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Cornwall Council (21 009 440)

Category : Housing > Homelessness

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 28 Mar 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mrs X complains for Mr Y about the way the Council responded when he became homeless and the suitability of temporary accommodation it provided. The Ombudsman has found no evidence of fault in the way the Council considered these matters to May 2021 when it accepted a main housing duty towards Mr Y. It would be reasonable for Mr Y to exercise his right of review of the suitability of the temporary accommodation offered as the Council has accepted a main housing duty. So, we have completed our investigation.

The complaint

  1. I have called the complainant Mrs X. She complains for her son Mr Y about the way the Council responded when he became homeless.
  2. Mrs X complained the Council:
    • Failed to provide Mr Y with temporary accommodation on occasions including four days in September 2021 when he had to pay £490 to stay in a hotel. Mr Y also paid £102 for a train ticket to return to Mrs X’s home when the Council told him it had no accommodation available for him.
    • Frequently moved Mr Y to different temporary accommodation, without any assistance and at his own expense. On one occasion Mr Y had to pay £50 for a taxi to the accommodation which was then cancelled.
    • Usually provided unsuitable accommodation without laundry facilities or a lowered bath necessary for Mr Y’s medical needs.
  3. Mr Y is disabled and suffers from anxiety so found the situation distressing and stressful.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. The Ombudsman investigates complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’, which we call ‘fault’. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint, which we call ‘injustice’. We provide a free service but must use public money carefully. We do not start or may decide not to continue with an investigation if we decide:
  • there is not enough evidence of fault to justify investigating, or
  • any fault has not caused injustice to the person who complained, or
  • any injustice is not significant enough to justify our involvement, or
  • we could not add to any previous investigation by the organisation, or
  • further investigation would not lead to a different outcome, or
  • we cannot achieve the outcome someone wants, or
  • there is another body better placed to consider this complaint,
  • it would be reasonable for the person to ask for a council review or appeal.

(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6))

  1. The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone could take the matter to court. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to go to court. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c), 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 spoke to Mrs X and considered the information she provided with her complaint. I made enquiries with the Council and considered its response along with relevant law and guidance.
  2. Mrs X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

Law and guidance

Homeless applications

  1. Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 (the Act) and the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities (the code) set out councils' powers and duties to people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
  2. Someone is threatened with homelessness if, when asking for assistance from the Council:
    • he or she is likely to become homeless within 56 days; or
    • he or she has been served with a valid Section 21 notice which will expire within 56 days. (Housing Act 1996, section 175(4) & (5)).
  3. The code says if there is reason to believe a person may be homeless or threatened with homelessness within 56 days the housing authority must carry out an assessment to determine if this is the case and whether they are eligible for assistance.
  4. Section 195 of the Act creates the 'prevention duty.' This places a duty on housing authorities to work with people who are threatened with homelessness within 56 days to help prevent them from becoming homelessness.
  5. The section 195 duty applies when the housing authority is satisfied the applicant is both threatened with homelessness and eligible for assistance. The housing authority is obliged to take reasonable steps to help the applicant either remain in their existing accommodation or secure alternative accommodation.
  6. The code says the reasonable steps taken by both the authority and the applicant to help prevent homelessness should be those set out in the personalised housing plan.
  7. Section 189B of the Act creates the 'relief duty.' This requires housing authorities to help people who are homeless to secure accommodation. The duty applies when the housing authority is satisfied the applicant is both homeless and eligible for assistance. The housing authority is obliged 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.
  8. Where the housing authority have reason to believe that an applicant may be homeless, eligible and have a priority need they must provide interim accommodation under section 188(1) of the Act whilst fulfilling the relief duty.
  9. The code says housing authorities may conduct and complete their inquiries into the duties that will be owed to an applicant under section 193(2) of the Act, (the main housing duty) during the period in which they are attempting to relieve homelessness under the section 189B duty. However, this activity must not detract from the housing authority’s work to relieve the applicant’s homelessness.
  10. The code says housing authorities should not delay completing their inquiries as to what further duties will be owed after the relief duty. Where the housing authority has the information it requires to make a decision as to whether the applicant is in priority need and became homeless intentionally, it should be possible to notify the applicant on or around day 57. In cases where significant further investigations are required it is recommended housing authorities aim to complete their inquiries and notify the applicant of their decision within a maximum of 15 working days after 56 days have passed.
  11. Accommodation provided under Part 7 of the 1996 Act must be suitable for the applicant and their household. The code says housing authorities may take into account the interim nature of a placement when assessing whether or not it is suitable; as accommodation may be suitable for a few days or weeks that would not be suitable for a longer term placement. The applicant does not have the right to ask for a statutory review of the housing authority’s decision as to the suitability of interim accommodation.
  12. The Council confirms it does not have a current policy on allocating temporary accommodation. It will consider if an offer of a property is suitable based on the physical condition, location, overcrowding, affordability and if there is a risk of violence from any person. While it does take into consideration areas of choice it does inform customers that they may well be offered suitable accommodation outside preferred areas. This is due to the demand and availability of temporary accommodation in Cornwall.
  13. Where the Council has accepted a main housing duty under section 193 of the Act there is a right to request a review of the suitability of the temporary accommodation. The review is considered by the Council and then applicant can appeal to the county court. Homeless applicants can also request a review of the suitability of accommodation offered under section 200(3) and section 193 whether or not they have accepted the offer.

What happened

  1. This section sets out the key events in the complaint and is not intended to be a detailed chronology.
  2. Mr Y has cerebral palsy and users a wheelchair for mobility. Mr Y suffers from anxiety and depression. He needs a lowered bath as he does not feel safe using a shower.
  3. Mr Y approached the Council in February 2021 as he was about to become homeless in March 2021 and needed to leave the adapted property he lived in. Mr Y made a homeless application to the Council and a housing officer carried out an assessment of Mr Y. Mr Y was registered on Homechoice (the Council’s housing register) in band C and was also looking at private rented accommodation. Mrs X also spoke to an officer about Mr Y’s situation. The officer advised Mrs X the Council could offer him temporary accommodation, likely to be in a hotel without cooking facilities and could be anywhere in the county.
  4. The Council allocated the case to its Housing Prevention and Engagement team (HPE). An officer contacted Mr Y and said he was eligible for assistance as he was threatened with homelessness. The officer confirmed the Council had a prevention duty over the next 56 days to help prevent him from becoming homeless. This was through personalised advice and possible financial help to remain or secure alternative accommodation.
  5. Mrs X raised concerns about Mr Y managing to leave his property without help. Mr Y gave consent for an HPE officer to make a referral to social services to assess him for support. The officer also referred Mr Y for an Occupational Therapy (OT) assessment and to an agency to help support Mr Y with issues such as laundry and shopping.
  6. The OT assessment noted Mr Y was independent, managed personal care and dressing. His main concern was being able to manage on his own. The OT noted Mr Y was at risk of injuries if not given appropriate accommodation or the support and equipment he needed to make new accommodation safe for him and his wheelchair.
  7. Mr Y confirmed he would become homeless on 25 March 2021. The Council ended its prevention duty towards him as he became homeless and said it had a duty to help Mr Y secure accommodation. The Council referred to Mr Y to another specialist agency (agency) to provide him with support services.
  8. The Council changed Mr Y’s housing band to band A, the highest priority and identified a possible direct match property for Mr Y. But Mr Y’s anxiety about moving to temporary accommodation meant the opportunity of the direct match property was missed.
  9. The Council booked Mr Y into hotel accommodation for 25 March 2021. The accommodation was wheelchair accessible with a level access shower. The agency worker supporting Mr Y said it was unsuitable for Mr Y as it did not have a lowered bath. Officers advised there was no other accommodation available. Mr Y booked a taxi for his move to the hotel. The hotel cancelled the booking while Mr Y was on his way, and he needed to wait at the hotel. The Council booked Mr Y into another hotel with a lowered bath. Mrs X says Mr Y had to pay for another taxi trip to the new accommodation costing £50 and asked the Council to refund it. Officers told Mr Y to submit a complaint and it would consider whether to reimburse him under its complaints compensation policy.
  10. Mr Y remained at the hotel until 21 May 2021 as the Council could extend the booking. Mr Y had a meals delivery service and permitted a fridge and microwave in his room.
  11. An OT assessed Mr Y during May 2021 to support his application for re-housing. This was because Mr Y was living in unsuitable accommodation as his medical condition impacted on his physical abilities.
  12. The Council accepted a main housing duty towards Mr Y in May 2021 as the relief duty ended. It wrote to Mr Y to advise it had a duty to take reasonable steps over the next 56 days to help him secure accommodation. The Council said he was eligible for assistance as homeless, in priority need and not intentionally homeless. The Council told Mr Y it discharged the duty by securing him accommodation at the hotel. It said Mr Y had the right of review on the decision and with the offer of accommodation provided to him.
  13. The Council found the hotel had limited availability after 21 May 2021 so booked Mr Y into a different hotel. The Council extended Mr Y’s stay there until 4 June 2021. The agency worker contacted the Council as Mr Y was concerned about being placed out of the county for his next accommodation as he would be unable to receive support. The Council advised the worker there was no accommodation available in Cornwall (due to the G7 summit) so booked Mr Y into a hotel out of the area until 8 June 2021. The agency worker reminded the Council Mr Y wanted to stay in the town he previously lived as it was familiar to him, and he had support there. The worker asked the Council to pay Mr Y’s train fare to the hotel and for Mr Y’s £50 taxi fare from a previous move.
  14. Mrs X complained to the Council about Mr Y’s need to move hotels and it failed to book rooms for him in advance.
  15. The Council recorded Mr Y as staying with relatives in London so cancelled the hotel booking out of the area. The agency worker asked the Council to pay for Mr Y’s train fare and considered it unreasonable to expect relatives to care for him. An officer offered to rebook accommodation more locally but there was no availability at the hotel just cancelled. The Council booked Mr Y into a hotel for one night in a wheelchair accessible room but is unclear if it had a lowered bath.
  16. The Council moved Mr Y to a different hotel for 9 to 11 June 2021 to a wheelchair accessible room. The Council says it is uncertain if it had a lowered bath. An OT carried out a further assessment on Mr Y, concluded no further action was need and closed the case.
  17. The Council advised Mr Y of his hotel bookings from 14 June to 8 July 2021 and all rooms had a lowered bath. The agency worker told the Council Mr Y was no longer seeking a refund for his transport costs. But Mr Y decided to ask the Council again to refund his costs. The Council told Mr Y it would not refund his costs as it did not have a duty to do so.
  18. The Council told Mr Y his placements from 8 July 2021 to 2 September 2021. These were wheelchair accessible rooms with a lowered bath.
  19. The Council responded to Mrs X’s complaint in July 2021 and did not uphold her concerns. It explained about temporary accommodation. It said it had to move Mr Y due to the temporary nature of temporary housing and the general shortage of housing in the county. The Council apologised as it was aware it could be unsettling having to move. But its HPE team regularly reviewed the placements of all those it was working with and tried hard to meet the individual needs of each person it supported.
  20. The Council explained it could only book rooms for the time showing as available on a website. The Council often telephoned hotels to confirm the available dates and to ask for an extension to the booking. But hotel staff refer officers to the website and for availability. The Council said it was outside its control and as frustrating for it as much as those it is supporting.
  21. Mrs X again asked the Council to refund Mr Y’s transport costs. The Council responded in August 2021 it had duty to provide emergency or temporary accommodation according to relevant legislation. The duty does not support personal care, transportation, or meal provision. So, it had no duty to assist households who were homeless with travel costs. The Council referred Mr Y to Social Services again to see if he needed adult social care support.
  22. An Adult social care officer contacted Mr Y who confirmed he could manage all his personal care although struggling with meals. Mr Y said he had been given meals but need facilities to heat them up. These were not available. Mr Y agreed to consider if he wanted a meal delivery service again if available.
  23. The officer reported back to HPE it was not supplying Mr Y with meals, but this was the same for all households in temporary accommodation. An officer noted the Council had over 500 households in temporary accommodation, so the team were working ‘flat out every day’ to arrange accommodation and re-bookings.
  24. On 1 September 2021 the Council told Mr Y it arranged his next placement from 2 to 5 September 2021. This was at a hotel with an accessible wet room as it could not find accommodation with a lowered bath in the county. The hotel contacted the Council on 2 September 2021 to report Mr Y had not arrived as his current hotel had a cancellation and let him stay another night. The Council was then charged for both hotel rooms for one night. Mr Y moved to the new hotel placement until 5 September 2021 into a wheelchair accessible room with a lowered bath.
  25. The Council moved Mr Y to a hotel between 5 to 9 September 2021. The Council offered Mr Y a placement outside the county as it found no wheelchair accessible rooms in Cornwall. Mr Y refused the placement and the agency worker said they would support Mr Y to go and stay with family or friends. The Council booked Mr Y into wheelchair accessible rooms with a lowered bath from 12 September to 15 October 2021.
  26. In September 2021 the Council placed an assisted bid for Mr Y on a property listed on Homechoice. This was because it noted Mr Y had not placed any bids for properties despite being band A. The agency worker said Mr Y did not require any assisted bids because they and Mr Y were checking available properties each week but there was nothing suitable. Mr Y only wanted to accept a disabled adaptation in the town he previously lived. The Council advised that Mr Y should bid for properties, and it would help with adaptations if a property was identified that could be made accessible for his needs.
  27. The Council told Mr Y of his placements at a hotel until 18 December 2021 at a hotel with a wheelchair accessible room with a lowered bath. Mr Y made a referral to Adult Social Care in October 2021. Mr Y reported he was homeless, in a wheelchair and living in hotel. A social worker reported Mr Y would need a home with adaptations and possibly a carer, he was working with an agency support coordinator and had support from another organisation. The social worker said the Council would carry out a reassessment once it found a property for him. The support organisation was also helping Mr Y with his housing application.
  28. The Council found a possible property for Mr Y in December 2021. An OT planned to visit the property to see if it would be suitable for Mr Y with adaptations. The agency worker told the Council the property was unsuitable for Mr Y due to its location. Mr Y did not bid for the property because of this. The OT did not visit the property and the Council did not pursue the option further.
  29. The Council placed Mr Y in a hotel placement up to 16 February 2022. The Council confirmed the room was wheelchair accessible with a lowered bath.

The Council’s comments on the complaint

  1. The Council confirms it applied the homeless legislation in Mr Y’s case. It accepted a main housing duty towards him and continued to provide temporary accommodation on that basis. The Council issued Mr Y with a personalised housing plan, and says it is his responsibility to take reasonable steps set out to resolve his homelessness. The Council awarded Mr Y band A on Homechoice because it cannot provide more suitable temporary accommodation. It has offered to help Mr Y with assisted bidding, but this has been refused.
  2. The Council is preparing to launch a targeted move-on project group and will ensure Mr Y’s case is prioritised for more intense work to try and resolve his homelessness.
  3. The Council confirms its temporary accommodation placements for Mr Y have been purely based on the availability of emergency accommodation that has a lowered bath. And it was aware of Mr Y’s need. But on some occasions, it was not possible to identify any available accommodation that met the specific requirement. The offers it has made have been the most suitable within what has been available.
  4. The Council accepts the frequent moves within non-commissioned emergency accommodation is not satisfactory. But it is taking steps to reduce the number of moves wherever possible by advance booking Mr Y’s accommodation when it can. It will try to keep ahead of re-bookings to try and avoid a situation where it is unable to book accommodation with a lowered bath. But says it had been difficult to do so at times of high demand especially as the Council has experienced issues recruiting staff.
  5. The Council confirms that most of Mr Y’s placements had a lowered bath, but no laundry facilities. The Council does not normally provide such facilities and it refers customers to other agencies to provide support with aspects of everyday living. The Council confirms it referred Mr Y to the agency to support him.
  6. The Council says it will help with requests for assistance to get to emergency accommodation when people need to travel unreasonable distances to get to the available accommodation. Or if a customer cannot organise and cover the costs of transport themselves for any other reason. The Council considers it has not addressed this with Mr Y due to being overwhelmed with work.
  7. The Council proposes to offer Mr Y compensation to resolve his concerns:
    • The expenses Mr Y incurred for the £50 taxi journey to a hotel that was double booked and the £490 hotel charges he paid in September 2021 when there was no other accommodation available to him. It will refund £102 for the train ticket to Mrs X’s home. The Council confirms Mr Y has made it aware of these costs and provided receipts. But if the amounts it proposes to reimburse do not include the costs Mr Y believes he is owed then it will need clarification on these and to see receipts or invoices for any other expenses.
    • Pay Mr Y £250 for the service failings regarding the temporary accommodation offered to him.
    • Pay Mr Y £500 for his distress and inconvenience.

My assessment

  1. The evidence provided shows the Council worked with Mr Y under its prevention duty when he applied as homeless. The Council’s prevention duty ended when Mr Y became homeless in March 2021. The Council secured interim accommodation at a hotel for Mr Y under its relief duty. Mr Y had been told previously the accommodation was likely to be hotel accommodation.
  2. The Council has agreed to refund Mr Y £50 for a taxi journey to the first hotel he was booked into when the booking was cancelled. It is unfortunate the hotel cancelled the booking. The Council could book Mr Y into a different hotel. But Mr Y was put to the expense of the taxi fare. So, I consider the Council’s offer to refund this tax fee to be suitable action for it to take and was an outcome Mr Y was seeking. I do not consider I can achieve anything more for Mr Y on this issue.
  3. The documents show the Council provided Mr Y with wheelchair accessible hotel accommodation and a lowered bath during this time. This was from March to May 2021 and the Council provided the best accommodation available for his needs. The Council then accepted the main housing duty towards Mr Y in May 2021. The evidence provided shows the Council dealt with each stage of the homelessness duty according to the statutory timescales. There is no evidence of fault by the Council in the way it dealt with Mr Y’s homelessness application up to accepting the main housing duty.
  4. Once the Council accepted the main housing duty Mr Y had the right of appeal about the suitability of the temporary accommodation he was offered. This would firstly be to the Council for a review and then an appeal to the courts. Mr Y’s complaint is fundamentally about the suitability of accommodation he was offered and that he was constantly moved to different hotels. I consider it reasonable to expect Mr Y to use his right of appeal available from May 2021. This is because the courts can decide on the suitability of the accommodation offered to Mr Y and if unsuitable, can ensure the Council offers Mr Y more appropriate accommodation.
  5. As I would expect Mr Y to use his right of appeal on this issue, I do not intend to consider his concerns on the suitability of the temporary accommodation he was offered from that date. However, the Council does have a duty to provide suitable temporary accommodation and should be keeping this under review in Mr Y’s case.
  6. The Council has offered to reimburse Mr Y £490 for the cost of a hotel and £102 for a train ticket. It has said that if Mr Y considers there are any other costs it should reimburse then it will need clarification on this and evidence of receipts or invoices. It will be for the Council to decide if it wishes to refund any additional costs to Mr Y. In addition, the Council has offered Mr Y £250 for service failures regarding temporary accommodation and £500 for his distress and inconvenience. As the Council’s offer goes to the suitability of Mr Y’s accommodation after May 2021 and I am not investigating Mr Y’s concerns due to his right of appeal, I cannot say whether the offer is a reasonable one. However, Mr Y may wish to accept the offer.
  7. The Council’s documents show that it gave Mr Y a high priority housing banding – band A so he could bid for properties on Homechoice. Mr Y should continue to do so to secure more permanent suitable accommodation. The Council has offered to help Mr Y by placing assisted bids.
  8. Mrs X and Mr Y have expressed concerns about the suitability of a property the Council offered Mr Y in December 2021. Mr Y did not consider it suitable due to its location. The Council has not pursued the offer further with Mr Y. However, should the Council make another offer of accommodation and Mr Y does not consider it suitable, he can ask for a review of the offer. Mr Y also has the right of appeal to the court again about the suitability. I would again expect Mr Y to use his appeal rights on this issue.

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Final decision

  1. I am completing my investigation. I have found no evidence of fault by the Council in the way it responded when Mr Y became homeless to May 2021 when it accepted a main housing duty to him. It would be reasonable for Mr Y to exercise his right of review of the suitability of the temporary accommodation offered after that date.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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