The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council was at fault for communication failings when the complainant first enquired and then sort to progress an application for an Empty Property Grant (EPG). However this fault did not cause injustice. This is because the Council later clarified what information the complainant needed to supply to progress his EPG application. There is not enough evidence to show he has been in a position to provide that subsequently. So the communication failings did not lead to non-payment of the EPG and a lack of rental income as he suggests.
- The complainant, whom I have called, ‘Mr B’, complained at the progress of an application he made to the Council for an Empty Property Grant (EPG). He complained of delay, poor communications and inconsistent responses from the Council. He says this led to delay in work completing and a loss of rent.
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’. We provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we believe:
- it is unlikely we would find fault, or
- the fault has not caused injustice to the person who complained, or
- the injustice is not significant enough to justify our involvement, or
- it is unlikely we could add to any previous investigation by the Council.
(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6))
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, she can complete her investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i))
How I considered this complaint
- Before completing my investigation and issuing this decision statement I considered:
- Mr B’s complaint to this office made by telephone in June 2016 and information provided by him in later emails and a telephone conversation;
- correspondence between Mr B and the Council setting out his complaint and the Council’s reply;
- information provided by the Council in reply to enquiries; including details of relevant policy (referred to below).
- I also sent a draft decision statement setting out my thinking about the complaint to both Mr B and the Council for comment. Mr B provided detailed comments and submissions which I considered, amending this final decision as necessary. The Council said it had no further comments it wanted to make.
What I found
- I found the Council first approached Mr B in March 2014 about an empty two bedroom property he owns in its area. The Council cannot provide much detail about this first contact. But Mr B said its officer advised him he might be eligible for help towards renovating or repairing his property under an Empty Property Grant (EPG) scheme.
- I noted that after this first contact, the Council had no record of contact for four months although Mr B provides evidence it visited him in that time.
- The Council says it could not progress any enquiry from Mr B for an EPG until July 2014. This was because it was only then it could accept Mr B as a potential recipient. This was because a limited number of landlords could apply for funds and there was no potential funding for Mr B. But by July 2014 some of these other landlords had dropped out of the scheme. This was due to delays by the Greater London Authority (GLA) in confirming what extra funding it would provide in addition to the Council scheme.
- I noted there were no contemporary records to support this account. Mr B told me he did not know what happened to his enquiry during those first months and I found no evidence to contradict this.
- I consider the poor communication and record keeping by the Council for this period justifies a finding of fault.
- However, I do not find the fault caused injustice to Mr B. First, because there is no evidence to contradict the Council’s account of events. This means I have no reason to find Mr B could have progressed an EPG application before July 2014 in any event.
- Second, I did not find Mr B disadvantaged by the Council’s actions. I explain below why I consider Mr B has not received an EPG. But I do not find poor communications by the Council were to blame.
Events between July 2014 and December 2014
- In July 2014 the Council received a survey from Mr B. It set out in general terms the work needed to his property. The Council says that within four weeks of receipt its officer advised Mr B the survey was unacceptable, because it lacked detail. However, Mr B provides emails suggesting the advice he received was more ambiguous. The officer expressed concern at the survey but considered it enough for Mr B to obtain building quotes.
- Mr B gave two quotes from contractors to the Council in October 2014. These were again general in description of work needed. The Council said they were unacceptable because they did not comply with its required standard to award an EPG.
- The Council then says Mr B was back in contact around December 2014 wanting to know how his application was progressing. It would appear the Council had no application form from Mr B, only the quotes referred to above. Its notes suggest it sought to reassure Mr B that it could still progress and application. But I found there was again a lack of detail which set out the Council’s view.
- So the Council does not persuade me that Mr B knew what it expected of him by the end of 2014. I note that in January 2015 Mr B received a copy of the EPG application form which contains notes specifying what quotes should contain. But there is no record he received this during 2014. It is also not clear what explanation the Council gave to Mr B at the time about the detail of the quotes he presented or why they needed improving. I accept that in December 2014 Mr B did not know why the information he provided to the Council was unacceptable.
- I considered therefore the Council was further at fault in its communications. However, I again found this did not significantly disadvantage Mr B. This was because of events that followed in 2015, which I address below.
- I also considered the extent to which events between July and December 2014 reflected the Council’s policy on awarding EPGs, set out in its Private Sector Housing Renewal Policy. This sets out several ways in which empty properties in private ownership might be improved in the Borough; including by using EPGs.
- I considered the Policy implied officers might have more involvement in compiling schedules of works needed to empty homes. The advice cross refers to an appendix which states the Council will carry out a home survey to “assess the condition of the property and establish the nature and extent of works required”. The same annex says one of its officers will then “prepare a schedule of works”.
- The Council says that in practice it does not apply this policy to EPGs. Instead the advice in the appendix refers only to when it receives applications for Disabled Facilities Grants. It said that other EPG applicants understood this. It further explained that it did not want to assume responsibility to act as a clerk of works for any individual landlord. I accepted this was how the Council applied policy and had received no challenges about this previously. But even so I felt the policy document unclear and needed improvement.
- However, I could not say that any injustice arose. This was because I did not find any failure in policy led to Mr B had not receiving an EPG. As I go on to explain below the delay in Mr B providing what the Council considered a suitable schedule of works was not fatal to his chances of securing an EPG.
Events between January and March 2015
- From January 2015 there was an increase in the email between Mr B and relevant Council officers about his EPG application. I found the Council worked with Mr B to make him aware of the standard of quote needed and signposted him to contractors who might help. Both Mr B and the Council were aware work needed to complete by end of March 2015 for Mr B to receive GLA funding, which was additional to the Council grant. Mr B told the Council in mid-January 2015 that his builders ‘are quite happy to work within the timescale’. I found the Council told Mr B he could start work at his own risk to try and meet that deadline. By mid-February 2015 the Council had received a satisfactory schedule of works.
- I considered that after January 2015 the onus was therefore on to Mr B to provide the information needed by the Council. He knew he must complete the work in a set timescale to receive the GLA grant and he said he was comfortable with that. The communications by the Council in this period did not point towards fault. Further, I noted it was the Council who reverted to Mr B at the end of March to see if it could agree the grant works.
- I also found Mr B failed to complete the necessary application form before April 2015, despite the Council providing this in January 2015. The notes with that form clearly explained what information an applicant needed to provide to succeed with a grant application. In particular the need to provide invoices for work completed.
- So there was no fault in the Council’s communications post-January 2015. Their effect also cancelled out any injustice arising from the poor communications in 2014. Because Mr B knew what he needed to provide the Council to receive an EPG and what deadline he needed to comply with to receive GLA funding as well as the EPG.
Events from April 2015 onward
- By April 2015 there was no longer any GLA funding available additional to any EPG. However the Council kept its own EPG scheme. This potentially entitled Mr B to up to 50% of the cost of works to improve his property up to a maximum figure of £20,000. This was in return for Mr B leasing his property to the Council for a maximum of five years rental. The rent would also match housing benefit maximum awards (always a condition for the EPG award). All of this was explained to Mr B with the application form sent to him in January 2015.
- But in addition, an email the Council sent Mr B in late April 2015 suggested it might make an exception to policy and award a higher EPG in return for a longer lease agreement. This might make up for the lost GLA funding which Mr B could no longer benefit from.
- The Council has explained that remains the position today. But since May 2015 Mr B has not wanted to commit to a lease agreement conditional for an EPG. In May 2015 he suggested the Council offer was poor value, pointing out the higher rents available in the private sector. In addition, in November 2015 it became clear work had not completed on the house when the Council undertook a visit, although Mr B says the remaining work needed is relatively minor. Mr B has also not supplied receipts for work undertaken. The Council says for all these reasons it has not been in a position to pay him an EPG.
- I find no fault in the Council’s actions since April 2015. I accept comments made by Mr B that the Council did not answer all his emails and it might have visited him again before November 2015. Also I note his comments that its complaint handling might have been better. But I am satisfied the reasons Mr B has not received an EPG, which is the issue at the crux of his complaint, are as follows. First, his reluctance to agree to the Council’s terms which have not fundamentally changed since the beginning of events covered by the complaint. Second, because Mr B cannot provide the reasonable information requested by the Council to progress an EPG award.
- I consider it was Mr B’s choice to withdraw from the EPG scheme rather than any fault by the Council (such as delay) leading to him not receiving a grant. In these circumstances I cannot find Mr B has lost out on rent or suffered any other financial loss due to the Council. I accept Mr B is in the same position as he was at the beginning of the events covered by the complaint. He is not in a position to pay for all the works needed to restore his property to rental condition. I understand it must be source of frustration to Mr B that he has received no rent in that time. But I cannot find the Council to blame for this. I see nothing to stop Mr B contacting the Council should he want to explore again whether he can receive an EPG.
- Mr B has suggested that he feels misled over the GLA funding, believing that would be available to him after April 2015. I recognise that if read alone some of the Council’s communications after this time might cause confusion as they refer to ‘grant’ money. They do not distinguish between the EPG and GLA funding. But several emails the Council sent Mr B in early 2015 made clear the time-limited nature of the GLA funds. So the Council did not mislead Mr B on this point.
- For the reasons set out above I have decided to complete my investigation. In summary I have found some evidence of fault by the Council in its communications between March and December 2014. However, I do not find injustice arose from those failings or else any injustice was remedied by the Council’s actions from January 2015 onward. In particular I make no finding that Mr B has failed to obtain an EPG, in whole or in part, or otherwise lost money due to Council fault.
Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman