The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council took too long to make a decision on Ms X’s application to join its Housing Register. It did not let her know the reasons for the delay. This fault caused Ms X some distress and uncertainty. The Council has accepted my recommendation for a suitable remedy.
- Ms X applied to join the Council’s Housing Register in January 2018. She complains that the Council did not decide whether to accept her application and put her on the Housing Register. In its final response to her complaint, the Council told her it was making enquiries to other agencies but it did not address her concern about the delay and the urgency of her housing needs.
- Ms X lives with her children in unsuitable accommodation. She finds it extremely difficult to access the toilet and bathroom on the first floor because she is disabled and has limited mobility.
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 have spoken to Ms X and considered the information she sent me. I have considered the Council’s comments and evidence from its housing records.
- I gave Ms X and the Council the opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered their comments before making a final decision.
- We have completed our investigation of a separate complaint Ms X made about Norfolk County Council, as the adult social care authority, and its assessment of her need for housing adaptations.
What I found
- Ms X is a Housing Association tenant. She lives with her three children, who are all under the age of 18, in a three storey house. Her eldest child, who is a student, comes home in the holidays.
- The bathroom, toilet and two of the bedrooms are on the first floor. There are another two bedrooms on the second floor. There are handrails on both sides of the stairs.
- In late 2016 Ms X had a stroke which left her with a substantial and permanent disability. She has some weakness, a tremor in one leg and chronic fatigue which becomes worse on exertion. She can walk short distances indoors by supporting herself on furniture or using crutches. She uses a wheelchair and mobility car when she goes out. Ms X has some continence needs and depression and anxiety.
- Since 2016 Ms X has strip-washed at the kitchen sink using a perching stool. She only goes upstairs about once every seven to ten days, and needs help from her son to use the over-bath shower. She sometimes has a shower at her father’s home. Since the stroke, she has slept on a sofa in the living room and used a commode downstairs to meet all her toileting needs.
Ms X’s applied to join the Housing Register
- On the advice of her social worker, Ms X applied to join the Council’s Housing Register because she could not manage in her home.
- An officer in the Housing Options Service interviewed Ms X on 3 January 2018. She completed a housing application form. She also completed a medical form and Ms X gave her supporting medical evidence.
- On 8 January the Council reviewed the medical evidence. It decided to get a housing needs report from an Occupational Therapist. Specifically, it asked the Occupational Therapist to assess whether Ms X could use a stair lift in her home or if she needed facilities on the ground floor.
- The Housing Options Manager sent the referral form to the Community Occupational Therapy service on 13 January. She ticked a box to say it was a routine request so a response was due within two weeks.
- On 7 February an entry in the case notes says Ms X’s Housing Association was open to carrying out adaptations to Ms X’s home to make it suitable for her.
- Ms X heard nothing more. On 31 August Ms X she made a complaint by email. She said it was completely unacceptable that she had not heard from the Housing Options Service since she attended the interview and completed forms on 3 January 2018.
- The Council has no record of receiving this complaint. Ms X sent me a screenshot which shows she sent it to the Council’s dedicated complaints email address on 31 August.
- Ms X made a further complaint on 4 October 2018. She referred to the 31 August complaint and asked the Council to respond. The Council told her it had no record of receiving her previous complaint. It logged the new complaint at Stage One of its complaints procedure.
- A senior manager replied to the complaint on 5 November. He said four bedroom properties with ground floor facilities are rarely available. The average waiting time for a four bedroom property without adaptations was 14 years. It was therefore unlikely the Council would be able to offer her a property in the near future. He said carrying out adaptations to her current home was a better option. The Council was making enquiries to the Adult Social Care team at Norfolk County Council and to the Housing Association to find out the reasons for the delay in processing her request for adaptations. He said when this was resolved, the Council would make a decision on her application to join the Housing Register. He emphasised that even if the application was accepted, there would be a long wait before an offer of suitable accommodation could be made, if at all. He told Ms X she could ask for her complaint to move to the second stage of the Council’s procedure if she was not satisfied with his reply.
- On 15 January 2019, an Occupational Therapist in Norfolk County Council’s Physical Disability team assessed Ms X and completed a Housing Needs report. She said Ms X could mobilise using two crutches but she struggled to balance and this put her at increased risks of falls. She confirmed Ms X could not access the bedrooms, bathroom and toilet on the first floor. She was sleeping on a sofa in the living room and using a commode. She noted Ms X had some urgency in continence and so a stair lift was not a suitable option. She said the best option would be to have a toilet and level access shower on the ground floor. Ideally, Ms X also wanted access to her children’s bedrooms upstairs to carry out her role as a parent.
- On 28 February, a multi-agency meeting with representatives from the Housing Association and County Council discussed the best way to meet Ms X’s housing needs. Ms X attended the meeting along with the Occupational Therapist and an officer from the Housing Options service. They discussed two options:
- Rehousing Ms X to a more suitable property;
- Adapting her current home to meet her needs.
- I found fault in the way the Council handled Ms X’s housing application.
- First, the Council had an open application from Ms X to join its Housing Register. It was entirely appropriate to make a referral to the Occupational Therapy service for an assessment of her housing needs. But the Housing Options service should have made follow-up enquiries when it did not receive the report, or any further contact from the Occupational Therapy service, within a few weeks of making the referral on 13 January 2018. Instead it let this drift and it did not chase up the outstanding report.
- Secondly, the Council did not keep Ms X informed about what was happening with her housing application and the reasons for the delay. The lack of communication was fault and it caused Ms X caused avoidable distress and uncertainty.
- The failure to follow up the Occupational Therapy referral delayed the processing of Ms X’s application and the decision to accept her on the Housing Register. I am satisfied from evidence the Council has provided about allocations of four bedroom properties with ground floor facilities in the relevant period that Ms X did not miss out on any offers of suitable accommodation due to this delay.
- Ms X sent evidence that she made a complaint by email to the Council on 31 August 2018. She used the correct email address. The Council has double-checked its records and says it did not receive this complaint. The Council sends an automated email to acknowledge email complaints. Ms X has not said she received one. I cannot explain what happened and why the Council did not receive Ms X’s first complaint. I have decided not to find fault. Although Ms X clearly sent an email on that date there is no evidence that the Council received it.
- Within one month of my final decision, the Council will:
- Arrange for a senior officer to write to Ms X to apologise for the faults identified in this statement;
- Pay Ms X £200 to recognise the distress and uncertainty caused by the delay in processing her application and its failure to keep her informed.
- I have completed the investigation and found fault causing injustice. The Council has agreed to provide a satisfactory remedy.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman