Preston City Council (19 012 480)

Category : Housing > Private housing

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 10 Jul 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: There was no fault in the Council’s response to reports of maintenance problems and leaks at a privately-rented flat. There was some fault in the Council’s complaint-handling, but this did not cause a significant injustice and does not warrant a remedy. The Ombudsman has therefore completed his investigation.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, to whom I will refer as Ms B, says the Council failed to properly respond to her reports of leaks, vermin, the accumulation of rubbish, and broken door locks, at her privately-rented flat, nor deal with anti-social behaviour she suffered from another tenant.
  2. Ms B also complains she was subject to “illegal evictions” without intervention by the Council.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated the matters described at paragraph 1. I have not investigated the matters described at paragraph 2, for reasons I will set out at the end of this decision statement.

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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 reviewed Ms B’s correspondence with the Council, the Council’s case notes, and a statement written by the Council officer leading the investigation into Ms B’s reports.
  2. I also sent a draft copy of this decision to each party for their comments.

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What I found

  1. In August 2018, the Council referred Ms B to a local charitable housing association (HA). The HA let a flat to Ms B, in a building which it leased from a private owner.
  2. In February 2019, Ms B complained to the Council the building’s front door was not secure, and there had been an accumulation of rubbish in the building’s communal areas. A member of the Council’s housing standards team, Officer Y, referred the matter to the HA, which confirmed it would respond. Officer Y says he visited the building on 20 February and found the door secure.
  3. In May, Ms B reported again the front door lock was broken, and that her flat had suffered a leak from the flat upstairs. Officer Y contacted the HA again, which said it would investigate both issues. The HA also advised Officer Y that Ms B and the upstairs tenant were involved in an ongoing dispute, which had led to police intervention on several occasions.
  4. Shortly afterwards, the HA’s repair coordinator contacted Officer Y. He advised there was a leak from the washing machine in the upstairs flat, and he had isolated the machine and instructed the tenant to either repair or dispose of it. He had then spoken to Ms B, and confirmed her flat would dry out quickly.
  5. Officer Y says he also spoke to the HA’s repairs manager. She explained a number of tenants at the building lived “chaotic” lifestyles, and would frequently mislay their keys and damage the front door to gain entry. She highlighted each flat had its own individual ‘external quality’ door, but confirmed the HA would again repair the front door lock and monitor the situation.
  6. The manager also explained Ms B had a duty to contact the HA, as landlord, with any maintenance issues. She said the HA had attempted to engage with Ms B several times without success, and the HA believed this was because Ms B had substantial rent arrears she did not wish to discuss.
  7. On 23 May, Ms B complained to the Council there were mice in the building. The Council visited on 20 June and laid bait and traps. It says it returned on 4 July, and, having found no evidence of a vermin problem, removed the equipment.
  8. On 20 July, Ms B submitted a formal complaint to the Council. She listed dozens of issues in her complaint, including (but not limited to) the repair and maintenance issues, vermin, anti-social behaviour by the upstairs tenant, and “revenge” by the landlord. She accused both the HA and the Council of being involved in fraud.
  9. Officer Y says he visited the building again on 22 July. He again noticed the door lock was broken, an accumulation of rubbish in the communal areas and some marks to the walls. However, Officer Y did not consider these issues reached the threshold for Council intervention under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS), and informed Ms B of this on 23 July.
  10. On 24 July, Officer Y says he received a “bizarre” email from Ms B, to which she had attached a graphic and obscene video clip which was not relevant to her complaint. Officer Y says he did not respond to this.
  11. The Council replied to Ms B’s complaint on 28 August. It apologised for the delay in replying, but said it had been explained to her that, of the issues she had raised, the only one which the Council’s housing standards team could help with was the broken door lock. The Council said Officer Y and the HA had dealt with this in July, although it noted there had been further problems since.
  12. On 17 September, Officer Y says he became aware of a new complaint from Ms B about a leak from the upstairs flat. He then established the HA had entered administration. Officer Y attempted to contact the firm’s administrators, but received no response.
  13. Officer Y visited the property again on 18 September. He attempted to visit the upstairs flat, but the tenant was aggressive and refused him entry. Officer Y visited Ms B’s flat, and noted signs of water ingress from the upstairs flat.
  14. Officer Y says he returned to the office and immediately registered a case with the local magistrates’ court, to obtain a warrant to force entry to the upstairs flat if necessary. He then returned to the property, and the tenant allowed entry to the flat. Officer Y noted there was damage to the shower unit, which was causing the leak to Ms B’s flat. He turned off the water and said he would return with the landlord. Officer Y says he spoke to Ms B as he left and confirmed the leak should now stop.
  15. On 19 September, having had no response from the administrators, Officer Y contacted the building’s owner. The owner agreed to look into the problems Ms B was experiencing. On 23 September, he reported to Officer Y he had been unable to gain access to the upstairs flat and had been threatened by the tenant.
  16. Ms B reported a further leak on 30 September. Officer Y then arranged to attend the upstairs flat with the police on 1 October, with a warrant to force entry. They entered the flat and found the water supply had been turned back on. An emergency plumber attended and removed the damaged shower.
  17. Officer Y subsequently contacted the owner and updated him on what had happened. The owner replied to say he was looking to evict Ms B for non-payment of rent.
  18. After receiving the Council’s response to her complaint on 28 August, Ms B sent a significant volume of follow-up correspondence. Having had no further formal complaint response from the Council, she referred the complaint to the Ombudsman on 24 October.
  19. On 26 October, Ms B contacted Officer Y again to complain about an area of mould, which appeared to result from the latent damp caused by the leak. Officer Y assessed it as minor and insufficient to trigger intervention by the Council under the HHSRS. However, he notified the owner of this.
  20. The Council sent Ms B a final complaint response on 27 November. It apologised for the delay in its response, but explained again how it had responded to the issue with the door locks, and also its pest control treatment. It reiterated its housing standards team could not intervene in the other matters Ms B had raised.

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Legislative background

  1. As a local housing authority, the Council may send an authorised officer to inspect residential premises at any reasonable time to assess whether there are any Category 1 or Category 2 hazards in a property. The authorised officer must notify the owner, the occupier and any person with a legal interest in the property of the inspection. The officer has a legal right to enter premises for the purposes of an inspection and does not require the owner’s consent.

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  1. In her complaints, both to the Council and to the Ombudsman, Ms B has raised a very wide range of issues. These include the matters described in the chronology I have provided, but she has also made a number of allegations about fraudulent behaviour, by the HA and the Council.
  2. Ms B has provided no evidence at all to support these allegations, nor any clear explanation for why she has made them. In any case, fraud is a criminal matter which is for the police, not the Ombudsman, to investigate. For this reason, I have not considered these allegations.
  3. On the other matters, I am satisfied the Council has responded effectively to Ms B.
  4. The Council has a legal duty to investigate and, if necessary, take action, where a problem with a residential property presents a possible danger to people. But not every issue represents a danger. The Council is not Ms B’s landlord, and so it is not responsible for general maintenance and hygiene in the property.
  5. In this case, the Council repeatedly referred the matter of the door lock to the HA, which in turn appears to have been responsive. Unfortunately, the building’s tenants continued to break the lock after the HA fixed it, but this is not a reason to find fault with the Council.
  6. Similarly, with the leak from the upstairs flat, I find no reason to criticise the Council. It made numerous visits to the premises, and, despite the tenant’s hostility, took effective action to enter the flat and stop the leak. It appears the tenant was unwilling to co-operate, and this meant the problem continued; but again, this is not due to fault by the Council.
  7. Ms B also complained about mould in her flat (as a result, it seems, of the leak) and an accumulation of rubbish in the communal areas of the building. In both cases, Officer Y assessed the evidence, and explained the issues were not sufficiently serious to trigger the Council’s involvement.
  8. I again find no fault here. As I have said, the Council has a duty to intervene where there is a potential hazard, but not every problem with a property will reach this threshold. The Council is not responsible for maintaining general standards of cleanliness, which is a matter for landlords (and/or their agents) or tenants to address, in accordance with their tenancy agreement.
  9. I am also satisfied with the Council’s response to Ms B’s reports of vermin. It attended and laid bait, but found no evidence of an infestation. It appears Ms B did not make any further reports of vermin after this date.
  10. Ms B has also complained the Council did not intervene to assist her with the anti-social behaviour (ASB) she was suffering because of the upstairs tenant.
  11. But, from the evidence available, it appears Ms B’s substantive reports were not about ASB, but instead about housing related issues – such as the door lock and the leak from upstairs. It was only in her formal complaint to the Council that she referred to matters which could be classed instead as ASB. So I do not fault the Council for approaching the matter using its housing powers, rather than its ASB powers.
  12. The Council has accepted its responses to Ms B’s complaints were delayed, quite significantly in the case of the second response. This is fault.
  13. I also note the Council’s responses do not address each individual issue Ms B had raised in her complaints.
  14. However, I must say it is very difficult to follow Ms B’s complaints. As I have said, she has listed numerous alleged issues with her flat, the building in general and the other tenant, but often without context or any clear explanation of what she is alleging has happened. This creates an obvious difficulty in providing a comprehensive and meaningful response, which I cannot overlook.
  15. In either case, it is clear Officer Y – in particular – had significant and ongoing contact with Ms B during the time of her complaint, which included numerous visits to the property. Officer Y also spoke to and updated Ms B on at least two of these visits.
  16. So I do not consider there is any significant injustice arising from the fault in the complaint responses. Ms B was evidently aware the Council was investigating, and taking action, on the issue of the door lock and leaks. And Officer Y explained why the Council could not become involved in the other matters. I do not see what was lost by the delay, or lack of detail, in the Council’s complaint responses.

Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation with a finding of fault which did not cause injustice.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. Ms B has also complained the Council did not take action on an alleged “illegal evictions” she suffered.
  2. It is not clear what Ms B means by this. I can see, from the Council’s information, the building’s owner said he was seeking to evict her because of her failure to pay rent. But evicting someone for not paying rent is not illegal.
  3. In any case, the owner told the Council he wished to evict Ms B in October. This was several months after Ms B first complained about being evicted. So it is clear this is not the eviction she was referring to.
  4. I note the Council says Ms B was housed in the property in August 2018, so any previous eviction Ms B suffered must have occurred before that date. This being the case, the Ombudsman would not investigate this matter, as it occurred more than 12 months before she made her complaint to the Ombudsman.
  5. For this reason, I have not investigated Ms B’s complaint about being evicted illegally.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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