Ombudsman orders urgent review of council’s housing policies

Retired lawyer and former councillor JERRY FITZPATRICK on a breakthrough ruling for those on Croydon’s housing register with special medical needs

In an important and hard-hitting decision, the Local Government Ombudsman has required Croydon Council to undertake a thorough review of its housing applications policies in cases where there are medical issues. The review must be completed by March 16.

The Ombudsman also required the council to apologise to the complainant and pay £750 compensation for their delays in dealing with the case and their inefficient and inattentive service.

The decision was on a case involving a child with autism spectrum disorder. But the Ombudsman’s conclusions have important implications for all applicants for the housing register where there is any medical issue which may impact the application.

The child’s carer had complained to the council before because staff had lost sensitive documents. “By way of apology” (as the council expressed it), the carer was offered a housing register review which – the council added – “we will aim to prioritise”. In my time as a councillor, I advised several residents with credible complaints that the council had mislaid or lost important documents, sometimes more than once.

The carer accepted the offer of review. She chased council staff frequently. Council staff made promises that they would complete the review, but failed to do so.

The Ombudsman summarised what happened as follows:

“The council agreed to review its decisions about Miss X’s priority in July 2021. However, it did not complete this review until August 2022, after Miss X complained to the Ombudsman. So, the council took over 380 days to complete the review, compared with a maximum of 56 days under its policy.”

Reaching his conclusion, the Ombudsman stated that he was, “Satisfied the evidence shows the council communicated very poorly with Miss X over an extended period. This was fault which caused Miss X further frustration, worry, time and trouble.”

The Ombudsman also criticised Croydon Council for the systemic failings in the way it conducted the review, citing:

  • Discouragement of the carer to provide up-to-date medical evidence about her son’s condition and how this was affected by her current housing, which appeared to be connected to the council’s wider approach to medical evidence in health/disability priority decisions
  • That the advice the council sought from its medical adviser in October 2021 was based on partial, historic evidence about the child’s medical condition
  • The brevity of the advice from the medical adviser: it failed to explain how the adviser had reached their recommendation about what priority Miss X should have. So it was impossible for the council officer making the decision fully to understand the reasons for the recommendation. The officer did not have a sufficient basis for their final decision, therefore
  • That the council’s decision did not properly explain how the officer making the decision had considered the evidence available. The officer did not explain how they had resolved the clear conflict between the medical adviser’s recommendation and Miss X’s evidence of the effect on the child and family of their continuing in their current housing

On the facts of the case, and in the absence of the up-to-date medical advice which the carer had been discouraged from providing, the Ombudsman did not conclude that the carer was likely to have been given additional priority even if the council had conducted the review in a procedurally satisfactory manner.

The Ombudsman has sought the following remedial actions from Croydon Council:

  • Reviewing guidance to applicants and medical professionals about evidence for housing applications so that they are not discouraged from providing relevant information
  • Reviewing the requirements it places on its medical advisers to ensure the advice provided is sufficient to give housing staff an understanding of how they arrived at their recommendation
  • Reminding its housing allocations staff that it is the Council and not the medical adviser which takes the final decision, and staff must weigh up medical and non-medical evidence and resolve conflicts of evidence before reaching their ultimate independent decision
  • Sharing this decision and associated learning with those staff involved in making housing priority decisions (Croydon Council never publishes Ombudsman rulings on its own website); and
  • Reviewing the resources it assigns to its housing allocations team to ensure it has sufficient staff to respond to applications and queries from applicants within a reasonable period of time

Deadline: the council has until March 16 to conduct its review

Croydon Council has agreed to provide evidence of compliance with the remedial actions to the Ombudsman by March 16.

It will not be just the Ombudsman monitoring the council’s response. All families with medical issues which might affect their housing priority have an interest in this, as well as professionals working with them and advising them.

The decision does not mean that every medical issue will receive additional housing priority. But it does mean that the council will need to look at and evaluate applications much more carefully. I hope it also means that medical advisers will always have sufficient clinical expertise in the medical issue raised by the applicant to arrive at soundly-evidenced recommendations.

If the council now fails to get its act together, it must expect decisions as to housing priority on medical grounds to be more vulnerable to Judicial Review as well as further adverse comment from the Ombudsman.

  • Jerry Fitzpatrick, pictured right, is a retired barrister who most recently was a councillor for Addiscombe West ward from 2018 to 2022, during which time he served as the borough’s “Autism Champion”

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2 Responses to Ombudsman orders urgent review of council’s housing policies

  1. David White says:

    This is an important decision by the Ombudsman, clearly explained by Jerry Fitzpatrick. Many will wish that Jerry was still on the Council.

  2. Now, isn’t that refreshing? A straightforward piece of writing on quite complex matters which is full of information and a pleasure to read. More please form this source!!

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