by GRAINNE CUFFE, Local Democracy Reporter
A family was forced to wait two years for Southwark Council to make a decision on its homeless application, despite it being legally required to do so within three months.
Now the Ombudsman has ordered the council to pay the family hundreds of pounds “in recognition of the anxiety and uncertainty caused by the delay”.
Mr B went to the council for help in July 2017 after he and his family, who were living with his mum at the time, had to leave because of overcrowding.
The council provided the family with temporary accommodation the same day, but moved them out of borough and “away from their support networks”.
After applying to be on the housing waiting list, Mr B and his partner Ms C, who suffers from bipolar, contacted the council numerous times to try to get answers on the status of their homeless application.
But a decision wasn’t made until August 2019 after a stage 1 complaint from Ms C, despite the council being required by law to decide whether the family was eligible for assistance within three months.
The family also suffered mould, damp and a mouse infestation in their temporary accommodation.
“This was fault and caused Mr B and Ms C avoidable uncertainty about whether the council owed them a long-term housing duty,” according to the Ombudsman’s report.
Before the decision, Southwark had accepted fault and offered to pay Mr B £475.
But the Ombudsman did not consider the payment “to be sufficient to remedy the injustice suffered by Mr B and his family”.
“They suffered uncertainty and anxiety over a lengthy period and were also put to time and trouble in repeatedly chasing the council for a decision.
“In addition, the delay in issuing a decision on Mr B’s homelessness application meant he was unable to bid for suitable properties until August 2019 when he should have been able to do so from 1 October 2017,” according to the report.
Two of Mr B’s children have special needs, and in October 2019, the family’s case officer contacted the council’s medical adviser for a view on whether one of them, who is autistic, required a separate bedroom.
The adviser, who had previously assessed there was “no compelling case for [the family to] move on medical grounds”, concluded there was no need for Mr B’s two-year-old to have a bedroom of his own.
The Ombudsman said it was “disappointing” that the council followed the view of its medical advisor on the health needs of the family without doing a detailed assessment itself.
“The evidence shows the council accepted the adviser’s decisions and applied them.
“That was fault: the council should complete its own suitability assessment and not simply rely on the medical adviser’s decision,” according to the report.
It also emerged the Ombudsman has previously found fault with the council in this regard.
In April 2019 the council agreed to review its processes and ensure that all relevant staff were clear about the wholly advisory role of the medical adviser “and that the responsibility for decision-making on priority for housing rests with the council in accordance with its allocations scheme”.
“It is therefore disappointing that the council is still accepting medical advisers’ decisions rather than making decisions itself,” the Ombudsman said.
In December 2019, Mr B’s case was considered by the housing needs management review panel, which decided Mr B’s child’s situation, together with other ‘special needs’ in the household, “justified an exceptional intervention”.
The family was moved to Band 2, with their bedroom need increased from three to four.
The family was housed earlier this year.
The Ombudsman ordered the council to pay £600 to Mr B “in recognition of the anxiety and uncertainty caused by the delay”, the missed opportunity to bid for a more suitable property, and “the failure to properly consider the suitability of the temporary accommodation provided for his family and the uncertainty of not knowing whether […] alternative accommodation may have been provided”.
The council was also ordered to send a formal apology to the family, issue a reminder to staff that the role of the medical adviser is only advisory, and that the responsibility for decision-making on priority for housing suitability “rests with the council”.
The council has been contacted for comment.
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