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LOCAL GOVERNMENT OMBUDSMEN INVESTIGATION REPORTS ISSUED SINCE 2 AUGUST 2001

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Findings of maladministration and injustice ...
Findings of maladministration and injustice

Nottingham City Council (00/C/4247)

Land

'Mr Endell' (not his real name for legal reasons) complains that the council acted unfairly greatly to his financial cost when, in February 2000, it decided that it would not grant him the lease it had agreed, in principle, to grant in September 1998.

The council's land sub-committee agreed to grant Mr Endell a lease of council premises to be used as a restaurant, with cabaret consisting of exotic dancing and live strip shows, subject to Mr Endell being able to obtain appropriate public entertainment and liquor licences. A draft lease was sent to Mr Endell. Opposition to the proposal then built up and the council's Licensing Sub-Committee refused on 14 April 1999 to grant the licences. Mr Endell appealed to the magistrates court and won his appeal. The council then appealed against the magistrate's decision and lost. Finally, on 28 February 2000, the land sub-committee reconsidered the matter and withdrew its offer to grant Mr Endell a lease for the premises.

The ombudsman considers that the application to lease the premises that Mr Endell made to the council in September 1998 made it quite clear what type of entertainment would be provided at the restaurant. Nothing about this proposal had changed by February 2000 when the council withdrew the offer of a lease. The ombudsman considers that the council was not entitled to mislead Mr Endell by first agreeing to grant him a lease and then refusing it 17 months later on grounds available to it on the first occasion.

The ombudsman is concerned that documents had been removed from the council's files prior to inspection by the commission's officer.

The ombudsman finds maladministration causing injustice and recommends that the council should pay Mr Endell£2,500 and either grant him the lease or pay him compensation for his abortive costs.

Hackney LBC (00/A/3868)

Housing benefit

'The Harbour' (not its real name for legal reasons) is a charity which provides hostel accommodation and support services for vulnerable women and their children in Hackney. The Harbour complained to the ombudsman about the way the council dealt with claims for housing benefit from residents in its hostels. A sample of six residents' claims, made between 1998 and 2000, were selected for investigation as illustrative of the deficiencies about which the Harbour had complained.

The ombudsman finds that in each of the illustrative cases there was maladministration. Delays, making repeated requests for the same information, failure to issue notifications and delay in responding to enquiries were the most common defects. The ombudsman is particularly concerned that the council concluded that it has no legal obligation to make payments on account to tenants of social landlords such as the Harbour.

The ombudsman explains why he considers it likely that there were faults in the way the council dealt with claims from some other residents ofthe Harbour. He concludes that the council's actions caused the charity injustice: delays in making payments had a serious effect on the Harbour's finances and its work for some of the most vulnerable women and children in the borough.

The ombudsman recommends that the council should make payments on account to claimants who live in the Harbour's accommodation; ensure that outstanding claims are decided without unreasonable delay; and pay the Harbour£2,000 as a tangible sign of the council's recognition of the injustice to the charity.

Hackney LBC (99/A/04335-7, 04339-45 & 4389)

Housing benefit

Eleven housing associations which provide housing for people in Hackney complained to the ombudsman about the way the council had dealt with the housing benefit claims of their tenants. The associations said that this had caused them financial difficulties and hampered their ability to support their tenants and maintain accommodation in a reasonable condition. The associations cited 11 cases which represented the difficulties they had experienced.

The ombudsman finds that there was maladministration in all those cases. He explains why he considers it reasonable to conclude that similar faults affected the claims of others of the associations' tenants. He finds that the associations were caused injustice as a result of maladministration.

The ombudsman says that the associations want the same as everyone else: the determination of benefit claims efficiently and in accordance with the law. Only the council can achieve the necessary changes. He has no doubt of the council's commitment to reform. But it will not be quick or easy.

The ombudsman recommends that the council should, where appropriate, make payments on account to the associations or their tenants; should decide outstanding claims without unreasonable delay; and pay each association£2,000 as a tangible sign of its recognition of the injustice to them.

Portsmouth City Council (99/B/4467)

Consumer protection

The council delayed in determining a charity's application for a street collection permit. The application was referred to committee and refused. 'Mr Wren' (not his real name for legal reasons), who made the complaint, claimed that the hearing was procedurally flawed and the officer's report was incomplete and failed to put forward the charity's case. Mr Wren claimed that the council's procedures for checking on an applicant's criminal convictions were unlawful, because spent convictions were revealed to the council as licensing authority. The trustees of the charity believed it to be unreasonable for the council to require them to undergo police checking as they were not applicants for a licence.

The ombudsman finds maladministration on two principal counts. He holds that the requirement for trustees of the charity to undergo police checks was oppressive in the absence of any evidence that there was good cause for this, and that the council's procedures in seeking details of an applicant's convictions (including spent convictions) were flawed. The ombudsman does not consider that the report to the committee was inadequate. He issues his report as a matter of public interest.

The ombudsman finds maladministration causing injustice and recommends the council to make an ex gratia payment of£1,000 to the charity, and review its administration of charitable street collection permits.

Three Rivers DC (00/B/4287-8)

Publicity for planning applications & environmental health

The council's leisure services department resolved to construct a skateboard park on a recreation ground. It did not notify 'Mr Jones' (not his real name for legal reasons), of the application for planning permission and he was unable to make representations. The ombudsman concludes that this did not cause Mr Jones an injustice because other residents made the representations he would have made if he had been aware of the application.

The planning officer took the view that noise from the facility could be controlled by site management measures. When the skate park opened in April 1999 there were no such management measures in place, and Mr Jones and other neighbours complained about the noise. The council established that the noise was a statutory nuisance. The council promised that it would put a sound barrier in place, failing which it would relocate or close the skate park.

After three months it put site management measures in place which reduced the noise level so that it was no longer a statutory nuisance. It did not put in the sound barrier or relocate or close the park. Mr Jones complained again in April 2000. The council commissioned further noise testing but did not establish a statutory nuisance.

The ombudsman concludes that the council gave inadequate consideration to the question of noise when the skate park was opened. This caused noise nuisance to Mr Jones for a period of three months. But he found no evidence of fault in the way in which the council subsequently dealt with Mr Jones's complaints about noise nuisance from the skate park.

The ombudsman finds maladministration causing injustice and recommends that the council should pay Mr Jones£250 to compensate him for avoidable noise nuisance and to recognise his time and trouble in pursuing the complaint. Also, if the council receives further complaints of noise nuisance, it should carry out noise investigations at times of maximum use.

Derwentside DC (00/C/11838)

Planning consideration/neighbour amenity

An amenity society complained about the way the council handled an application for permission to extend an industrial estate by developing 4.4 hectares of open countryside. In particular the complainants say that the committee approved the application in the mistaken belief that the site was 'brownfield' or previously developed land. The ombudsman finds that, given the history of the site and the official definition of brownfield land, the committee was mistaken on this point. Despite having opportunities to consider evidence from the complainants that this was not a brownfield site, the council failed to review its decision properly.

The ombudsman finds maladministration causing injustice and recommends that the council:

* consult with the amenity society to identify an environmental amenity, not already programmed, which would be of benefit to the village where the development is to take place: if no such amenity can be agreed the council should pay the amenity society£5000

* pay the lead complainant£250 for her time and trouble in pursuing the complaint

Darlington BC (99/C/5836)

Planning consideration/neighbour amenity

'Mrs Whitby' (not her real name for legal reasons), on behalf of a number of objectors to a planning application, cited concern about land levels and the height of the proposed houses compared with theirs. No reference was made to this in the officer's written report nor was the detail of the council's policy on protection of amenity and privacy explained. Members' recollection of whether the issues were addressed in the meeting varied, and the ombudsman concludes on the balance of probabilities that the matter was not adequately reported to or considered by members. She also takes the view, on balance, that some amendment could have been achieved had a site visit taken place.

The ombudsman also finds that a delay in responding to Mrs Whitby had prevented her taking up with the developer the question of who was responsible for a boundary to her property.

The ombudsman finds maladministration causing injustice, and recommends that the council:

* obtains independent advice about the difference in value of the properties if the development had been amended, compared with the value now, and pays each complainant the difference in value, if any

* pays Mrs Whitby£250 in recognition of the prolonged uncertainty about her boundary and her time and trouble in pursuing the complaint.

Westminster City Council (99/A/2038)

Leisure & recreation

In January 1997 the council closed its branch library at Great Smith Street and opened a new library in Victoria Street. 'Mr Slade' (not his real name for legal reasons) used the library at Great Smith Street. He alleges that the decision to carry out the transfer was flawed because the report to the relevant committee was biased in favour of the transfer. He also complains that the consultation about the proposed layout of the new library was too rushed to be meaningful. Mr Slade also made further allegations, including that inadequate consideration was given in the design of the new library to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

The ombudsman finds that the decision to relocate the library was not reached with maladministration. But he concludes that the council allowed insufficient time for members of the public to comment on the final proposed layout; and that between January and December 1997 the spacing between the shelving was insufficient. The ombudsman finds that Mr Slade was caused a consequent injustice. He recommends that the council should recognise this by paying Mr Slade£250.

The ombudsman says that only the courts could give a ruling on whether the council has failed to comply with the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Tunbridge Wells BC (00/B/8542)

Housing benefit & homelessness

'Mr West' (not his real name for legal reasons) is a former soldier with a troubled medical history. He was working but lost his job. In October 1999 he applied to the council for housing benefit and council tax benefit. His application for benefit was not determined until July 2000.

In December 1999 Mr West was evicted from his home and he became homeless. In March 2000 he applied to the council for accommodation, but his application was not determined until September 2000.

The ombudsman finds maladministration causing injustice and recommends the council to pay£750 to Mr West in recognition of the injustice he has suffered.

Local settlement reports

Walsall MBC (99/B/3706)

Council housing management, other, housing benefit & social services for adults

'Mr Dale' and his partner, 'Mr Tree Junior' (not their real names for legal reasons), gave up their secure tenancy of a council house in another part of the country to look after Mr Tree Junior's mother, 'Mrs Tree', who was the tenant of a house owned by the council. There were problems and delay over calculating Mrs Tree's housing benefit resulting in a claim for rent arrears. The council refused initially to recognise a valid power of attorney in favour of Mr Dale and Mr Tree Junior. The council refused, as a matter of policy, to consider the grant of a joint tenancy of Mrs Tree's house to Mrs Tree, her son and Mr Dale. Mr Dale and Mr Tree Junior experienced prejudice and inappropriate treatment from officers at the neighbourhood office because of their gay relationship. The council initially rejected Mrs Tree's application for central heating from its social services budget, and she was rejected for similar provision under an Affordable Warmth Programme.

The council granted a joint tenancy to Mr Dale, Mr Tree Junior and Mrs Tree in June 2001. Mrs Tree's second application for central heating from social services supported by additional medical evidence was successful. The council has apologised and paid compensation to Mrs Tree for problems and delay in respect of the housing benefit matter under its own complaints procedure.

The ombudsman accepts that the council has settled this complaint to his satisfaction. This is on the basis of an apology to Mr Dale, Mrs Tree and Mr Tree Junior, together with payments to Mrs Tree of£500, to Mr Tree Junior and Mr Dale of£500 for inappropriate treatment and uncertainty over the joint tenancy, and for£250 to Mr Tree Junior and Mr Dale for their time and trouble in pursuing the complaint. The council has also agreed to review its policy and practice on issues associated with sexuality and with services to single sex couples. These actions remedy the injustice arising from the maladministration identified.

The ombudsman acknowledges that the council has accepted that there was inappropriate behaviour by council officers at the neighbourhood office, that the power of attorney ought to have been accepted immediately, and that exceptions to its joint tenancy policy in individual circumstances can be considered. He issues his report because it concerns matters of public interest.

Southwark LBC (00/A/11845)

Death

'Mr Wilberfoss' (not his real name for legal reasons), had worked as a trawler man from Grimsby, and had expressed a wish for his ashes to be scattered at sea near there. When he died, his partner, 'Mr Horsforth', complained that a council officer failed to deliver the ashes to him and they were scattered at the crematorium without his knowledge.

The ombudsman finds that the council's officer did commit herself to deliver the ashes to Mr Horsforth; that her record keeping and written communication were inadequate; and that she failed to contact him.

The council has agreed to pay Mr Horsforth£250 so that he can visit Grimsby to pay his respects to Mr Wilberfoss, and to return any documents it holds which belonged to his partner.

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