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London borough to pay complainant £4k after failure to take homelessness application earlier

The London Borough of Barnet is to pay more than £4,000 to a man in case where it was too slow to take a homelessness application and provide emergency accommodation.

A Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s report – issued in July but contained in the LGSCO’s latest list of decisions last week – said Mr B is to receive £3,588.67 to cover the shortfall in his rent, court fees and interest and £500 for the distress caused to him.

The Ombudsman found Barnet was at fault because if it had acted sooner Mr B would not have incurred large rent arrears.

Mr B complained that Barnet Homes, which handles housing for the council, also did not provide suitable long-term housing for him when discharging its homelessness duty towards him.

Together with three co-tenants, Mr B took out a 12-month lease on a four-bedroom flat renewed annually until the spring of 2018 when the other three gave notice they wished to leave.

As Mr B would not be vacating the property and could not afford the full rent, the landlord issued a notice to quit and he asked Barnet Homes for help.

By this time Mr B was unemployed from his job as a painter and in receipt of jobseekers allowance. He suffered from diabetes and took insulin by injection, and provided supporting evidence of his medical conditions.

Barnet’s tenancy sustainment officer advised Mr B that he might have a defence against the notice to quit if he had not received the correct documentation from the landlord or his full deposit had been protected.

She said though it was unreasonable for him to remain in the flat because he could not afford the £1,400 rent.

The officer suggested that he apply for a Discretionary Housing Payment and that once the medical team had assessed his application, the council could help him find private rented accommodation if he were found in priority need.

Mr B was though refused the discretionary payment and the medical officer considered he was not in priority need although the council did not tell him at the time.

He was later offered a series of studio flats - one of them 24 miles away - but turned them down as lacking space to store his painter’s tools.

An officer then wrote to Mr B, explaining that the council was ending the prevention duty, accepting the relief duty, and setting out a personal housing plan.

She said Barnet accepted that he was homeless and in priority need and would now provide emergency accommodation while taking steps to secure longer-term accommodation for him.

He was advised that if he turned down any private-rented accommodation deemed suitable he might be found intentionally homeless. Mr B subsequently accepted a studio flat.

Mr B had complained to Barnet and at the complaints procedure’s second stage the council concluded it had delayed unnecessarily in processing his application and, had he been referred to the single homeless team, he might have secured a property earlier.

Barnet also accepted it had failed either to notify him of the prevention duty at the outset or to prepare a PHP at the prevention stage.

This undue delay might have caused him some loss financially, due to the shortfall in rent, for which the council offered him £200 compensation.

It also accepted it should have provided temporary accommodation when the medical information showed him to be in priority need and that the delay in processing his application and the lack of referral may have caused him to incur substantial rent arrears.

The Ombudsman said that had Barnet considered Mr B’s application properly Mr B would have been found in priority need.

If he had been offered emergency accommodation at the right time it was probable that he would have moved into it and would then not have incurred rent arrears after that point.

Mr B would also have avoided subsequent court costs because there would then have been no need for possession proceedings from his original flat.

The Ombudsman’s recommendation for compensation covered all these costs.

Mr B had considered that Barnet failed to assist him in court proceedings despite advising it would do so and failed to advise him that he had a possible defence against eviction.

However, the Ombudsman said he did not consider that there was fault in the way the council advised Mr B in respect of the possession proceedings. "The Council provided advice on possible defences in order to help him sustain his tenancy, which is part of its role in seeking to prevent homelessness.

"As to the Council’s later advice that he may not wish to contest the possession proceedings, this came after the Council had accepted a main housing duty towards him. I see no grounds to criticise the Council for that advice, given that he now had alternative accommodation available. He was also advised to seek his own legal advice in respect of a possible money judgment. I see no fault here."

A Barnet Homes spokesperson said: “Barnet Homes accepts the decision of the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) and its recommendations in relation to this case. We take learning from complaints, be they directly received or via the LGSCO, very seriously and are always seeking to use that learning to continually improve how we deliver our housing services to residents.

“Whilst we acknowledge the failures in the handling of this particular case, we would also like to point out that the LGSCO’s Annual Report for 2020/21 shows that despite having the largest population in London, Barnet received less complaints related to housing than 20 other London local authorities and was lower than 28 local authorities in terms of the percentage of all complaints received which were about housing.”

Mark Smulian

Fraser Public Sector 600

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