14 June, when the Council accepted the Relief duty, the information does not suggest the Council was at fault before it accepted the Relief duty.
  4. The Relief duty meant the Council was required to take reasonable steps to help Miss B secure suitable accommodation with a reasonable prospect that it would be available for occupation for at least six months. Although the period for compliance with the Relief duty can be extended if it is in the applicant’s interests, a council may decide to end this duty once 56 days have passed. In Miss B’s case, the 56 day period ended on 9 August.
  5. I have not seen information to show the Council met the Relief duty during this period. The Council has not provided any information to show what action it was taking during this period to help Miss B secure alternative accommodation. The Council’s records do not suggest the housing officer was aware of the Council’s duties during the Relief stage or that the 56 day period was a relevant consideration.
  6. Also, it appears the onus was placed on Miss B to find accommodation during this period. By the time the Housing Operations Manager agreed to review the case, the 56 day period had ended.
  7. The Council did not make a decision about whether the Relief duty had ended. Also, the Council did not make a decision on whether it owed Miss B the main housing duty.
  8. The Council’s comment that there were concerted efforts (after the complaints procedure had ended) to genuinely address Miss B’s housing situation, also indicates the Council was at fault for not doing this before Miss B had completed the Council’s complaints procedure. By the time the Council agreed a range of actions as a result of the meeting on 5 November, Miss B had approached a different council for housing help.
  9. I note the Council’s comment that Miss B’s friend’s parents had not formally asked her to leave the property. It appears the Council had some doubts about whether Miss B was homeless. But, the Council had already accepted Miss B was homeless. This meant the Council owed Miss B the Relief duty. If the Council maintained this view by 9 August, when the 56 day period had ended, it could have decided it did not owe the main housing duty because Miss B was no longer homeless. But, the Council did not do this.
  10. Also, the information suggests there was little contact from Miss B’s housing officer after the meeting with Miss B on 20 June. During this period I would have expected regular correspondence between the Council and Miss B about the action both parties were taking to meet the Relief duty. Also, as the Council accepts, there was little contact from the housing officer from September 2018. This is evidence of fault.
  11. Miss B complains that her housing officer did not do what she said she would do in the PHP or update the plan. The Council has provided me with one version of the Plan. But, it appears this plan was reviewed and updated by Miss B’s housing officer at various times. This is because the entries have different dates, from April 2018 to August 2018. The information on the plan also strongly suggests the housing officer did what she agreed to do. This is because all actions which the Council said it would take are marked as completed with the relevant date the action was taken.
  12. However, even though the Council says it reviewed the plan once it accepted the Relief duty, the plan does not set out the steps the Council would take to try to secure accommodation for Miss B to meet this duty. This again indicates the Council did not meet its Relief duty obligations to Miss B. I can understand why Miss B felt the need to approach another council for housing help during this period.
  13. The Council says it allocated Miss B’s case to a different housing officer after the meeting on 5 November. But, the Council accepts it did not tell Miss B this. Also, I have not seen any information to show the new housing officer contacted Miss B or took any further action on the case. This is further evidence of fault by the Council.
  14. So, I find the Council’s handling of Miss B’s homelessness application was affected by fault. I also find Miss B suffered a significant injustice as a result.
  15. It is not straightforward to assess what would have happened had there been no fault by the Council.
  16. If the Council had complied with the Relief duty owed to Miss B between June and August 2018 it is possible Miss B would have been able to secure accommodation, albeit this could have been for only six months. However, I cannot say it is more likely than not Miss B would have secured accommodation during this period.
  17. Also, I do not know what decision the Council would have made if it had decided Miss B’s homelessness application. It is possible the Council would have decided Miss B was not owed the main housing duty because she was no longer homeless.
  18. But, because the Council did not decide Miss B’s application, she did not have the opportunity to challenge such a decision by using her statutory review and appeal rights.
  19. Miss B has been able to secure accommodation by approaching another council. So, her housing situation has been resolved. But, I consider Miss B has suffered distress and uncertainty because of the Council’s fault.
  20. Miss B and her son were staying with her friend’s parents on a temporary basis, but they ended up staying at the property from May 2018 until January 2019. The lack of action by the Council put pressure on this arrangement. Also, I have placed weight on Miss B’s comments that her existing health conditions were made worse by the Council’s fault and she was unable to make important decisions about her son’s schooling.
  21. I have asked the Council to apologise to Miss B and make a payment to reflect the distress and uncertainty she suffered because of the lack of action taken by the Council.
  22. I will now address Miss B’s further complaints.

The Council accused her of failing to attend an appointment which the Council had actually cancelled

  1. My view is the housing officer was wrong to tell Miss B’s MP that Miss B did not attend the meeting scheduled for 24 September. The Council sent an email to Miss B saying it would be sensible to re-schedule the meeting and that it would send a further email with alternative dates. So, I understand why Miss B did not attend the Council offices on the day of the scheduled meeting. Miss B was not to blame for the meeting not going ahead as planned.
  2. But, I do not consider the officer’s comments caused Miss B a significant injustice which would warrant us asking the Council to take further action.

The Council only invited her to two face-to-face meetings

  1. Councils have limited resources and the Council was able to contact Miss B by email and telephone. I understand why Miss B wanted more meetings in person. But, this is not evidence of fault.

Council staff have been rude and shown no compassion at all

  1. As stated above, my view is the Council’s handling of Miss B’s request for housing help was affected by fault. But, I have not seen any information to indicate Council staff have been rude or lacked compassion as claimed by Miss B.

The Council’s response to her complaint did not answer the issues she complained about

  1. I find the Council’s responses to Miss B’s complaint broadly addressed her main areas of complaint. Also, even though the complaints procedure had been completed, the Council arranged to meet Miss B to discuss her housing situation and the issues she complained about.
  2. The information does not suggest the Council was at fault for the way it responded to Miss B’s complaint.

Agreed action

  1. To put right the injustice suffered by Miss B because of fault by the Council, I recommend that within two months of my final decision, the Council:
    • Apologises to Miss B for the fault I have identified regarding the Council’s handling of her request for housing help;
    • Makes a financial payment to Miss B of £400 for the uncertainty and distress she suffered; and,
    • Writes an action plan setting out its learning from this complaint and the action it will take to avoid such errors happening in future.
  2. The Council has agreed to these recommendations.

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Final decision

  1. The Council was at fault and Miss B suffered a significant injustice as a result. The Council has agreed to my recommendations to put right the injustice Miss B suffered. I have now completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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