Here’s something else you won’t read on Croydon Council’s website.
The council press office – funded with an annual budget of at least £500,000 of public money – today issued at least its second press release to publicise the attention-seeking presentation to Roy Hodgson of the freedom of the borough, nominated by council leader Tony Newman. Hodgson once managed the team that Newman supports, Fulham.
Meanwhile, Croydon has failed to publish anything at all about the more than 200 formal complaints about the council and dealt with in a 12-month period by the Local Government Ombudsman.
It seems very likely that, next week, after the mutual back-slapping in the Town Hall chamber, there will be yet another Council Tax-funded press release issued about Croydon lad Hodgson’s freedom of the borough, probably with pictures of Newman glad-handing the former England boss who has carefully steered Crystal Palace to 16th place in the Premier League, a whole point above the relegation zone.
What there won’t be is anything about the cold-eyed assessment from the Local Government Ombudsman about how Newman’s council is letting down its residents on a daily basis.
In 2017-2018, the Local Government Ombudsman received a total of 226 formal complaints about Croydon Council’s conduct.
You can read the Ombudsman’s annual report, first published in August, here. You won’t find it on the council’s website.
All of the complaints had first to go through two formal stages in which they will have been dealt with internally by Jo Negrini, the £200,000 per year council CEO, and her mates in the executive suites of Fisher’s Folly, before their correspondence ever reached the more objective Ombudsman.
In two-thirds of the Croydon cases that he adjudicated on, the Ombudsman upheld the complaints against the council.
The complaints were made in a variety of areas: 24 were on planning and development matters, 23 were about adult social care, and 37 were complaints about education and Croydon’s “inadequate” children’s services.
In two cases, the Ombudsman intervened to order Negrini’s council to remedy the situation.
Since that 2017-2018 annual report was published, the Ombudsman has had to step in with Croydon once again over a housing matter. The cabinet member in charge of housing at the Labour-run council is Newman’s deputy leader, Alison Butler.
Nothing has ever appeared on the council website nor in a council press release about this case.
In the Ombudsman’s annual report, which was published today, Michael King spoke of his deep concern that so many of the cases that his office is dealing with show systemic failures at local authorities. It will therefore come as no surprise to discover that many of the failings of Croydon Council’s housing department exhibited in a previous Ombudsman’s ruling, which Inside Croydon reported in August, are similar to those in this latest case.
Perhaps most depressing about this latest case is the length of time it took for the resident to get any sort of resolution from Croydon, even when their case was taken up by a lawyer. The resident had to fund the costs of getting a solicitor to act on their behalf when the council was failing him.
Perhaps most troubling about the case is the crass administrative incompetence demonstrated by the council over a matter as straightforward as the keeping of accurate records and the delivery of correspondence. There is also a hint that, while the council claimed to have written to the resident about their status on the housing register, no such letter was ever actually sent. It was certainly never received. And, perhaps conveniently, the council says it does not keep copies on file…
The Ombudsman’s report, which anonymises the identity of the complainant, states: “Mr X complains that the council failed to consider a request for rehousing on medical grounds and medical evidence his solicitor submitted in August 2017.
“Mr X and his solicitor also complain about the failure to respond to the complaint his solicitor made on 6 October 2017 and her subsequent email correspondence.
“The Council’s customer commitment and service standards are published on its website. It says it will respond, on average, within two working days when someone writes or emails its contact centre. It will send a written response to all standard enquiries and requests within 10 working days.
“Mr X is a single man in his fifties. He is a Housing Association tenant and moved to his current accommodation – a one bedroom ground-floor flat in a block – in January 2017.
Before moving to this flat, Mr X was on the Council’s Housing Register. He had the highest priority (Band 1) because he needed a management transfer.
“After Mr X was accepted on the Council’s Housing Register, the Housing Association arranged for him to move to his current flat. It was an internal transfer within the Housing Association’s own housing stock.
“Mr X stayed on Croydon’s Housing Register after the move. The Council says it did not remove him from the Register because he had not informed the allocations team about his change of circumstances. His application was not updated with his new address. If the allocations team had been informed of this change, it would have closed the application because the Housing Association had met his need by moving him to another property. He no longer qualified for Band 1 priority following this move.
“Mr X has several chronic medical conditions which affect his physical and mental health. He explained he has no concerns about the flat itself but is affected by external noise in the surrounding area. There is noise from a passenger lift adjacent to his bedroom. He is also disturbed by noise from the nearby residents’ parking area. The block is on a main road.
“He told me he does not open his windows because the traffic noise stops him sleeping. His GP has prescribed anti-depressants and he has attended counselling. Mr X says he did not notice the noise when he viewed the flat and only became aware of the problem after moving in.
“Mr X says an officer from the Housing Association interviewed him after he complained about the noise but decided not to transfer him. They advised him to apply to join Croydon Council’s Housing Register.
“On 8 August 2017 Mr X’s solicitor sent an email to the Housing Register and Housing Allocations teams. She said Mr X was still on the Housing Register. She asked the Council to reconsider his priority for rehousing on medical grounds. She attached a recent report from Mr X’s GP about the impact of the noise on her client’s health. She explained the Housing Association would not rehouse Mr X or carry out works to reduce environmental noise. She said the GP’s evidence indicated Mr X needs to move because his current accommodation at least moderately affects his medical conditions.
“An assessment officer acknowledged the solicitor’s email the same day. She said she had forwarded it to the allocations manager who would reply.
“The solicitor did not get a reply.
“Meanwhile the allocations manager cancelled Mr X’s Housing Register application on 12 September 2017. She noted after checking the records that the Housing Association had moved Mr X to his current flat in January 2017. She therefore assumed this move had met his housing needs.
“When the Council cancels a Housing Register application, the system automatically generates a letter to send to the applicant. In this case, the Council says the letter went to Mr X’s former address because the records were not updated with his new address. The Council accepts this was an oversight on its part.
“Mr X’s solicitor says her client did not get the cancellation letter. He had arranged for Royal Mail to redirect post to his new address until June 2018 but this letter did not reach him. The Council does not keep a copy of cancellation letters in the case records. It only has a record of the date the application was cancelled and says the letter would have been generated then.
“Mr X’s solicitor continued to chase for a reply to her August 2017 email. She sent an email on 29 September 2017 but received no response. She then made a Stage One complaint to the Council on 6 October 2017. She received no response so she made a Stage Two complaint on 30 January 2018. On 27 February 2018, the solicitor told the Council she would refer the complaint to the Ombudsman. A manager then instructed an officer to log it as a Stage One complaint and reply but this did not happen. The solicitor received automated acknowledgements but no substantive replies.
“Mr X sent in further medical evidence in December 2017. In early May 2018 he completed a new online Housing Register application.”
When the Ombudsman asked Croydon why they had failed to respond to a solicitor’s letter for six months, the council said “officers had wrongly assumed this correspondence was linked to a previous complaint the solicitor made on Mr X’s behalf in 2016”.
The council’s excuse? “Officers were confused”, they told the Ombudsman. Put another way: they are incompetent.
“They believed they had addressed all the issues in an October 2016 reply to the solicitor’s previous complaint. They did not reply to her August 2017 email and later correspondence.”
The council tried to shift the blame to Mr X’s solicitor, because she had not mentioned her client’s new address in her emails or letters. This though, was not the case. Mr X’s new address was included in the GP letters which the solicitor had sent in August 2017 – the letter which went unresponded to for more than six months.
The Ombudsman’s ruling was unambiguous.
“This case was poorly handled. The delay in carrying out the medical assessment, and the failure to reply to any of Mr X’s solicitor’s correspondence and complaints, fell well below acceptable standards.
“Mr X’s solicitor had to keep chasing the Council and then had to complain to the Ombudsman. This matter could, and should, have been resolved by the Council without the need for an Ombudsman’s investigation. Mr X paid for legal advice and assistance.
“The delay and poor communication caused Mr X some distress and anxiety. His solicitor did not get the courtesy of a reply to her emails and complaints.”
Croydon Council was ordered by the Ombudsman to apologise in writing to Mr X and to Mr X’s solicitor (will the council be able to get the addresses right this time?), to issue reminders to staff to comply with the council’s own customer service standards, and to pay Mr X a paltry £200 to recognise the time and trouble to which he has been put and the distress caused by its failure to respond to his solicitor’s correspondence.
On Monday night, when Tony Newman smiles for the cameras before shaking hands with Roy Hodgson, Croydon Council will likely be spending more than £200 just on drinks for councillors and “VIP” guests at a reception in the Mayor’s Parlour.
But that’s something else you won’t find in the council’s press releases, either.
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