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London Borough of Haringey (20 012 749)

Category : Housing > Private housing

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 16 Nov 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss B complains the Council did not deal properly with a disrepair problem. The Council is at fault because it delayed taking action to resolve Miss B’s problems and did not take account of two complaint letters. Miss B lived without a working boiler for over a year. The Council has agreed to pay Miss B £500 for avoidable distress and review how it handles communications.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Miss B, complains that the Council did not deal properly with a disrepair problem regarding her boiler for over a year and didn’t deal with her complaint properly.
  2. Miss B says she had no hot water or heating, incurred costs for alternative hot water as a result and had to complain to the Council several times.

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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)
  3. When considering complaints, if there is a conflict of evidence, we make findings based on the balance of probabilities. This means that we will weigh up the available relevant evidence and base our findings on what we think was more likely to have happened.

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I spoke to Miss B and considered the details of her complaint as well as the Council’s response. I reviewed documents sent by the Council and Miss B.
  2. Miss B 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

The Housing Act 2004

  1. Private tenants may complain to their council about a landlord’s failure to keep the property in good repair. Councils have powers under Part 1 of the Housing Act 2004 to take enforcement action against private landlords where the council has identified a hazard which puts the health and safety of the tenant at risk.
  2. When it receives a report of an alleged hazard, the Council should, as soon as possible, inspect the property to establish the severity of the hazard and what, if anything, to do about it.
  3. Councils must decide whether defects identified during the inspection are category 1 or category 2 hazards. Hazards are rated according to a formal scoring system in the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS). Hazards are scored to reflect:
    1. The class of harm the hazard is likely to cause, should an incident occur;
    2. The likelihood of an incident involving a member of a vulnerable group; and
    3. The spread of possible harms resulting from an incident.
  4. Councils have a legal duty to take action when they identify a Category 1 hazard. They have discretionary powers to deal with Category 2 hazards. The Act provides councils with a range of enforcement tools to address hazards. Statutory guidance on HHSRS enforcement says the service of an Improvement Notice is a possible response to a Category 1 or Category 2 hazard.
  5. Remedial works should, as a minimum, reduce Category 1 hazards to a low Category 2 hazard. The Council’s enforcement policy says officers must consider the level of work that is reasonable to reduce the hazard significantly without incurring excessive cost. The aim is to remove, or where that is not possible, mitigate Category 1 hazards which affect the health and safety of the occupier.
  6. The statutory guidance says that when the owner or landlord is willing to take the required action, it might be appropriate to wait before serving a notice unless the owner fails to start work within a reasonable time. The council must decide what is a reasonable time based on the particular facts in each case.

The Council’s Private Sector Housing Enforcement Policy

  1. Where property defects and evidence of poor management are identified, which are likely to significantly impact on health, the Council will take action. It will also take action where information is not provided or misleading information is given and when fraud is uncovered.
  2. A significant health impact is related to the existence of Category 1 hazards, statutory nuisances, management regulations breaches and other significant public health hazards.
  3. The Council will usually serve a statutory Notice or Order where Category 1 or multiple high category 2 hazards are found. Reasonable time will be given to complete the works if a notice is served.
  4. Appendix 1 list the enforcement options available to the Council, which include:
    • No Action
      1. where complaints or allegations of housing legislation breaches or statutory nuisances are of minor or low risk to health and the landlord has not been informed by the complainant, or allegations are unsubstantiated and unwitnessed.
      2. Formal action is inappropriate in the circumstances.
    • Advisory notices and letters
      1. Where conditions are evidenced to justify action and investigation and it is appropriate to give opportunity to landlords and tenants to make representations, provide information or effect change to meet compliance.
      2. No health impacts are present which poses a risk to health or nuisance.
    • Formal Notices or Orders
      1. defect/conditions presents a risk to health and/or a nuisance.
      2. There are previous failures of statutory requirements.
      3. Previous advisory notices/letters ignored or action was not taken in a timely manner or to the correct standard.
      4. The Council is legally required to serve a statutory notice.

What happened

  1. In January 2019, Miss B passed out at her daughter’s school and was referred to the Council.
  2. The Council contacted Miss B and her landlord. Miss B’s landlord said they would fix the boiler and provide a gas safety certificate.
  3. The Council closed the case in February, after recording no further contact from Miss B or her landlord.
  4. Miss B wrote to the Council in March 2019, asking about a property inspection and stating the problems were not resolved.
  5. In January 2020 a new boiler was installed in Miss B’s home. Miss B complained to the Council again that her boiler did not work and the Council arranged an inspection of the property.
  6. The Council identified some problems and requested Miss B’s landlord carry out some remedial works. The Council said it would visit again in February 2020.
  7. Miss B complained to the Council. Miss B received no response and involved her MP in August 2020. The Council began to investigate Miss B’s complaint. Miss B provided information to the Council and thew Council confirmed it would conduct another inspection of Miss B’s home to her MP.
  8. In November 2020, the Council completed an inspection under the Housing Act 2004. It identified problems and worked with the landlord to ensure the issues were satisfactorily resolved by March 2021.

Analysis

  1. When Miss B’s circumstances were first brought to the attention of the Council in January 2019, it did not complete an inspection of her home. Case notes show the Council relied on an apparent lack of further contact from Miss B as the rationale for closing the case, making an assumption, without evidence, that any problems had been resolved.
  2. I have seen a copy of the letter sent by Miss B in March 2019. There is no record in the Council’s evidence to indicate it was aware of her letter. Miss B says the officer it was addressed to told her it had been passed to her manager to deal with. The Council says the letter was sent to an officer in the Housing Needs Team and not to the Private Sector Housing Team. It says the Private Sector Housing Team were therefore not aware of this letter and did not receive any referral from housing needs.
  3. The Council did not consider whether it needed to take further action regarding Miss B’s housing issues. This is fault by the Council. Miss B was left in her home with no working boiler and other defects for over one year.
  4. The Council did inspect Miss B’s home in January 2020, when her issues were raised again. The Council identified some defects and gave Miss B’s landlord time to complete the repairs. The Council did not visit again in February as it said it would to check on the progress of the works. This is fault by the Council. Miss B’s disrepair issues were not addressed properly.
  5. In January 2020, Miss B sent a complaint letter by special delivery to the Council. Miss B wrote to the Council again in August. The Council says Miss B’s complaint letter was sent to its Chief Executive’s Office but rejected because it was unreadable. There is no evidence the Council contacted Miss B about her letter at the time. Correspondence with Miss B’s MP shows the Council had told Miss B in August 2020 that “she had sent a bad pdf copy of the letter’ to the Council’s Chief Executive. Miss B contacted her MP and they also raised the matter with the Council.
  6. After Miss B’s MP complained about the lack of response to her complaint from January, the Council began to assess and deal with her complaint.
  7. Miss B says her letter was signed for in January. Emails to Miss B show the Council confirmed it did receive her letter. There is no evidence the Council addressed Miss B’s January complaint before she involved her MP later in the year. The Council accepted there was also a delay between August and November 2020 before it completed an inspection. This is fault by the Council. Miss B had to wait over another year before her housing issues were fully addressed. The Council apologised for this delay in its final complaint response.
  8. The Council says that following an inspection where it considers formal action is required, a notice is issued on the landlord which the tenant will get a copy of. The Council says it has also changed its procedures and now sends a formal notification to inform tenants that it is closing a case due to a lack of engagement or an inability to take action.
  9. Miss B says there are still ongoing problems relating to her windows. Records show that Miss B confirmed to the Council that the windows were fixed in February 2021. The Council subsequently marked all work complete at the property in March. If there are further problems, Miss B should make a new complaint to the Council.

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Agreed action

  1. To remedy the injustice caused by the fault I have identified, the Council has agreed to take the following action within 4 weeks of this decision:
    • Pay Miss B £500 in respect of avoidable distress caused to her.
    • The Council should review how it handles communications from members of the public and how they are then entered on CRM systems in order to ensure they are properly assessed and actioned and then report back to the Ombudsman regarding its findings and proposed action.

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Final decision

  1. I have found fault by the Council causing injustice to Miss B. I have now completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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