Rother District Council says it is taking 'immediate action' after a damning report by the Local Government Ombudsman criticised its treatment of a homeless woman.
The report, published today (March 14), found Rother had 'acted with fault' in its interactions with a 68-year-old woman, who the council placed into temporary accommodation at an Eastbourne hotel in 2016.
In its report, the Ombudsman said the council had placed the woman into temporary accommodation that was ‘at best shabby, dirty and in disrepair,’ as well as being 14-miles away from her former home, GP and social networks. At no point were her complaints about this situation and the hotel's suitability treated as appeals, the report said.
The Ombudsman, which has issued a series of recommendations on how the council should respond, said the problem stemmed from the fact that Rother had no available temporary accommodation within its own boundaries.
A Rother spokesman says the council accepts all the report's recommendations, including agreements to both pay compensation and write off a substantial amount of debt the woman accrued after the council cancelled her housing benefit without appeal.
Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman Michael King said: “The issues we have seen with councils’ capacity to cope with the growing homelessness problem are spreading from London to the wider south east and beyond. This case is an example of what can happen when councils fail to plan, and the impact this has on local people.
“The recommendations we have made are designed to improve services not just for this woman, but for other people faced with homelessness in the Rother area.
“We welcome the fact that, following our investigation, the council has now agreed to our recommendations.”
According to the Obudsman's report, the woman's contact with the council began in March 2016 after she informed the council she was to be evicted from a privately-rented home she shared with her adult son. Despite Government guidance, Rother housing officers recommended she stay at the property until she was evicted by bailiffs, landing her with a £350 court bill.
The woman, who was in poor health and had mobility problems, also claimed she was told by Rother to approach Hastings Borough Council for housing, even though she had no claim for help from that authority. Notes kept by Hastings Borough Council say the woman visited on the advice of Rother District Council, but that it did not accept it had any duty to help.
She was eventually placed in accommodation in an Eastbourne hotel in July 2016. As soon as she moved in she complained about the room’s disrepair, claiming it was “squalid, filthy and damp,” that the toilet was “caked in faeces” and the room was infested with bedbugs and cockroaches. She also said she struggled to climb the four flights of stairs needed to get to her room.
Although the council wrote to the woman explaining the room had changed from emergency to temporary accommodation when it accepted its housing duty to her, the Ombudsman said it did not explain her right to a review of the accommodation.
Matters were made worse when the council stopped her housing benefit over an accusation from the hotel that she had swapped rooms her adult son, who had been placed into a different room in the same hotel.
As a result she was left with a debt of £1,000 when she was able to leave the hotel. This was despite her never having the opportunity to appeal the decision, which the Obudsman said was made on 'very little evidence' over accusations which were 'regularly and vehemently' denied.
The Obudsman also said the council never told the woman of her right to appeal the suitability of her accommodation, examine the room to ensure it was suitable or treat her complaints as an appeal.
During the course of the investigation, housing officers told the Ombudsman the council had no temporary accommodation in its area, and regularly placed people in nearby Hastings, Eastbourne and further afield in Kent.
The Obudsman said this lack of temporary accommodation was the root of the problem with the woman's care.
A spokesman for the Obudsman said: "While the council has since made modest efforts to identify temporary accommodation in its area, it has nowhere near enough to meet demand. This continuing failure to have any temporary accommodation within the Rother area is fault.
"In this case, the Ombudsman has recommended the council provides an unreserved apology and pay the woman £1,250 in recognition of the injustice, and settle any costs awarded against her resulting from her landlord taking possession action.
"It should also take whatever action it needs to ensure a dispute about non-payment of housing benefit at the temporary accommodation can be heard by the Tribunal Service. Or else the council should arrange for the immediate write-off of any debt owing from her stay in that accommodation."
The Ombudsman also told the council it should make improvements to its housing service when dealing with enquiries from households facing eviction from private tenancies and give urgent attention to providing temporary accommodation within its area.
In response to the report, a Rother District Council spokesman said: “Residents have the right to expect the highest possible level of service from us and unfortunately in this case that didn’t happen.
“We have written to the ombudsman confirming that we accept the findings of the report and are taking immediate action to implement all the recommendations contained within it.
“This includes making the requested payment in recognition of the injustice caused, paying outstanding court costs and writing off the debt resulting from the stay in temporary accommodation.
“We have begun reviewing our internal procedures relating to homelessness enquiries to ensure both our officers and clients are aware of the right to appeal against housing benefit decisions and to ask for a review of temporary accommodation the client considers unsuitable.
“There is a shortage of suitable temporary accommodation in Rother but we acknowledge we need to do more to secure such provision and will be exploring the acquisition or lease of further properties in the district for that purpose.
“The report, its recommendations and our response will be discussed by members of our audit and standards committee at its next meeting on Monday, March 26.
“We have written to the person concerned to offer our apologies for any distress or inconvenience caused as a result of the actions of the council.”