Watford Borough Council (19 010 835)

Category : Environment and regulation > Cemeteries and crematoria

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 04 Mar 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mrs X complains about a number of matters relating to the Council’s management of a cemetery and how it has managed contact with her. There was no fault in the Council’s actions.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall call Mrs X, complains about a number of matters relating to the cemetery where her relatives are buried. These matters are:
      1. The Council failed to properly maintain the area of the cemetery where her relatives are buried.
      2. The Council wasted public money on an unnecessary extension to the cemetery office. Mrs X says this money should have been spent on cemetery maintenance and upkeep instead. She is also unhappy about the way the Council tendered for the contact for this extension.
      3. The Council restricted her contact with officers. She had been told to contact only the Mayor’s office.
  2. She says has become unwell due to the upset and stress caused by her dealings with the Council over this matter.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. As part of my investigation I have:
  • considered the complaint and documents provided by Mrs X;
  • made initial enquiries of the Council and considered its response;
  • considered the Council’s Cemetery Strategy;
  • spoken to Mrs X; and
  • sent a draft version of this decision to both parties and considered the comments made by Mrs X.

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What I found

What happened

  1. Mrs X complained to the Council about the upkeep of the cemetery where family members’ ashes are buried, particularly the Garden of Remembrance. She says it looks untidy because the Council has replaced attractive plants with less visually appealing ones and the overall appearance of the cemetery has generally deteriorated over the years. She says the Council has spent money on an unnecessary extension to the cemetery office instead.
  2. Mrs X made enquiries about how the Council tendered for the building contract for this extension. She was concerned when she found out the building contract had been awarded to the only bidder. She says this meant the Council wasted public money because the price was too high.
  3. Mrs X has contacted the Council about these and other matters many times. The Council told Mrs X she could only contact the Mayor’s office and not other Council departments. Mrs X did not understand why and felt she was being banned from asking questions about Council services. She was particularly upset by the way she was spoken to by a particular officer.
  4. Dissatisfied with the Council’s handing of these matters, Mrs X complained to the Ombudsman.

Analysis

  1. In reaching my decision, I have considered each of the separate matters complained about.

The maintenance of the cemetery

  1. The cemetery is under the Council’s ownership and the Local Authorities’ Cemeteries Order 1977 allows it to “do all such things as [it considers] necessary” to manage it. Because the Council has this power, it is unlikely the Ombudsman would find fault or that we could instruct the Council to maintain the cemetery to Mrs X’s preferred standard.
  2. Mrs X has said the Council has undertaken some planting in the Garden of Remembrance, but in her opinion they are unsuitable and unattractive. The fact the Council has taken steps to make visual improvements demonstrates the Council has listened and responded to Mrs X’s concerns. The Ombudsman could not add anything further here. There is no fault.

The extension

  1. The Council has a 10 year Cemetery Strategy. This was informed by a review of its Cemetery Service by the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management. Part of this strategy was the extension of the office building. The rationale for this was set out in the Strategy document.
  2. While Mrs X may disagree with the Council’s decision to spend money on this extension, this is a matter for the Council to determine. It is not the role of the Ombudsman to tell councils how to spend their budgets or that it must prioritise its spending on one thing over another.
  3. While Mrs X may question the Council’s procurement process, there is no evidence that the correct procedures have not been followed. The award of the contract to the only bidder is not, in itself, evidence of fault.
  4. For this reason, I will not investigate this aspect of Mrs X’s complaint and do not find fault.

The management of Mrs X’s contact with Council officers.

  1. I have read the emails from the Council to Mrs X explaining its decision to manage her enquiries through the Mayor’s office. The Council has also provided the Ombudsman with an explanation.
  2. The Council says Mrs X was emailing many officers and in order to manage this she was asked to contact the Mayor’s office only.
  3. I have also read a number of emails between Mrs X and the Mayor’s office. I can see officers have tried to assist Mrs X wherever possible. Mrs X has not been banned as she claims.
  4. The Council is allowed to make decisions about how it manages contact from members of the public. Where restrictions are made, as in this case, the Ombudsman would expect the customer to be advised of the reason. This has been done and Mrs X has a means of communication with the Council. There is no fault in how the Council has managed this issue.

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Final decision

  1. There was no fault by the Council and therefore I have completed my investigation.

Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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