Image credit: Simon and Alison Downham
Councils can’t just ‘wash their hands’ of homeless residents by putting them into a private rent without informing them of the consequences, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) has found.
Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council had carried out a check into a father’s homelessness application and found it owed him the full homeless duty but did not inform him of this.
In the meantime, they showed him a three-bed flat in the private rental sector and did not explain that if he took it, he would lose that entitlement. The father told the council that it was unaffordable for him but signed the six-month tenancy.
The man and his family have been living there since 2012 with the rent rising in steady increments from £850 to £1,025 a month.
The ombudsman found that the council should have arranged for the flat to be let to him as temporary housing until it made an offer of accommodation under its allocation scheme or settled accommodation under its homelessness duty that would have been affordable.
The father had been living and working abroad but had been called back to England to take care of his two children, who had been taken away from his ex-partner by the courts.
LGSCO Michael King said: “The council failed to discuss the ramifications of accepting the property to the family when it arranged the private let.
“The council should have either explained that by accepting the flat the council would no longer have a duty towards them, or it should have offered the flat as temporary accommodation, with all the review rights that entails.
“Instead, the council effectively acted as a gatekeeper, did not give the family a homelessness decision and denied them their review rights.”
The council did try and help the family and made cumulative payments of up to £10,000 to try and meet the shortfall in rent that arose due to the unaffordability of the property, exacerbated by the benefits cap.
However, King added: “Had the council acted properly in this case, it would not have had to pay a significant sum to the private landlord to make up the difference in the rent.
“I would now urge the council to consider my report and accept its findings.”
The LGSCO investigation recommended that the council apologise to the father, and place him at the top of the list for each eligible property he bids for until he is successful. They have also recommended they pay £4,500 to help him pay the £500 he is still in arrears to his landlord for, and cover time, trouble and distress caused.
The Ombudsman in this case also recommended that the council should tell people, in its allocations scheme and housing register review decisions letters, about their right to complain to the Ombudsman.
LGSCO proposals are not mandatory but last year out of 18 cases where recommendations were made, only three were not followed.
One of the reasons why the council appears to have believed it could act in this way because of the court ruling in 2010 involving Hanton-Rhouila and Westminster City Council.
The court in this case found the council was right to find the applicant (Hanton-Rhouila) not homeless because she had accepted private rented accommodation – but the Ombudsman said that the situation was different as the council had clearly explained the consequences of her doing so.
Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council’s executive director of borough services Rebecca Emmett said: “The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has issued a report following its investigation of a complaint against the borough council. The council must now consider the report and tell the ombudsman what it proposes to do. We cannot comment on individual cases."
To view the LGSCO investigation and the findings in greater detail, download the report.