London Borough of Lewisham (16 008 049)

Category : Housing > Private housing

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 10 Feb 2017

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: There was fault in the way the Council handled Mr X’s application for a home repairs grant and loan. There were delays, some lack of clarity in communicating with Mr X and lack of adequate records. But the Ombudsman does not find that this meant Mr X had no option but to cancel the works and sell his property. The Council has offered a suitable remedy.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, referred to here as Mr X, complained that the Council has failed to provide a satisfactory response to his complaint about the way it dealt with works to be carried out under a home improvement grant and loan.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. The Ombudsman investigates complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. The Ombudsman cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. She must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1), 26A(1) and 34(3))
  2. She 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, she may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1))
  3. If the Ombudsman is 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))

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I discussed the complaint with Mr X and considered the information he provided. I considered the information the Council provided in response to my enquiries. I considered the Council’s home improvement and repairs grants scheme.

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What I found

  1. The Council may offer a home repairs loan to a person who:
    • lives in a property they own or where they hold a mortgage
    • has a member of the household who is aged 60 or over, or has a disability or serious long-term illness
    • is on a low income, assessed by a means test.
  2. The loan is bring the property up to a decent home standard and can include work to:
    • remedy serious disrepair to roofs, walls, windows and doors
    • renew kitchens that are old and in poor repair or where food cannot be prepared safely
    • deal with hazards which present a serious risk to health.
  3. If it the Council approves the application it will offer £3,000 as a grant and up to £27,000 as a loan secured against the property. The loan agreement will include charges such as fees for legal costs and Land Registry charges. If someone decides to withdraw an application before the Council approves a grant or loan it will not charge these fees.

What happened

  1. Mr X is on a low income and has mobility problems and asthma. He lived in a flat he owned in a converted property of four flats. He used the loft space which had been converted 20 to 30 years ago as his bedroom. In October 2014 he applied to the Council for a home repairs grant. He said this was for works to the “roof, floor in loft and illegal waste from loft”.
  2. The Council told him there was a three-month wait for inspections and he was at number 15 on the waiting list. In December 2014 after Mr X made a further enquiry, the Council again told him about the waiting list and said the inspection was likely to take place in January 2015.
  3. Officer 1 carried out the inspection in mid-February 2015, after some difficulties on both sides in arranging an appointment in January. Officer 1 agreed rewiring work and an overhaul of rear windows. He did not agree work to the loft as he said the conversion did not appear to comply with current building regulation and planning control standards. He asked Mr X to provide certificates showing compliance, but Mr X did not know if this would be possible as the loft had been converted before these standards applied.
  4. Mr X was not happy with the outcome of the inspection. He complained about Officer 1 and asked for a second inspection.
  5. During March 2015 further inspections took place by two other surveyors, Officers 2 and 3. As a result, the Council agreed to include basic rewiring in the loft and a kitchen replacement in the scheduled works. Mr X wrote to the Council to say he also wanted to add work to the windows at the front of the property where there were gaps around the windows that needed filling. He said Officer 1 had confirmed the wood was sound and thought the gaps could be filled from the inside. Mr X says Officer 3 also agreed that work to the waste pipes in the loft could be included.
  6. In April 2015 the Council put the works out to tender. The specification covered rewiring (including sockets and a lighting point in the loft), a replacement kitchen, and overhaul of windows in the bathroom, kitchen and rear bedroom. The Council accepted a tender at the end of May 2015.
  7. During August 2015 there was further email correspondence between Mr X and the Council about providing certificates for the loft conversion. In September Mr X wrote to the Council to say he had rain water pouring in through his front living room windows. He said he wanted the Council to schedule repair work to these windows as soon as possible. The Council replied explaining that it could not schedule any works until it had approved the grant and loan. It said the application was still going through this process. It advised that home repair loans and grants were not intended for emergencies but he could get the windows repaired at his own expense in the meantime.
  8. Shortly afterwards the Council wrote to Mr X to say the grant and loan would not cover work to the waste pipe in the loft.
  9. The Council approved the grant and loan in early December 2015. In January 2016 Officer 1 wrote to Mr X to say that the contractor would like to arrange a meeting so they could start the works. He explained that although Mr X did not wish him to be involved, the previous surveyors had left the Council and no-one else was available to supervise the works. Alternatively Officer 1 suggested Mr X could take over the work of overseeing the building works himself. He said as most of the organisation have been done this should not be too difficult. There was further correspondence during January 2016 between Mr X and Officer 1’s manager, Officer 4. Mr X referred to the poor condition of the front living room windows and Officer 2’s previous agreement to include relocating the waste pipe in the loft and rewiring of the loft.
  10. Officer 4 looked into these matters and discussed with the previous surveyors what they had agreed. He wrote to Mr X to confirm they had agreed the basic rewiring work in the loft as set out in the schedule (two sockets and a lighting point). However he said the Council was approving this as a safety measure for use of the loft as a storage space. Officer 4 confirmed the Council’s position that it would not fund other works to the loft to use as a habitable space as it did not conform to building regulations. He advised that Mr X could seek retrospective approval. Officer 4 proposed a pre-start meeting at the property with the contractors in early March, noting that Mr X was out of the country receiving medical treatment until then.
  11. At the end of January 2016 Officer 4 also responded to a formal complaint Mr X had made about delays in the process and about the conduct of Officer 1. He set out the history of the application and inspection process and the works the grant/loan had been approved for. Regarding the complaint about delays he said it was normal for there to be some delay after approval of the grant and loan because the Council had to go through a legal process and register the loan with the Land Registry. He said:

“Whilst I recognise that this has taken some time, given the procedures we have to adhere to as it is a legal process, and the checks we have to make for the prevention of fraud, together with existing staffing levels and long term sickness, I am happy with the time this grant/loan has taken to process given the amount of work this section has ongoing.”

  1. In the response Officer 4 acknowledged the differences in views between Mr X and Officer 1 but said in his view the officer was correct about the scope of the works that could be undertaken under the grant and loan.
  2. After further exchanges of emails between Mr X and the Council during early February 2016 Mr X agreed to a site meeting on 4 March 2016 with the contractors to discuss starting the works.
  3. On 22 February 2016 Mr X wrote to the Council to say:

“On reflection given the distress caused to date by your restructuring I have now decided not to go ahead with the proposed work. I would now expect the charging order to be removed from my property and given the time taken not charged for this”

  1. After further correspondence the Council agreed to remove the charging order from the property and cover the £226 fee it would normally charge the applicant for this. It also waived the charges it would usually make for cancelling works at this stage of the process. The Council says these fees would have been over £700.
  2. Mr X was not satisfied with the response to his complaint received at the end of January 2016 and asked to take the complaint to the next stage. He said he had now had to leave his property for health reasons and wanted compensation from the Council.
  3. The Council provided a detailed response to the complaint on 9 June 2016. The Council said it expected to complete loan applications within 12 months after the means testing. It acknowledged the process had taken longer in this case and apologised for this. It said this was partly because of the number of different surveyors involved and people involved in making appointments. It said the Council had changed procedures to improve the process of making appointments and introduced a new monitoring system to try and reduce delays and ensure applicants are kept up to date on progress. It also apologised for the delay in responding to Mr X’s request to waive the fee. Its view was that this was sufficient compensation but said if Mr X was not happy with the response he could raise a formal stage 1 complaint.
  4. There was further correspondence as Mr X was not happy with his response. In an email on 15 June 2016 the Council said the site meeting on 4 March would have considered if additional works to the front windows were needed and could be included in the grant works. It said it estimated that the works would have been completed in a further four to six weeks after the meeting. Mr X said he had had to leave the property as it was affecting his health because of water pouring in through the front room windows. He asked for the complaint to go to stage 3, an Independent Adjudicator. He said he should not have to start a new complaint at stage 1. In the course of this correspondence the Council said it had not seen anything to show that it had discussed work to the front windows.
  5. The Independent Adjudicator considered the complaint at stage 3. Mr X said officers had agreed the works he wanted done in early February 2015, including work to the loft, without needing any certificates, and repairs to the front windows. He said that because of the delays his health had been affected by water coming in through his front windows and damp in the loft where he slept. He said this caused him to move out of the home had had lived in for over 25 years. He wanted compensation.
  6. The Adjudicator’s conclusions were as follows.
    • The Council took the key steps to progress the grant application appropriately, but this took a long time, well past the 12 months the Council expected.
    • Any problem with leaking windows was not a result of fault by the Council. If they were in such a poor condition he could reasonably have included them in the initial application or mentioned them in the first survey. Alternatively as the home owner he could have prevented any further deterioration in the windows by carrying out the repairs himself. The site meeting due to take place in March 2016 might have dealt with the question of the front windows.
    • The works might have been finished by the end of 2015 if the grant had been approved by October 2015 (12 months from the application date). But it was not possible to say that the works would have included everything Mr X wanted.
    • The remedy the Council had agreed by waiving the fees was reasonable.
  7. When Mr X complained to the Ombudsman he said he was not satisfied with the Council’s response as it had not recognised that he had had to move out of his property because of the failings in the way it had handled the grant process. In his view the works would have been completed by the end of 2015 without the changes in personnel and if officers had handed over the case properly at each stage. He did not consider that waiving the fees was a sufficient remedy for the distress he suffered.

Analysis

  1. The Council has examined Mr X’s complaint in detail. It has accepted some fault and offered a remedy. I have considered whether there is any further fault that the Council has not recognised so far and whether the remedy is sufficient.
  2. The Council has not disputed the Independent Adjudicator’s conclusion that the works might have been completed by the end of 2015 without the delays on its part, as Mr X says.
  3. There were also some delays which were not a result of fault by the Council. Some delay was caused by Mr X cancelling a meeting and asking for further surveys when he was not happy with the first. This was of some benefit to him as it resulted in the addition of a replacement kitchen to the works.
  4. There was also delay towards the end of the period when Mr X was abroad and not able to attend a site meeting.
  5. Part of the delay in agreeing the scope of the works occurred because the loft was an unregulated conversion. This meant the Council needed to look into the issue and advise Mr X. While Mr X says it was only Officer 1 who raised this as a problem, it is not a question of fault if there were differing opinions by different surveyors. Different professionals may take different views. In any event the Council warned Mr X about the problem in the first inspection and subsequently confirmed its position.
  6. However I consider there were other faults by the Council. It is not clear from the evidence provided whether the work to the windows to the front of the property was agreed by the Council in February/March 2015 or not. Mr X says Officer 2 approved it. There is no written record that it was agreed at the time. The lack of a written record and handover notes from one surveyor to the next added to the delay in dealing with this issue. It meant that Officer 4 had to go back and check with former colleagues what had been discussed. It caused confusion and frustration for Mr X when he believed items had been agreed, only to be told later that this was not the case.
  7. There was also some fault by the Council in dealing with Mr X’s complaint. The complaint response in June 2016 was late, and the Council should not have told Mr X to start his complaint again at stage 1 if he was not happy with outcome.
  8. However I do not accept that Mr X’s decision to cancel the works, move out of his home and sell his flat was a direct consequence of fault by Council. He told the Ombudsman he made his decision because the damp in his property was affecting his health. Also he did not feel he could go ahead with the site meeting arranged for early March 2016 if Officer 1 was going to be involved, given the difficulties he had experienced in their past relationship.
  9. The fact that Mr X’s application did not include repairs to the front window, as well as the advice he says Officer 1 gave him about these windows, indicate that the windows were not in a serious state of disrepair when he first approached the Council about a grant. He says water started pouring in through the front living room windows in August 2015. At that point the loan application was still going through the necessary legal process. Even if the delay in arranging the first inspection had not occurred, it is unlikely the works would have been completed by this time. The Council made it clear to Mr X he would be responsible for any emergency repairs.
  10. At the point when Mr X withdrew his application it was likely the works would have been completed in a further month or two. If the front windows were in as poor a condition by this time as Mr X says they were, it is likely the repair work would have been agreed. I do not consider that Mr X’s decision to sell his flat was a necessary consequence of the previous faults by the Council. Within four to six weeks his home was likely to have been brought up to the decent homes standard. I appreciate that he was frustrated by the way the Council had handled matters and that he had health problems, but it was his choice to sell up at that point.

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Agreed action

  1. The Council would have been entitled to charge Mr X fees in connection with his application since he withdrew it after the Council had approved the loan. The Council has already offered to write off these charges, amounting to over £900. As I find that not all the delay was of the Council’s making and that Mr X’s decision to cancel the work when he did was not a necessary consequence of fault by the Council, my view is that this is an adequate remedy for the effect of the delays.
  2. The Council has also explained the procedural changes it has made to improve its service.
  3. In addition the Council has agreed to pay Mr X £150 to recognise the frustration caused by its failure to be clear about what it had agreed at each stage, and his time and trouble in making his complaint.

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Final decision

There were some delays, poor record-keeping and lack of clarity by the Council in dealing with Mr X’s application for a home repairs grant and loan. I am satisfied with the action the Council has taken to remedy the injustice caused to Mr X and so I have completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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