Ombudsman’s Decision: Complaint against Newham LB  Complaint no 09 003 325 9 November 2010
Hat-tip to the Garden Court bulletin for this one. Miss Thornton (pseudonym) was in temporary accommodation provided by Newham LBC pursuant to the full housing duty. She had been in it for some time. The temporary accommodation was in LB Redbridge, but paid – via housing benefit – for by Newham as TA. Miss T wanted to change the temporary accommodation as the heating in the flat had failed.
Newham told her she could be assisted through its ‘bond scheme’ – a deposit provision scheme that supported a private sector tenancy for a period of no less than 12 months. Miss T found another flat in the same block, minimising disruption. She and the landlord (who had to be approved under Newham’s scheme) approached Newham to ask what the available Local Housing Allowance would be for this flat. Miss T and the landlord were told it would be £874.99 from October 2008. The landlord agreed to let as this rate and Miss T signed a 12 month tenancy agreement. Newham sent a confirmation letter to both stating that the landlord was eligible under the bond scheme and that Waltham Forest Council would be responsible for the LHA (not Redbridge).
However, as Miss T found out some months after applying, the LHA in LB Redbridge was £17.30 lower that she had been advised by Newham’s officer. She could not afford the shortfall. Newham’s officer had made a mistake, looking at the LHA for Outer East London, not Outer North East London.
Miss T applied for discretionary housing payments to cover the shortfall. Redbridge refused. She turned to Newham to help. Newham admitted their error, but offer to once again assisted with alternative accommodation via the bond scheme. Miss T refused, on the eminently reasonable grounds that this would mean breaking her 12 month tenancy agreement and leave her liable for the rent, as well as meaning further upheaval and costs for her and her daughter. The landlord also complained to Newham, reminding them that the level of rent on the tenancy had been based on their assessment of the LHA payable.
Nothing happened. Miss T took a complaint to the Ombudsman.
Newham argued that although their officer had made an error, the email and letter to Miss T and to the landlord had mentioned Waltham Forest, not LB Redbridge, and that both should have been aware the property was in Redbridge, so alert to the error. Further Newham had offered to assist with alternative accommodation.
The Ombudsman was not impressed.
The Council has said that Miss Thornton and her landlord should have recognised that the Council had identified the flat as being in a neighbouring borough and so checked the validity of the information they were given. But in my view, it was the Council’s responsibility to give accurate advice, and the fact that neither Miss Thornton nor her prospective landlord identified the error would seem to indicate that they had a reasonable expectation that they could rely upon what they had been told without scouring the document for potential errors. Miss Thornton and her landlord subsequently agreed the rent based on this information in the full knowledge that it did not exceed the LHA rate as it could not do so as part of the terms of the bond scheme. Miss Thornton was therefore confident that her housing benefit application would result in a determination that she was eligible to meet her rent liability for the duration of her tenancy unless her financial situation changed.
It was not reasonable for the Council to expect Miss T to move when their error came to light, not least as she would still be liable for the rent for the rest of the 12 month term of the tenancy [and if I may add how on earth could this actually be considered a remedy? One that the Council even argued to the Ombudsman!]
For these reasons I consider an appropriate remedy would be for the Council to pay the difference between the LHA rate paid, and the rent that was charged, for the 12-month period of the tenancy agreement. This amounts to £899.60. In addition I think the Council should pay £250 to Miss Thornton for her time and trouble in pursuing this complaint and the anxiety she has undoubtedly been caused. I recommend that the Council reminds all of its officers tasked with giving advice regarding LHA of the potential implications on people’s lives of getting the advice wrong and to check the exact location of properties as well as the commensurate rates on the Valuation Office Agency’s LHA Direct website regularly as they are subject to change.