Ombudsman criticises council over “misleading” housing allocation policy

A borough council was at fault because its allocations policy was misleading, it did not follow its review process and it did not consider evidence provided by a complainant about medical equipment required by her disabled daughter, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has found.

In a complaint to the Ombudsman, the mother claimed that South Tyneside stopped her from bidding on appropriately sized homes because it failed to consider her daughter's medical circumstances or the equipment she required.

She also complained that the council did not follow its review and appeal process. She said that, as a result of the failings, they missed out on bidding on appropriate properties, and she and her daughter suffered distress.

The Ombudsman's report said that the mother, a tenant in a council property, looks after her daughter, who suffers from multiple severe physical and psychological conditions.

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After her daughter's needs increased, the mother asked South Tyneside to reconsider her housing situation. Following a visit, an occupational therapist (OT) recommended that the mother be able to bid on two-bedroom bungalows with ramped access or level access with a level access shower.

The council went on to put her case forward as an 'exceptional circumstances application' in November 2019. This was approved, meaning she was able to bid on two-bedroom properties.

However, she was unhappy with the outcome of the application and requested a review.

The council rejected the mother’s request, leading her to appeal the decision. In her appeal she requested a three-bedroom property, as she said two bedroomed properties were too small.

A meeting was arranged between the mother, the council, and another OT for March 2020. However, the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic resulted in the meeting being cancelled. The council requested a phone call but, after the mother refused, it decided to send a letter informing her it had rejected her appeal.

The Ombudsman's investigation concluded that the wording of the council's allocations policy was misleading. "The Council have correctly stated to Mrs B in later communications that the review process involves a review of the decision, followed by a single appeal stage. However, its allocations policy refers to the right to appeal and also a ‘second appeal.’ This could be interpreted as constituting a three-stage process of a review, followed by two appeal stages. This is fault by the Council. Mrs B was confused by the wording in the allocations policy. The Council accepts its allocations policy could be set our more clearly and has started to make changes."

Furthermore, the report found that due to the handling of her exceptional circumstances application, the mother could not be certain the review was objective since it was handled by the same person who made the original decision.

In addition, the council should have considered if there were exceptional circumstances before refusing the mother's appeal, the Ombudsman said.

The report noted that refusing the application because "there are no points of principle or law that have not been included within the policy relating to your situation" was not in line with its allocations policy. This was a fault by the council, according to the Ombudsman.

The LGSCO said the OT's failure to reference the full list of medical equipment provided by the mother also suggests that the council refused her appeal on the balance of probabilities, "without taking into account the relevant additional information she provided about her daughter's medical equipment".

At the recommendation of the Ombudsman, South Tyneside agreed to obtain an independent assessment of Mrs B's housing needs by another occupational therapist, taking into account her appeal information as well as her daughter's current circumstance.

In addition, the mother's appeal will be considered by a panel of elected members as per section 36 of the council's allocations policy if she is still unhappy following the OT assessment.

The council will also apologise to the mother, pay her £200 and review the wording of section 36 of its allocations policy.

South Tyneside Council has been approached for comment.

Adam Carey

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