The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained the Council did not tell him it was going to remove his forklift and trailer from private land and destroy them. The Ombudsman finds there was some fault in the Council’s procedures but the fault did not cause Mr X significant injustice. The Council has agreed to review and update its abandoned vehicles policy.
- Mr X complained the Council did not tell him it was going to remove his forklift and trailer from the private land he was storing them on. The Council’s contractor removed and destroyed the items on the same day. Mr X has now lost potential use of the items in his business.
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 have considered information from Mr X, including his photographs and telephone conversations with him. I have also considered the Council’s responses to my enquiries.
- I gave Mr X and the Council the opportunity to comment on a draft of this decision. I considered their comments before making this final decision.
Legal and policy background
- The Act says someone abandoning a vehicle on any land in the open air without authority is guilty of an offence and can be fined.
- The Act places a duty on councils to remove abandoned vehicles from land or roads in their area. It specifies that a “vehicle” includes any trailer intended or adapted for use as an attachment to a vehicle.
- If a vehicle has been abandoned on private land the Act says a council must serve 15 days notice on the land owner of its intention to remove it. The council cannot remove a vehicle if the land owner objects.
- The Act says a council may dispose of an abandoned vehicle in its possession as it sees fit. However, the Act sets out limits to this. A council can dispose of a vehicle immediately if it decides the vehicle is only fit to be destroyed or if it has no number plates or tax disc. But in all other cases, a council must try to find the owner. If a council finds the owner it must give them seven days’ written notice to collect the vehicle. If a council cannot find the owner, or the owner fails to comply with that notice, a council may dispose of the vehicle.
The Council’s procedure for removing abandoned vehicles from private land
- The Council’s procedure says where it considers there is an abandoned vehicle on private land it will consult with the land owner. A Council officer will fix an abandoned vehicles notice to the vehicle explaining the Council will allow 15 days for the vehicle owner to claim the vehicle.
- The procedure says Council officers should also check vehicles with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) to get the last owner details and check if the vehicle is taxed. It says if the vehicle appears to be abandoned the officer should notify the car pound to remove the vehicle and write to the last known owner. If an owner contacts the Council, it should issue a fixed penalty notice and charge the owner with the costs charged by the car pound. The procedure does not refer to any rules regarding destruction of vehicles.
The Council’s contract for removing abandoned vehicles
- The Council has a contract with a company which can remove, store and destroy abandoned vehicles. The company can assess the value of a vehicle and the cost of its removal and storage. The Council says if it believes it cannot trace an owner to charge for all the costs involved, it will ask the company to destroy a vehicle immediately after removal.
What I found
- Mr X knew of a piece of land to the rear of a residential property that he says was open to car parking and fly tipping. He says he tried but failed to find who owned the land. He moved a trailer on to the land and kept it there for two years. Mr X then moved a forklift on to the land as well. He did not use either trailer or forklift while they were stored on the land. He says he used to check the site every day.
- In 2018 a resident complained to the Council that this piece of land was untidy and unsafe.
- The Council responded to the resident’s complaint by serving a notice on the landowner to clear and secure the land. The landowner told the Council the two vehicles on the land were not his and had been abandoned there without his permission.
- The landowner took advice from the Council and put a notice on each of the two vehicles. I have seen photographs of the notices taped to each vehicle. The notices both said,
“This item is located on private property. Notice is hereby given for you to remove this item within the next 15 days. Date:14th April 2018”
- On 30 April 2018 the landowner told the Council the notices had expired and no-one had removed the vehicles. He asked the Council to help him remove the vehicles so he could clear up the site.
- The Council has photographs of the notices placed on Mr X’s vehicles. Mr X says he never saw them and anyone could have removed them.
- The Council considered the failure of anyone to respond to the landowner’s notices was enough for it to consider the vehicles as abandoned.
- On 4 July 2018 a Council officer placed an order with its contractor to remove and destroy the forklift and trailer. On 5 July the contractor removed the vehicles and destroyed them the same day. Mr X found the vehicles gone a few days later.
- Mr X says the Council could have traced him as the owner of the two vehicles. He says the forklift had a chassis number. The trailer had a number plate on it which the Council had recorded. Mr X says the number plate linked the trailer to a van for which he used to be the registered keeper.
- In its first response to me the Council said its procedure does not allow it to check chassis numbers and neither vehicle had a number plate. In a further response it said the number plate on the trailer would only identify the registered owner of the registered vehicle the number plate belonged to, not the details of the trailer’s owner. It says, as the vehicle registered to this number plate was not attached to the trailer, the DVLA would not allow the Council to conduct a vehicle trace as this would be seen as ‘phishing’ the DVLA’s database.
- Mr X left his vehicles on private land without the land owner’s permission. By doing this he lost control over the vehicles. The land owner could have removed and destroyed them at any time without any warning.
- Once the Council was involved, it could only remove and destroy the vehicles without fault if it followed the law and its own procedures.
- The law requires the Council to remove abandoned vehicles from private land as long as the land owner does not object. The Council’s removal of the vehicles satisfied the law because the land owner wanted the vehicles removed and asked the Council to help.
- The law allows the Council to destroy abandoned vehicles in certain circumstances. The Council says it destroyed the vehicles because there was no means of finding their owner. That reasoning would have satisfied the law. The Council did not have a practical way to check ownership of the forklift. But the Council was at fault in not carrying out a DVLA check on the trailer’s number plate. That fault caused no significant injustice, though, because in July 2018
Mr X was not the registered keeper of the van with the same number plate as the trailer. So it is unlikely a DVLA check would have provided the Council with useful information. The Council could not have been expected to carry out further enquiries.
- There was further fault because the Council did not follow its own abandoned vehicles procedure and the procedure is incomplete. Had the Council followed its own procedure it would have put its own notices on the vehicles, checked the one number plate available with the DVLA and taken both vehicles to a car pound. Had the procedure been complete it would have set out the circumstances under which the council can destroy an abandoned vehicle and the steps needed to do so.
- However I do not find the fault in the Council’s procedure or the fault of not applying the procedure caused Mr X significant injustice. Mr X says he did not see the land owner’s notices so it is unlikely he would have seen any notices the Council fixed to his vehicles. It is unlikely the Council would have got useful information from the DVLA as Mr X had sold the van with that number plate. Had the Council taken the vehicles to a car pound rather than ordered their immediate destruction, Mr X may have been able to retrieve them. But had the Council’s procedure included when and how to destroy an abandoned vehicle the vehicles are likely to have been destroyed lawfully.
- On current evidence I do not consider Mr X suffered significant injustice as a result of fault in the Council’s procedures. However, the Council should review and update its abandoned vehicles procedure for future use.
- The Council has agreed that within three months of this final decision it will review and update its abandoned vehicles procedure. This should ensure the procedure reflects the Council’s powers to destroy abandoned vehicles and sets out the circumstances of when it will store a vehicle and when it will destroy one.
- I have now completed my investigation. There has been fault by the Council but it did not cause Mr X significant injustice. Once the Council revises its abandoned vehicles procedure that will ensure a more transparent response by the Council to similar situations in future.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman