The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Ombudsman found fault on Mr Z’s complaint against the Council of it delaying dealing with the eviction notice he handed in and with its failure to ensure copy documents he provided were placed on his file which meant repeated requests for those he had already sent. The agreed action remedies the avoidable injustice caused. There was no fault on his remaining complaints.
- Mr Z complains the Council, when it received their homeless application for accommodation, failed to provide suitable temporary accommodation as it ignored:
- their daughter’s medical evidence which said she needed a clean, safe environment when allocating them temporary accommodation;
- their request for an unfurnished property because of their daughter’s health needs; and
- their request for a property near their children’s 3 schools.
- repeatedly lost copy documents he hand-delivered to its offices;
- failed to ensure they had a consistent point of contact as officers regularly changed; and
- ignored and failed to reply to correspondence.
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)
- 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)
- A council must secure interim accommodation for applicants and their household if it has reason to believe they may be homeless, eligible for assistance, and have a priority need. (Housing Act 1996, section 188)
- If a council is satisfied an applicant is homeless, eligible for assistance, and has a priority need, it has a duty to secure accommodation is available for their occupation (unless it refers the application to another housing authority under section 198). 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)
- 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 consider the location of accommodation when they consider if it is suitable for the applicant and members of their household. If a council places an applicant outside its district, it must consider, among other matters:
- the distance of the accommodation from the “home” district;
- the significance of any disruption to the education of members of the applicant’s household; and
- the proximity and accessibility to local services, amenities, and transport. (Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) Order 2012)
- A Council can discharge its main duty through securing suitable, available accommodation for the household. The property can either be social housing or a property in the private rented sector. (section 193 (7AA) Housing Act 1996)
The Housing Allocation Scheme
- Every local housing authority must publish an allocations scheme setting out how it prioritises applicants, and its procedures for allocating housing. All allocations must be made in strict accordance with the published scheme. (Housing Act 1996, section 166A(1) & (14))
- The Council owns no stock and all social housing allocated is through nomination agreements with local registered social landlords (housing associations). (paragraph 1.2)
- Those with no demonstrable housing need will not qualify to join the housing register. (paragraph 6.2)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered all the information provided by Mr Z, including the notes I made of our telephone conversation, and the Council’s response to my enquiries, a copy of which I sent him. I sent a copy of my draft decision to Mr Z and the Council. I considered their responses.
What I found
- Mr and Mrs Z have 3 children. The youngest, the daughter, has several medical conditions. They lived in privately rented accommodation. Their landlord decided he wanted them to leave as he intended to renovate his property and live in the one they rented from him.
- After receiving an invalid notice to seek possession of their home, the Council allowed Mr and Mrs Z to join the housing register even though adequately housed at the time as their tenancy had not expired. The Council reached this decision because of the daughter’s medical conditions. In July 2018, they were awarded Band B under its housing allocation policy.
- They remained in their home and in December, Mr Z provided the Council with a copy of the landlord’s valid notice seeking possession of the property he received. He hand-delivered the notice and other documents to the Council on 17 December.
- Hearing nothing further, he and his local councillor chased the Council in January 2019.
- In early February, the Council offered them temporary accommodation in their home town with a 12-month tenancy but, Mr Z refused, saying it was unsuitable for their daughter. The Council warned it could not guarantee a property in their home town, or even in the same borough, and pointed out it would expect the 2 older children to travel to school by public transport.
- The Council offered them another temporary accommodation which it invited them to view. Both offers were under its homelessness relief duty. The property was outside the Council’s borough and about 5 miles from their home and the children’s schools.
- Mr Z says he viewed it twice on 18 February. He says he viewed it initially from the outside only. Later that day, around 5pm, he viewed it from inside as well. Mr Z claims the property was dirty. As the notice from the landlord expired the following day, he felt they had no choice but to accept it. The tenancy started the following day.
- Mr Z believes the Council ignored their daughter’s medical evidence when making this offer which said she needed a clean property because of her health. The distance from the children’s schools caused problems, both logistically and financially, as all 3 children went to different schools. Mrs Z does not drive, and Mr Z works shifts. The eldest child took 2 trains a day to get to and from school. The middle child took a train and a bus in both directions. Their daughter could not use public transport at the time because of the risk to her health. In addition, the property was far from the family’s support networks.
- The Council noted Mr Z thanked officers for the accommodation. The Council provided a copy of an email he sent the day he visited the property. The email said they looked at the property, he accepted it, and wanted to know when they could move in. It also thanked the Council for their time.
- The Council told Mr Z on several occasions he could have remained in the other property for at least 4-6 weeks. He was not forced to move on the date the notice expired as the landlord still had to get court orders for their eviction. The Council did not accept the claim about the poor condition of the property offered.
- The Council decided in March it owed Mr Z a full homelessness duty. This automatically meant they were awarded Band A under the Council’s housing allocation policy. Recently, the Council found them a more suitable property which they moved in to in July. This is a 3-bedroom property in their home town. It resolved the problem of transport to school and the cost of travel.
- The Council noted Mr Z consistently maintained: he would not accept a privately rented property; he did not want to remain in the existing property as it was unsuitable for his daughter’s needs; he wanted a property with a drive because the daughter could not walk far; and, any property had to be near to the schools.
Complaint a): ignored medical advice
- While the Council accepted failing to contact him promptly for several weeks when he provided a copy of the landlord’s notice, it argued this would not have altered the way it dealt with his application. It had already explained to Mr Z a tenant can stay in a property after the expiry of the date in the notice. A tenant can stay until the landlord gets a possession and then an eviction order. It denied leaving Mr Z until the last day before offering accommodation as claimed as his landlord would have taken up to 6 weeks to get these orders. It offered the property well before the end of the legal process to ease the stress on Mr Z.
- Mr Z said the second viewing he made that day was at 5pm. As the date on the landlord’s notice expired the following day, he felt they had no choice but to accept it.
- Mr Z claimed the temporary accommodation had food up the walls in the kitchen, living room, and dining room at the time of viewing. Carpets and kitchen appliances were dirty. This, argued Mr Z, went against medical advice given to the Council about the need for a clean property. He said his family had to clean it while looking after their poorly daughter and his wife who had just had an operation. The garden was neglected.
- The medical evidence shows one of the doctors saying any property for the daughter had to be, ‘secure, warm and free from damp’ and have, ‘enough space that she can be separated from family members if they were unwell with an infection’.
- The Council provided a copy of an email Mr Z sent early on 18 February 2018 which said they would accept the property before viewing it and asked for the earliest date they could move in.
- The Council claimed it contacted the landlord who confirmed the property had been cleaned prior to letting and Mr Z raised no concerns with him about its condition. The Council failed to send evidence of the contact. It confirmed no inventory was taken by the provider.
- It sent a copy of an email Mr Z sent 4 hours after viewing the accommodation. This confirmed Mr Z accepted the property and asked about how, and when, they paid the rent. It confirmed they would move in the following day but, as it was part furnished, he asked whether the furniture, which smelled stale, could be removed.
- In response to my enquiries, the Council confirmed it looked at mileage, available routes from the property, and the reasonableness of the 2 older children getting to school independently. There appeared no reason why these children could not use public transport. The issue of affordability was not raised at the meeting on 18 February Mr Z had with a Council officer. Nor had he disclosed enough information about his finances to allow a fuller assessment.
- It denied staff told Mr Z he would remain in the accommodation for 8 weeks. This is because officers cannot give time frames for stays in temporary accommodation as it depends on when a suitable property becomes free. The average wait for those in temporary accommodation is 12 months but could be longer. The Council sent a copy of an email officers sent to Mr Z on 6 February which told him it could not give a timescale about how long he will remain in temporary accommodation.
- I make the following findings on this complaint:
- The Council accepts there was an initial delay contacting Mr Z when it received the landlord’s notice in December. The delay appears to be due to an officer going on leave. This is fault.
- I am satisfied the Council told him he was not legally required to leave the property on the expiry of the notice given. The pressure to move on such a short time frame did not come from the Council. To help Mr Z and his family, who were under considerable pressure at the time, the Council agreed to offer temporary accommodation at the end of the notice period.
- There is no evidence to support the claim his daughter’s doctors said any property had to be clean. They said it had to be warm, secure, and free from damp with enough space for her to be separated if another family member became ill. I took account of the Council’s contact with the doctors 2 months before the landlord served the valid notice which confirmed this. I found no fault, therefore, on the claim of the Council ignoring medical evidence.
- I saw a record of a telephone call to Mr Z dated 15 February. This records an officer telling him the temporary accommodation’s size, that it was privately rented, and its monthly rent amount. It records Mr Z saying he would accept it, but, preferred Council accommodation to privately rented accommodation. The officer agreed to email him details about the property. An email from Mr Z later that day said they would accept it and assumed it would meet their youngest daughter’s needs (clean, tidy, and safe).
- Mr Z says the property was dirty when he viewed it and the Council disagrees. There is no evidence of the condition of the property on the day Mr Z visited it. I have seen no inventory, which an agent usually completes on behalf of a landlord privately letting a property, setting out its condition. Nor have I seen photographs of the property’s condition on the day either, for example.
- I took account of the email Mr Z sent the Council during the afternoon of 18 February. This said they had looked at this temporary accommodation (TA) and, ‘I can tell you we accept this TA. How quickly can we move?’ The email told the Council the quicker the better and they both wanted to thank the officer for what he did that day and for his time. I also took account of the email he sent the Council the same day just before 9pm. This was 4 hours after he viewed it. This did not mention any problem with the cleanliness of the accommodation. Mr Z did not raise this as a problem until 2 weeks later.
- On balance, therefore, I am satisfied the evidence tends to show no problem with cleanliness. This is because of the emails Mr Z sent the Council the day he viewed the property, particularly the one he sent at 9pm, 4 hours after his viewing.
- In terms of the property’s suitability, its location is always relevant. A council needs to carefully consider its suitability for those with medical and/or physical needs. Generally, a council should try to secure accommodation close to where an applicant previously lived. It will consider their need to reach their place of work. There is a continuing duty to keep the suitability of accommodation under review.
- I am satisfied the Council considered the suitability of the accommodation Mr Z accepted. I say this because it sent Mr Z an action plan warning the Council could not guarantee a property in the home town or even in borough. The Council warned there was an expectation for the older children to use public transport, and a recognition of the daughter’s health problems. In addition, it mentioned Mrs Z going in to hospital in a couple of weeks. A letter to Mr Z explained it could not find social housing as supply does not meet demand. I also note Mr Z visited the property and so was aware of its distance from the children’s school and the monthly rent.
Complaint b): ignored request for unfurnished
- The Council accepted Mr Z asked for an unfurnished property. A housing officer told Mr Z at the time of the viewing he needed to liaise directly with the landlord about this. It explained it was common for temporary accommodation to be fully furnished as households usually do not have enough of their own furniture. Instead of continually moving furniture in and out of accommodation, depending on what tenants have, it is simpler for tenants to temporarily put their own in to storage.
- I found no fault on this complaint. This was a private landlord’s property, not the Council’s. The Council was under pressure from Mr Z to find temporary accommodation for him as he was concerned about the expiry date on the landlord’s notice, despite advice about this from officers. The removal of furniture was an issue for Mr Z to have taken up with the landlord directly. It was unlikely to be agreed on such short notice as Mr Z’s tenancy started the day after the viewing which would not have given the landlord much time to remove furniture anyway.
Complaint c): distance to schools
- Mr Z is unhappy with the location of the temporary accommodation offered. As already noted, this caused logistical difficulties for the whole family as the children attended different schools.
- I am satisfied the Council considered the suitability of the property in terms of the distance from the children’s schools to the temporary accommodation. Correspondence with Mr Z shows the Council was aware of this issue as it warned him about not guaranteeing whether any property offered would be in, or outside, the borough and the older children were considered old enough to use public transport to get there. In addition, I note Mr Z viewed the property before accepting it which meant he was aware of the distance to their schools.
Complaint d): lost documents
- Mr Z says the Council lost documents he provided on several occasions. The Council lost a letter from their GP, and letters about benefits for example.
- The Council noted the change of case officer on several occasions due to restructuring. Officers scan documents to their email address before downloading it to the case file. It accepted some officers scanned documents provided but, failed to download it to the case file before leaving their employment. When an officer leaves, the Council disables their email account which makes any documents on it inaccessible. This is the reason why officers asked Mr Z to provide further copies.
- The Council accepted officers may have asked for copy documents already supplied. The reason for this is linked to the turnover of staff. When staff leave, their email accounts are deleted. The way the Council’s system operates means any documents officers uploaded had to go on to their email accounts. When they left, documents not uploaded from their email accounts on to the case files risked getting deleted as well.
- I consider the failure to ensure documents were uploaded when officers left amounts to fault. This caused injustice to Mr Z. This is because of the frustration it caused him.
Complaint e): point of contact
- Mr Z is unhappy with the frequent changes to his point of contact case worker.
- In response to my enquiries, the Council explained the high turnover of case workers was partly due to restructuring within the department with vacant posts filled with temporary staff while it recruited permanent officers.
- By Mr Z’s own count, he now has his 7th case worker since applying to the Council as homeless in the early part of 2018.
- The Council explained why Mr Z had so many different case workers. I found nothing in the allocation policy about the appointment of case workers or how long they remain attached to an applicant. While I appreciate Mr Z’s sense of frustration with the changes, and the worry new officers must read through the file again to familiarise themselves with it, I am not satisfied this amounts to fault. In an organisation like the Council, some changeover of staff is expected particularly when restructuring is taking place of a busy department. When the restructuring is complete, and permanent posts are filled, this problem should reduce.
Complaint f): correspondence
- The Council accepts some of the correspondence from Mr Z was not responded to quickly enough but, timescales under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 were met.
- Except for the initial documents Mr Z hand delivered to the Council, I have not seen instances of the Council failing to respond to his correspondence. I have not seen every email, every letter, and every telephone call ever made as I am not satisfied this would be a justifiable use of our resources to investigate.
- I have already found fault on this initial delay.
- I considered our guidance on remedies.
- The Council will, within 4 weeks of the final decision on this complaint, carry out the following:
- Send a written apology to Mr Z for its failure to promptly deal with the documents he hand-delivered in December 2018 and for the repeated requests for documents already sent;
- Pay him £100 for the distress this caused (frustration, anxiety, and inconvenience); and
- Review its systems to ensure documents held in the email accounts of individual officers who leave the Council are placed on the case file before their accounts are deleted.
- The Ombudsman found fault on Mr Z’s complaint d) against the Council, but no fault on complaints a), b), c), e) and f).
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman