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London Borough of Tower Hamlets (21 004 446)

Category : Housing > Homelessness

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 16 May 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss B complained the Council did not provide suitable temporary accommodation between June 2020 and July 2021. She also complained the Council delayed contacting other councils to source suitable temporary accommodation. We found the Council at fault for delays offering Miss B suitable temporary accommodation and responding to her complaint. The Council will apologise and make a financial payment to remedy the injustice caused to Miss B and her child by its delays.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I shall refer to as Miss B, complained the Council did not provide suitable temporary accommodation between June 2020 and July 2021. She also complained the Council delayed contacting other councils to source suitable temporary accommodation. Miss B says because of these delays she and her child had to live in unsuitable accommodation for too long.

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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 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 considered:
    • Miss B’s complaint and the information her representative provided;
    • documents supplied by the Council;
    • relevant legislation and guidelines; and
    • the Council’s policies and procedures.
  2. Miss B, her representative and the Council commented on two draft decisions. I considered their comments before making a final decision.

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What I found

Legislation and Guidance

  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. 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)
  3. If a council is satisfied someone is eligible, homeless, in priority need and unintentionally homeless it will owe them the main homelessness duty. Generally, the Council carries out the duty by arranging temporary accommodation until it makes a suitable offer of social housing or private rented accommodation. (Housing Act 1996, section 193)
  4. The law says councils must ensure all accommodation it arranges for 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 housing duty.  (Housing Act 1996, section 206 and (from 3 April 2018) Homelessness Code of Guidance 17.2)
  5. Councils should avoid using bed and breakfast accommodation. It should only be used as a last resort in an emergency and then for the shortest time possible. (Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraph 17.24 and from 3 April 2018 17.30)
  6. 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;
    • the proximity and accessibility to local services, amenities and transport. (Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) Order 2012)
  7. Applicants have a statutory right to request a review of the suitability of accommodation provided after the authority has accepted the main housing duty. The Council has eight weeks to complete the review. (Housing Act 1996, section 193)
  8. Under the Housing Act 1996 the Council has a duty to provide suitable temporary accommodation to those it owes a housing duty. The law does not allow the Council to leave people in unsuitable housing because it cannot find anything suitable.
  9. Councils will not owe the main housing duty to applicants where the applicant refuses an offer of temporary accommodation which the housing authority is satisfied is suitable for the applicant. For this to be the case the council must inform the applicant of the possible consequences of refusal and of their right to ask for a review of the suitability of the accommodation and have notified them that it regards itself as having discharged its duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 193 and Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraph 15.41)
  10. Section 213 of the Housing Act 1996 says councils should co-operate when another council asks for assistance in the discharge of its functions under Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996.

Council’s policy for deciding the suitability of temporary accommodation/ private rented sector offers

  1. The Council says accommodation provided under the Housing Act 1996 must be in a reasonable condition and free from Category 1 hazards, taking into account local housing conditions. The Council says it is required to take reasonable steps to satisfy itself of this, either through property inspection, or evidence provided by the owner/agent (e.g. photographs), along with production of all statutory certificates.

Council complaint procedure

  1. The Council has a two-stage complaint procedure.
  2. Stage one: The Divisional Director or a manager acting on their behalf will respond to the complaint within 20 working days.
  3. Stage two: The Council's Chief Executive or a Senior Officer acting on his behalf will review the previous decision and decide if it was fair and reasonable. The Council aims to respond to the complaint within 20 working days.

What happened

  1. This chronology includes key events in this case and does not cover everything that happened.
  2. In November 2019, Miss B approached the Council because she had to leave her home because of domestic abuse. The Council placed her and her child in interim bed and breakfast accommodation. The child is not of school age.
  3. The Council decided it owed Miss B the main housing duty. It moved Miss B and her child into temporary accommodation a week after she first approached the Council. This accommodation was in a different county, County 1. It placed Miss B out of area for her and her child’s safety.
  4. The Council had partially completed a property inspection sheet before it offered the accommodation to Miss B. It did not record the condition of the property or if it needed any work.
  5. In February 2020, the Council sent Miss B a letter about its duties under the Housing Act 1996. It said it owed her a duty to secure suitable temporary accommodation. It said it had done this by providing her with temporary accommodation. It told her how to ask for a review if she considered the temporary accommodation was unsuitable. It said its duty would end if she refused an offer of suitable temporary accommodation.
  6. Miss B asked the Council to undertake a suitability review for her temporary accommodation in March 2020. Her representative sent preliminary representations in May. She advised the Council the accommodation was unsuitable because:
    • it was damp and cold;
    • there was a leak in the bathroom and no bath;
    • it was accessed by a flight of stairs and Miss B, who has a bad back, struggled getting her child and their pushchair in and out of the property;
    • drugs were being used and sold immediately outside the property;
    • the alley next to the property was used by rough sleepers; and
    • Miss B experienced racial abuse in the area.
  7. Her representative said Miss B felt unsafe in her accommodation and wanted to move to an area where she had a support network. Her representative identified three areas in County 1 Miss B would like to move to.
  8. In June 2020, the Council found the property was unsuitable. The Council put Miss B on the transfer list for alternative temporary accommodation.
  9. In September 2020, Miss B’s solicitor sent the Council a letter before action because Miss B was still living in the unsuitable accommodation.
  10. In October 2020, the Council offered Miss B alternative temporary accommodation in another London borough. The Council considered this accommodation suitable for Miss B. Miss B told the Council she accepted the accommodation and the Council arranged for her to move. Miss B had a meeting arranged with the Council to sign the housing contract for the alternative temporary accommodation.
  11. Miss B’s solicitor asked the Council to engage s.213 Housing Act 1996 and approach councils in Miss B’s preferred areas to help it to discharge its housing duties through a reciprocal request. Miss B changed her mind and declined the offer of alternative temporary accommodation. She said she had started to build a life in County 1 and did not want to uproot her child. She said she wanted to stay in her temporary accommodation until a property was found in County 1.
  12. The Council told Miss B’s representative it would approach other council’s and advised this could take some time. It said it could not hold the alternative temporary accommodation any longer and advised it would be withdrawn pending the result of the reciprocal request.
  13. In December 2020 and January 2021, Miss B told the Council she had found properties to rent. The Council decided these properties were unaffordable because the rent was greater than her housing benefit. Miss B told the Council she was finding it difficult to find a property because landlords were not willing to accept housing benefit.
  14. In January and March 2021, Miss B’s solicitor chased the Council and asked it for evidence it had approached councils in Miss B’s preferred areas.
  15. The Council referred Miss B to its Private Sector Renting (PRS) team.
  16. The Council made Miss B a second offer of alternative temporary accommodation in May 2021. This accommodation was in County 1. Miss B declined the offer because she wanted to be in a different part of County 1.
  17. The Council contacted Council 2 in County 1 in May 2021 to ask if it would engage in a reciprocal arrangement to provide Miss B with accommodation. These discussions continued until July 2021 when Council 2 confirmed it did not engage in reciprocal arrangements. The Council updated Miss B’s solicitor.
  18. In June 2021, Miss B applied for housing direct to Council 2. Council 2 said she did not meet its criteria for permanent housing.
  19. The Council contacted Councils 3 and 4 in County 1 in July 2021. The Council updated Miss B’s solicitor. The Councils did not offer Miss B assistance under a reciprocal arrangement.
  20. Miss B was assaulted in her temporary accommodation in July 2021. The Council provided Miss B with emergency accommodation.

Complaint

  1. Miss B’s representative complained to the Council in January 2021. The representative said the Council had left Miss B and her child in unsuitable temporary accommodation and not approached other councils for help to discharge its duty under the Housing Act 1996.
  2. The Council responded at stage one of its complaint procedure in April 2021. The Council told Miss B’s representative it was considering alternative accommodation for Miss B in the private sector and had approached Council 2 about a reciprocal arrangement. The Council said it would update Miss B by the end of the week.
  3. Miss B’s representative chased the Council for an update. In May 2021, Miss B’s representative told the Council they were not happy with its complaint response and that it had not updated Miss B about the potential reciprocal arrangement with Council 2. They asked the Council to consider the complaint at stage two of the complaint procedure.
  4. The Council responded in June 2021, it:
    • apologised for its failure to contact other councils between October 2020 and May 2021.
    • was satisfied officers were actively seeking accommodation to meet Miss B’s needs.

Analysis

  1. In August 2019, the Council partially completed a property inspection for the temporary accommodation it provided Miss B in November 2019. However, it did not record the condition of the property or if it needed any work, and therefore if it was in reasonable condition. This was not in line with its policy for deciding the suitability of temporary accommodation and was fault.
  2. Councils have eight weeks to complete a suitability of accommodation review. In this case, the Council took 14 weeks, a delay of six weeks. However, Miss B’s representative did not provide the Council with her representations until May 2020. Given this, I have taken the start date for the review as May 2020. Therefore, there was no delay by the Council as it took less than eight weeks to conduct the suitability review from May 2020.
  3. The Council found Miss B’s temporary accommodation was unsuitable in June 2020. When a council finds accommodation unsuitable, it must move the applicant to suitable accommodation immediately. The Council did not offer Miss B alternative accommodation until October 2020, a delay of 14 weeks. This delay was fault. This caused Miss B and her child injustice because they had to live in unsuitable accommodation for longer than they would have done without the Council’s delay.
  4. The Council offered Miss B alternative temporary accommodation in October 2020. On the balance of probabilities, this offer was suitable. It was Miss B’s choice not to accept the accommodation. The Council only withdrew the offer when Miss B said wanted to stay in her temporary accommodation while it contacted other councils about a possible reciprocal arrangement. The Council was clear with her representative that this could take some time.
  5. The Council continued to offer Miss B alternative temporary accommodation and approached other councils for assistance at her representative’s request. The Council acknowledged and apologised for its delay contacting councils in County 1. As the councils contacted did not offer Miss B assistance, I do not consider the Council’s delay caused Miss B significant injustice. If Miss B is unhappy with how Councils 2, 3 and 4 responded to the Council’s requests for assistance, she can complain to them.
  6. The Council’s complaint procedure says it will provide a complaint response in 20 working days at stage one and two. In this case, both the Council’s stage one and stage two responses were delayed. In total, the delay was 34 working days. This would have caused Miss B frustration.

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Agreed action

  1. Within one month of the final decision, the Council will:
    • apologise to Miss B for the impact of its delays;
    • pay Miss B £200 for the frustration and uncertainty she experienced because of the Council’s faults.
    • pay Miss B £200 each month for the three and a half months she lived in unsuitable accommodation because of the Council’s delay; a total of £700.
    • remind housing officers to complete inspections of temporary accommodation, or get evidence from the landlord of its condition, before moving someone into the property.
  2. The Council should provide the Ombudsman with evidence it has completed these actions.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation and uphold Miss B’s complaint. Miss B and her child were caused an injustice by the actions of the Council. The Council will take action to remedy that injustice.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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