The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr C says the Council did not explain its decision to raise his beach hut licence fee adequately. The Council communicated poorly with Mr C which he found distressing. It has apologised.
- The complainant, who I have called Mr C, says the Council failed to explain its beach hut licence fee increases to the public properly. He also says it agreed to charge a market rate for its beach hut licences for 2018/19 but did not do so.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I spoke to Mr C. I considered evidence supplied by the Council. I applied the relevant law and guidance.
- I sent a copy of my draft decision to Mr C and the Council and invited comments.
What I found
- Councils which provide commercial services can provide them at a profit through a service company.
- Councils are elected bodies which have a democratic mandate to make decisions. Unless they are unlawful, the Ombudsman will not find fault with their decisions.
- The Council’s area is on the south coast. There are several beaches in its area on which there are some 380 beach huts. The Council has, for many years, sold annual licences for beach plots on which people can erect their own beach huts.
- Many ‘hutters’ keep the same hut for years. Many live outside the borough but most live locally. Mr C lives outside the Council’s area but in the same county.
- In or around 2006, the Council decided to increase the fees for a plot year-on-year to increase revenues. It also decided to charge a higher fee to people from outside the borough than to people who lived in it. By 2008, non-residents paid twice what a resident paid.
- Since 2006, the Council has increased fees for residents by 100% and for non-residents by nearly 300% The fee for a licence for a beach hut plot is now £550 per annum for residents and £1234 per annum for non-residents.
- The Council’s fees for beach huts are now the third highest on the south coast for residents and the highest for non-residents. Hutters have become increasingly annoyed by this, particularly those who come from outside the borough.
- Between June and December 2016, the Council’s Budget Scrutiny Panel carried out an ‘extensive examination’ of the Council’s finances.
- In late January 2017, the Panel submitted draft proposals for the Council’s revenue and capital budget 2017/18 to the Budget Scrutiny and Policy and Development Panel.
- In February 2017, the Council approved a 14.3% increase in fees for residents and non-residents taking annual fees to £600p.a and £1200p.a. respectively.
- In 2017, the Council received 79 complaints from hutters; 20% of the total number. In light of this high complaint rate, it carried out a survey, interviewing 180 hutters; half the total number. This showed:
- Only 28% thought the huts were good value for money;
- The majority thought beach and hut maintenance was inadequate;
- Only 10% thought it appropriate to increase fees.
- Mr C’s licence was due for renewal in April 2018. The Council did not write to him until May 2018.
Was there fault causing injustice?
- The Council can decide what to charge for beach huts. It can also, if it so wishes, charge residents less than non-residents.
- Mr C says the Council agreed to move towards a market rate for huts in November 2017. This is not the case. The Development Panel recommended that the Council should freeze the licence fee for both residents and non-residents but the Scrutiny Board rejected this recommendation.
- The Council has since said that it intends, in future, to move towards a market rate for all huts. This has not yet occurred.
- In conclusion, the decision to increase the fees for non-residents to £1234 was a decision taken by the Scrutiny Board of the democratically elected Council.
- However, the Council’s communications with Mr C were inadequate and this was fault. Mr C was led to believe that his fees would move to a market rate. Thereafter, he contacted the Council asking for clarification and received no word for them until after his licence payment became due in April 2018.
- When he did eventually hear from the Council’s business partner in May 2018, the fee had risen by 2.8% to £1234. Mr C was surprised that his fee had risen when the fees for Council residents had gone down.
- Mr C found this annoying. He says that, had he known earlier on that the Council was intending to raise the fees, he would have sold his hut. I find that this annoyance was an injustice.
- However, I do not find that the Council’s decision to raise fees was unlawful. The Council can charge whatever it chooses. The decision on fees was properly made.
- The Council has sent a letter of apology to Mr C and has agreed that it will send out its invoices on time in future.
- I have found the Council at fault for poor and late communication. It has accepted my decision and apologised to Mr C. I have closed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman