Flexibility needed to meet complex housing needs, Ombudsman says

Housing departments need to have a flexible approach when dealing with exceptional family circumstances, the Local Government Ombudsman has said.

Councils should allow themselves sufficient discretion to deviate from their local policies when awarding housing priority if a family’s circumstances are particularly difficult or complex.

The Ombudsman’s comments come after a Kent family spent nearly three years too long in unsuitable, cramped accommodation when Thanet District Council did not recognise the severity of their circumstances when they called on it for help.

The family of six lived in a small privately-rented three-bedroom house. Three teenagers slept in one small bedroom – two in short bunkbeds and one on a mattress on the floor. One of the teenagers has sleep problems while another, who has mobility difficulties, needs help using the lavatory during the night.

The parents are full-time carers to their two children who have disabilities and had been on the housing register since 2000. In 2013 the family were asked to complete a new housing application and they were told by the council that it could only consider the medical and welfare needs of one of the teenagers. Nevertheless, the family completed the form and also referred to their other child’s disabilities and the family’s sleeping arrangements.

Thanet council based the family’s application on the overcrowding, and not on their particular needs. Additionally, under the council’s own local lettings plan, the council wrongly prioritised other families who worked or who had younger children over them. This meant they were unable to bid successfully on homes that would meet their needs.

The LGO investigation found that the family’s exceptional circumstances should have prompted the council to recognise theirs was a complex case needing a cross-agency referral, and officers should have visited the family to check the size of the bedrooms. It also found the council was wrong to tell the family it could only consider one member’s needs and gave them inaccurate information about the properties upon which they could bid.

Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said:

While it is important for councils to operate consistent housing policies, they also need to ensure they have processes in place to spot the complex cases, such as this family, that may require special consideration.

"To properly meet people’s needs, local authorities should allow themselves the flexibility to exercise discretion when exceptional combinations of circumstances mean their allocation policies cannot accurately meet those needs.”

To remedy the complaint, the council has been asked to apologise to the family and pay them £8,400 in recognition of the impact upon the family of having to remain in unsuitable accommodation for too long. It should also pay the family a further £250 to acknowledge the avoidable stress and confusion caused by its mistaken advice.

Article date: 11 August 2016