London borough to pay £8k+ after family remained in unsuitable accommodation for 23 months

The London Borough of Newham is to pay more than £8,000 to a mother of four after failing to move her and her family from "overcrowded and hazardous" accommodation for almost two years, following an investigation by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.

The mother, referred to in the report as Ms Y, complained to the Ombudsman after years spent in a home that she told the council was too small and in a state of disrepair.

Ms Y was first placed in social housing in 2016 after approaching the council as homeless. At the time she had two children and was pregnant with her third, and Newham provided interim accommodation.

The local authority initially classed her as intentionally homeless. But following an appeal, Newham decided that Ms Y's financial difficulties and inability to pay rent were outside of her control due to the wrongful termination of her Housing Benefit claim.

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Over the course of living in the property, Ms Y made a number of complaints about the accommodation. She complained about the state of disrepair and its location, which was outside the council area. She also reported a lack of heating, cracks in the wall and mould and damp.

Internal emails provided by the council show it decided on 24 January 2019, three years after she moved into the property, that she should be transferred to alternative three-bedroomed accommodation.

Further emails provided by the council showed that council officers had discussed plans to put her on a transfer list over disrepair issues.

An affordability assessment was made in June 2019, which concluded her accommodation was unaffordable because the mother had a disposable income of -£150.

Soon after this assessment, Ms Y's partner moved into the home. She also had a fourth child that year.

The council added the partner and the youngest child to the property's licence in August 2019. At the same time, a housing officer raised a query about Ms Y moving to a larger property.

In November 2019, the Environmental Health (EH) team based in the neighbouring council where Ms Y's property was located found hazards involving excessive cold from a lack of functioning heating, and excessive mould and damp, and overcrowding. The heating was fixed, following an enforcement notice.

Almost a year later, Ms Y complained again to Newham in August 2020 because she was dissatisfied with the lack of action taken to locate and offer suitable accommodation for her family. In the meantime, the family were accruing significant rent arrears.

In response, the council concluded that the family made no attempt to contribute to the weekly rent as per their written agreement and accrued arrears from October 2019.

The council agreed to make an offer on a non-secure basis of a three-bedroom house in the private sector if the family agreed to make payments to reduce their debt.

Newham also accepted fault in their response for leaving the family in unsuitable accommodation since November 2019, when it was first considered to be unaffordable.

Records showed that the council attempted to secure alternative three-bedroomed accommodation for Ms Y between September 2020 and January 2021. However, the family found alternative housing in the private sector and cancelled their license for the temporary accommodation.

The Ombudsman's investigation found that the council was at fault for making no effort to transfer the mother to alternative accommodation after agreeing that a new property should be found due to the extent of disrepair in her temporary accommodation.

The report concluded "that the council has a legal duty to provide suitable accommodation and the Ombudsman considers it is service failure for the Council to leave a family in admittedly unsuitable accommodation”.

The Ombudsman recommended that, in recognition of the injustice caused by the unsuitable accommodation, Newham pay £350 to the family for each of the 23 months investigated, amounting to £8,050.

In addition, an extra £200 should be paid to the mother for the time, trouble and frustration caused in handling by the delay in handling the complaint, the Ombudsman said.

A full review of Ms Y's rent account was also requested by the Ombudsman. "When completing the review, the Council will consider all relevant factors such as the change in Ms Y's benefit entitlement, Mr X's earnings, the overall household expenditure and any disposable income," the Ombudsman stated.

He added: "The Council will communicate its decision, in writing, to Ms Y and set out its calculations and the basis for its decision; and after completing the above, if the Council considers that Ms Y remains liable for some or all the arrears, it should offer to create a manageable and affordable payment plan for Ms Y."

A Newham Council spokesperson said: "We fully co-operated with the Ombudsman's investigation and this regrettable matter has now been settled. We are currently reviewing our transfer processes to prevent a similar issue in future."

Adam Carey

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