‘Avoidable uncertainty’: Council makes housing allocation policy more accessible following stern words from watchdog

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Hackney Town Hall

Hackney’s housing department has made its allocation policy more transparent after being warned by a watchdog that important parts of it were not available online.

The local government and social care ombudsman said the missing information was causing confusion over who on the housing waiting list is given emergency priority and why.

The Town Hall’s policy allows for people in very urgent circumstances to be given ‘direct offers’ for homes. This is separate to the waiting list, which also includes a Band A category for emergencies.

The ombudsman said this information was buried in an appendix to a council document and not accessible online.

It meant people were taken aback when finding out their expected wait for a home was longer than they had initially been told.

Even with the whole policy available, the ombudsman said it was not entirely clear how housing bosses decide which homes are used for direct offers.

It said a lack of clarity over the difference between emergency Band A and direct offers “adds avoidable uncertainty to the process and raises tenants’ expectations in respect of when a suitable offer will be made”.

The watchdog advised the council to issue guidance over how its discretion is applied in these circumstances, adding: “If decisions about how many and what type of properties are offered to those on the direct offer list are left to chance, there is no way to know how long someone will have to wait for a property.”

The council was told to review its direct offer policy and update its information online – the latter of which it has done.

It must also write to everyone on the direct offer waiting list to tell them how many other people are on it and how many were housed through that route last year.

The council’s deputy cabinet member for housing needs and homelessness, Cllr Sade Etti, said Hackney has under 500 homes available a year for the 8,500 families on its waiting list.

She said: “In 2021, we simplified our housing waiting list to ensure that those in the greatest need, such as families suffering from severe overcrowding or who are statutorily homeless, remain on the list and others who are unlikely to get a council home get bespoke advice to help them find suitable housing.”

She added: “Sometimes we need to make offers outside the waiting list if there is a very urgent need – like a flood or a threat to someone’s life. The direct offers we are able to make depend on often complex individual circumstances and the housing that is available, but we accept the ombudsman’s findings that the process by which we decide to make a direct offer should be made more transparent and we are implementing the recommendations.”

The council has given direct offers to families with children with very severe medical needs, residents who are wheelchair users living in seriously overcrowded housing, and tenants in homes that are much larger than they require.