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London Borough of Southwark (18 015 936)

Category : Housing > Homelessness

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 11 Mar 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The complainant says the Council delayed deciding if it owed him a duty to house him following homelessness. This delayed his right to a review of the suitability of his property. The complainant says he suffered bed bugs, vermin infestations, unclean living areas and the loss of heating and hot water due to boiler failures. The Council says it oversaw the property provider’s action to eradicate bed bugs, vermin and the repair and replacement of the boiler. The Council says the complainant did not ask for a review of suitability when he gained that right following the Council’s decision it owed him a housing duty. The Ombudsman finds the Council at fault for the delay in deciding it owed a housing duty which delayed the right to a review and the opportunity of improving circumstances through bidding on other properties.

The complaint

  1. The complainant whom I shall refer to as Mr X, says the Council placed him in temporary accommodation which had a faulty boiler and in which he experienced vermin infestations. These problems caused anxiety. Mr X says the anxiety resulted in a decline in Mr X’s mental health. Mr X believed therefore the property no longer met the test for suitable temporary accommodation. Mr X could not challenge suitability until the Council accepted it owed him a duty to house him.
  2. Mr X wanted the Council to review suitability and offer him a remedy for living in unsuitable conditions for so long. Mr X left the property in July 2019.

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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. 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)
  2. If 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. In considering this complaint I have:
    • Spoken with Mr X and read the information presented with his complaint;
    • Put enquiries to the Council and reviewed its responses;
    • Researched the relevant law, guidance and policy;
    • Share my draft decision with Mr X and the Council and reflected on comments received.

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What I found

  1. Under the Housing Act 1996 and Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities (the Code) councils should decide homelessness applications by the time a council’s relief duty ends. The relief duty ends after 56 days. The Guidance allows a further 15 working days where a council needs to make “significant further investigations”.
  2. The law imposes a duty on councils to ensure accommodation provided to homeless applicants is suitable by for example ensuring the property is free from category 1 hazards.
  3. Mr X became homeless and the Council’s No Recourse to Public Funds team provided housing accommodation for Mr X from August 2017. Mr X receives support from the Council’s mental health team.

Offer of temporary accommodation

  1. Following a decision on Mr X’s immigration status in August 2018 the No Recourse to Public Fund support ended. The Council referred Mr X to supported housing believing this may help Mr X manage day to day. However, the Council found Mr X did not meet the criteria for supported housing. Mr X’s assessment considered him to have low level needs. Therefore, the Council extended its offer of temporary accommodation while it considered if it owed Mr X a duty to house him under the Housing Act.
  2. Following its enquiries, the Council decided in May 2019 it owed Mr X a duty to house him. The Council decided Mr X was homeless and in priority need. The Council awarded Mr X priority within Band 3 of the housing allocation priority bands. The Council confirmed Mr X’s right to remain in temporary housing until Mr X secures permanent housing or the Council discharges its duty.
  3. The Council’s decision it owed a duty to house Mr X triggered his right to ask the Council to review the suitability of his temporary accommodation. The Council says Mr X never asked for a review.
  4. The Council does not own the accommodation it offered Mr X as temporary accommodation. It uses several different housing providers to house temporary and permanent tenants.
  5. Temporary accommodation should be suitable for the tenant. The Council carries out an inspection of the accommodation when it first uses it. However, because by its nature temporary accommodation may change hands quickly or the Council needs it in a crisis the Council cannot always check suitability before letting it.
  6. The Council had used this property to house previous housing applicants and did not receive any complaints. Therefore, it says it did not inspect it before offering it to Mr X as temporary accommodation.
  7. The Council’s Temporary Accommodation team considers any complaints about conditions within temporary accommodation. It also oversees the statutory checks such as the gas safety check which must take place each year.

Bed bugs, boilers and rats

Bedbugs

  1. The Council says it did not receive any complaints from Mr X when he first moved into his temporary home in August 2017. However, in April 2018 Mr X complained about bedbugs in his room. Mr X’s support worker in the mental health team took this up with the property provider.
  2. The property provider arranged for treatment for the bedbugs between May and June 2018 resulting in Mr X receiving a replacement mattress in July 2018. Mr X said the bedbugs returned and in November 2018 the property provider replaced the bedframe. The property provider also fumigated the room to remove the bedbugs. Mr X says the first treatments did not fully resolve the problem which continued for some time. Mr X needed treatment for the bites from his GP.

Rats

  1. Mr X complained about rat infestations in June 2018. The property provider arranged for a pest control contractor to visit. The pest control contractor laid traps on 29 June 2018. Following a further two visits in July 2018 the pest control contractor decided to check the site once a month. The contractor visited every month, but the vermin did not reappear until June 2019. Mr X reported finding a rat and contacted the Council.
  2. In June 2019 the contractor visited and noted evidence of a rat run in the rear garden which could be an entry point into the property. The contractor re-baited the traps. The contractor recommended the property provider use concrete to remove the rat run. The contractor also recommended cleaning the area weekly.
  3. The Council’s Temporary Accommodation team visited and took photographs showing evidence of a rats’ nest and the trap boxes put in place by the pest control contractor who checks them regularly.
  4. The Council reviewed the action undertaken by the property provider and the pest control contractor. The Council says in its view the property provider put in place a reasonable programme to rid the home of vermin and prevent further infestation. Advice given to the tenants about keeping the property clean, about storing and removing waste complies with the advice the Council expects pest controllers to provide. The absence for a time of the vermin infestation in the Council’s view shows the programme’s effectiveness although it did not prevent further infestation. It can take several pest-control programmes to rid a property of vermin. The Temporary Accommodation team continued to oversee the effectiveness of the pest control measures until Mr X moved out in July 2019.

Boiler

  1. In August 2018 Mr X reported faults with the boiler. The Council says the property provider carried out a boiler check and arranged repairs. The boiler broke down again in October 2018 causing Mr X to be temporarily without hot water or heating. The property provider replaced the boiler on 30 October 2018. A timely replacement in the Council’s view.

End of temporary accommodation

  1. In July 2019 the Council offered Mr X alternative accommodation. Mr X has concerns about this move, but they do not form part of this investigation, he may take them up with the Council.
  2. In responding to my enquiries, the Council says it is undertaking a review of the agreements with property providers and increasing inspections as part of a drive to improve the housing supply. The Council says day to day management of property remains the property provider’s responsibility. However, it says Mr X knew how to raise concerns with the Council where he felt the property provider had not managed the property properly. The Council therefore believes it offered Mr X support in dealing with property management issues.
  3. Mr X says he lived in unsuitable conditions. The Council did not review suitability on first offering him the property or when it accepted it had a duty to house him and offered him the property as temporary accommodation. Mr X says the series of complaints should have triggered a review. Mr X wants the Council to compensate him for poor living conditions.
  4. The delay in deciding if the Council owed Mr X a duty, he says prevented him improving his housing circumstances and bidding for better or at least alternative properties.

Analysis – is there fault leading to injustice?

  1. My role is to consider whether the Council has properly considered Mr X’s concerns, met its legal duty as housing authority: ensured the property meets the standard it sets for temporary housing and offered Mr X support where needed.

Time taken to decide whether the Council owed a housing duty

  1. The Council took from August 2018 until May 2019 to decide if it owed Mr X a housing duty. Gathering information and completing enquiries takes time. However, the current Code allows 56 days with a possible 15-day extension. To comply with the Code the Council should have decided Mr X’s application within 11 weeks. That is by October 2018. Mr X waited a further seven months for a decision. Even allowing for the time spent seeking a referral to supported housing the Council took too long. I find the Council at fault for the delay in deciding whether it had a duty to house Mr X.
  2. The Council offered Mr X the same temporary accommodation he already occupied while it decided on his application. That met its duty to offer him a temporary home. However, they delay in deciding if it owed him a duty delayed his right to seek a review of its suitability. Therefore, but for the delay Mr X could have sought an earlier review of suitability or bid for a new home improving his housing conditions.

Review of suitability

  1. The Council says it lacks enough staff to visit every property before letting it on a temporary let. The lack of complaints resulted in the Council not inspecting the property before offering it to Mr X.
  2. The Council says Mr X lived in his home from August 2017 until April 2018 without complaint. Mr X raised a series of complaints about bed bugs, a faulty boiler and rat infestations between April and November 2018. The Council believes having resolved the faults the property met its standard for temporary accommodation.
  3. Mr X has little experience in managing a tenancy and dealing with a landlord. He had support from the social care and mental health teams. Mr X felt vulnerable given his circumstances. I have considered whether this meant the Council should have reviewed suitability given the complaints of rats, bed bugs and a faulty boiler made between April and November 2018. If on raising those issues with the property provider, the property provider had failed to take suitable action then the Council should review suitability. However, the property provider engaged pest control, repaired and then replaced the boiler ensuring in the Council’s view the house met the Council’s suitability standard. I find it unlikely the Council would find the property unsuitable on inspection in August 2018. However, we will never know and that creates doubt for Mr X.
  4. Mr X did not ask for a review of his home’s suitability in May 2019 and moved out within two months of the Council’s decision it owed him a duty. Mr X had support from the temporary accommodation team as well as the mental health team and other professionals. I find the Council acted without fault in deciding not to review the property’s suitability in May 2019 without Mr X first exercising his legal right to ask for that review.

Supervision of pest control and boiler repair and replacement

  1. The Temporary Accommodation team oversaw the effectiveness of the pest control programme. When Mr X reported to the social care team any concerns it raised them with the property provider.
  2. The lack of success in permanently ridding the property of rats or bed bugs is not evidence of fault on the Council’s part. The action taken successfully removed the pests for a significant time. Similarly, the property provider repaired then replaced the boiler without significant delay. Therefore, I find the Council acted without fault in providing support through ensuring the property provider engaged contractors to carry out work to rid the property of pests and replace the boiler.

Injustice

  1. The Council significantly delayed a decision on whether it had a duty to house Mr X. But for the delay Mr X could have bid for properties offering him an opportunity to improve his housing conditions or seek a review of his home’s suitability. The Council’s delay denied him those opportunities leading him to believe he lived in temporary accommodation for longer than he should.

Recommended and agreed action

  1. In recognition of the anxiety caused to Mr X I recommend, and the Council agrees to within four weeks of my final decision:
    • Apologise to Mr X;
    • Pay Mr X £400 for living in temporary accommodation without a decision on his homelessness application resulting in a delay to his right to ask for a review of suitability and bid for a new home and thus improving his circumstances.

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Final decision

  1. In completing my investigation, I find the Council acted with fault in assessing Mr X’s housing application and ensuring the suitability of his temporary accommodation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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