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North Hertfordshire District Council (19 004 273)

Category : Environment and regulation > Refuse and recycling

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 27 Mar 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: There was no fault in how the Council dealt with Mr X’s reports of rubbish spills on waste collection days.

The complaint

  1. Mr X says the Council is failing to ensure its contractor deals with spilt waste on bin collection days. Mr X says the spilt waste leaves the area unclean and untidy; and having to repeatedly report spills puts him to avoidable time and trouble. Mr X says collection crews should receive suitable training and supervision so the Council, and its contractor, fulfil their duty and collect, not spill, waste.

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What I have investigated

  1. Mr X says problems with spilt waste have been continuing for many years. For the reasons given at paragraph 20, I have investigated Mr X’s concerns back to May 2018.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  2. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  3. We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
  4. 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. I have:
  • considered Mr X’s written complaint and supporting information;
  • talked to Mr X about the complaint;
  • asked for and considered the Council’s comments and supporting information about the complaint;
  • shared Council information with Mr X; and
  • shared a draft of this statement with Mr X and the Council and considered their responses.

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What I found

Background

  1. The Council must arrange to collect its residents’ household waste. Since May 2018, a private company, under contract with the Council, provides the collection service. The contract says:

“All reasonable efforts will be made to prevent spills or litter from the collection operations. In the rare cases these spills occur the crew will be responsible for clearing any spills they are responsible for using the tools (broom and shovel) provided on the vehicle, to ensure no litter is created.”

  1. The Council says, if a resident reports a spill but the situation is unclear, a supervisor should visit the site. The supervisor will then, if necessary, ensure a collection crew returns to clear the spill. The Council also says it inspects the services provided by its contractor.

What happened

  1. About five months after the start of the Council’s contract, Mr X contacted the Council with concerns about the waste collection service. The Council’s written response confirmed it had raised Mr X’s concerns with its contractor and asked for a supervisor to check collections. The Council also said its officer would inspect Mr X’s area.
  2. The Council’s records for the following month appear to show (one address is incomplete) Mr X twice reported litter in the road after waste collections. The Council’s records show the cases as ‘complete’, meaning it responded to both reports. And, between Mr X’s two reports, a contract supervisor and a Council officer inspected Mr X’s road on waste collection day.
  3. The following month, a Council officer checked Mr X’s area on collection days and did not identify any service issues. The Council also received no spill reports for Mr X’s road during that month.
  4. For the first collection of the next month, the Council’s officer did not check Mr X’s road and Mr X reported spilt waste. The Council’s records do not show Mr X’s address but that of another resident as the source of this third report of spilt waste. The Council emailed Mr X to apologise and said its officer would continue to check collections “for the next few weeks”. The Council also confirmed a supervisor had returned to collect the spilt waste and had issued a further reminder to the collection crew about dealing with spilt waste.
  5. Later that month, Mr X contacted the Council about a piece of paper in the road after a waste collection. A Council officer visited the site and spoke to Mr X. The Council says Mr X said he had not seen the paper spill during the collection. The Council’s officer did not remove the piece of paper or ask the waste contractor to make a return visit.
  6. The Council then treated Mr X’s continuing correspondence about spilt waste as a complaint. In summary, the Council’s complaint responses said:
  • crews should clear spills when they took place during collections and it would remind crews to “remain vigilant to the issue”;
  • Mr X’s photographs showed “some littering” but, crews were not likely to notice the “small size of the spillages” and it did not consider spills arose from “wilful negligence”;
  • it would consider whether a return visit was a reasonable use of time, money and staff where the evidence showed “very minor spillages”;
  • it would ask for a return visit to deal with significant spills but, it was not reasonable to return to collect the piece of paper reported by Mr X;
  • its contractor had made return visits on most of Mr X’s spillage reports;
  • its officers had been viewing collections where Mr X lived but, as it had to check services throughout the district, it could not continue weekly visits to Mr X’s road; and
  • its district wide checks had not found the collection service to be poorly managed or operated and it considered the contractor was providing a satisfactory service.
  1. Mr X says he reports spilt waste about every two weeks. And, he does not accept that crews may not notice spills or that litter may be present before a collection rather than arising because of a collection. Mr X accepts it is not cost effective to make return visits but says if the contractor did the job properly, dealing with spillages while on site, return visits would be unnecessary.

Consideration

  1. The Council’s waste contact provides for clearing spills and refuse lorries carry the equipment needed to do this. Mr X, concerned about his local environment, understandably expects crews, if spills occur, to clear them. The Council has recognised Mr X’s photographs show litter on the road and near waste collection lorries. That spillages occur is not therefore in dispute and Mr X’s reports show some remain after collections. My role, therefore, is to consider whether the Council has acted with fault in responding to the spills reported by Mr X.
  2. The Council acted correctly in ensuring its contract covered what should happen to any waste spilt during collections. And, in responding to Mr X’s concerns, the Council reminded its contractor about what should happen when spills took place. This was a step I would expect the Council to take. The Council also made site visits to check collections in Mr X’s road. This too was a reasonable and suitable step for the Council to take in response to Mr X’s concerns. And, from photographs provided by Mr X, spill levels are not substantial. And yet, the evidence also shows return visits to collect spilt waste reported by Mr X. And, when the Council did not ask for a return visit, it gave Mr X its reasons for not doing so. I recognise Mr X does not find the Council’s actions satisfactory. And yet, overall and on balance, I find the Council’s actions proportionate and meet acceptable administrative standards in the circumstances here. I therefore do not find fault in how the Council responded to Mr X’s concerns.

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Final decision

  1. I completed my investigation finding no fault by the Council.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. Mr X says spilt waste on collection days has been a problem from many years and was continuing when he brought his complaint to the Ombudsman. As a continuing problem, I can consider events in the 12 months before Mr X complained. However, events dating back beyond 12 months would be ‘late complaints’ (see paragraph 5). I have not investigated the part of Mr X’s complaint that is ‘late’ because the Council changed its waste contractor in May 2018. And, May 2018 is about 12 months before Mr X first contacted the Ombudsman. I find no good reason to consider events before May 2018 and have taken May 2018 as a suitable start date for my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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