Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 26 Mar 2021
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs B complains the Council has repeatedly failed to collect her bins on the scheduled day and return them to the agreed location outside her house. Mrs B says she has experienced frustration and inconvenience due to this. The Ombudsman finds the Council at fault. To remedy the injustice Mrs B has experienced, the Council has agreed to apologise to Mrs X, make a payment to reflect the injustice caused and make certain service improvements.
- The complainant, who I shall refer to here as Mrs B, complains about the Council's waste and refuse collection service. In particular, Mrs B complains about the Council’s failure to return bins to the correct location and missed garden, refuse and recycling waste collections. She says these issues have been ongoing since July 2018.
- Mrs B has experienced frustration and inconvenience due to the difficulty of having to return the bins herself along a gravel road.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated the part of Mrs B’s complaint from February 2019 onwards. The last section of this decision statement explains my reasons for not investigating further back than that.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. 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)
- The Local Government Act 1974 sets out our powers but also imposes restrictions on what we can investigate.
- 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)
- 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 considered the information and documents provided by Mrs B and the Council. I spoke to Mrs B about her complaint.
- I have also considered the relevant legislation and Council policy, set out below. I considered the Ombudsman’s focus report: ‘Lifting the lid on bin complaints: learning to improve waste and recycling services’, published in August 2017.
- Mrs B and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered their comments before making a final decision.
What I found
The law, policy and practice
- Councils have a legal duty under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to collect household waste and recycling free of charge. The collections do not have to be weekly and councils can decide the type of bins or boxes people must use.
- Councils provide an assisted collection service for people who are unable to move their bins and boxes due to a disability or age. In such cases, councils should collect the bins from the storage point and return them to the same point.
- Most councils also provide discretionary services to collect garden waste and bulky items.
- Many councils use a contractor to provide their waste and recycling services on their behalf. In such cases the council retains ultimate responsibility for ensuring the quality of the service and being accountable if things go wrong. The contractor may initially respond to reports of problems or complaints but the council retains ownership. Outsourced should not mean out of touch.
Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead Council’s Missed Collections Policy
- Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead Council’s policy on missed collections and collection points says it will work in partnership with its contractor to address issues around repeat occurrences of missed collections.
- The Council’s policy states that collection points for street level properties and terraced properties are:
- At the edge or in the grounds of the householder’s property within one metre of the public highway.
- The policy states the contractor must return the emptied bin to its designated collection point.
- Mrs B’s house is located off an alleyway that is accessed by a narrow, gravel driveway. To reach the bins in front of Mrs B’s house, the bin collection crew members must pull her bins along the alleyway and then the gravel driveway. This is because the alleyway and driveway are too narrow for the bin collection lorry to access.
- In February 2019, Mrs B wrote to the Council’s complaints team to say that her green and blue waste bins had been left at the end of the alley and not returned to their original location.
- The Council responded to say it had raised the issue with its contractor, Contractor X, to discuss with its crew members.
- In March, Mrs B complained again to the Council’s complaints team that both her and her neighbours’ blue waste bins had not been returned after collection and were obstructing a path. She reported a missed collection of her green waste bin and a failure to return her black waste bin in previous weeks.
- The Council replied to Mrs B saying it had forwarded her complaint and photograph to Contractor X to investigate. It said a crew conduct form had been completed for those bins that had not been correctly returned.
- In April, Mrs B chased the Council for a response as the issues with her bins were ongoing. She said her bins had not been returned to their agreed location. She complained it caused her difficulty to drag the bin back across the gravel and driveway.
- In May, Mrs B chased the Council again. She asked it to respond to her formal complaint. She reported that her bins had again been left at the end of the alley near her home and it had been difficult to move back to the correct location.
- The Council wrote to Mrs B with its stage one complaints response. It said it had decided to uphold her complaint. The Council accepted it was unacceptable the issues had been going on for a year. It said Contractor X would make sure collections are made and bins returned to her property without fail. Contractor X would also investigate the issues internally. The Council said it would monitor Contractor X by raising Mrs B’s issues at its monthly contract meeting with Contractor X.
- Between June and July, Mrs B reported two missed bin collections. Contractor X accepted these reports and returned to collect the missed collections.
- In September, the Council introduced changes to its waste services following a new contract with Contractor Y.
- Between September and December, Mrs B reported six missed bin collections and one occasion when her green and blue waste bins had not been returned. Contractor Y accepted these reports and returned to resolve the issues, except in one case where it said Mrs B had reported the missed collection too late.
- In November, the Council wrote to Mrs B to apologise for the issues with her service. It said it had instructed the supervisors of Contractor Y to monitor all of Mrs B’s bin collections every week to resolve the issues.
- In early December, Mrs B complained to the Council again. Mrs B said, despite numerous apologies and assurances from the Council, her refuse and recycling collection service was getting worse. Mrs B said she was disappointed and frustrated by the Council’s failure to provide a lasting solution.
- Mrs B contacted the Council again some days later to report her recycling waste bin had not been returned to outside her house.
- Towards the end of December, the Council responded to Mrs B’s complaint with its stage one complaints response. It apologised for the ongoing issues Mrs B was experiencing. The Council said it had contacted Contractor Y and instructed them to ensure all collections are made and bins returned back to Mrs B’s property. It said a permanent alert had been added to Contractor Y’s system to remind its crew of the location of Mrs B’s home and collection requirements.
- In January 2020, Mrs B requested the Council consider her complaint under the final stage of its complaints process. This was because she reported a further missed collection. She said the issues with her collection still had not been resolved despite many assurances from the Council that they would be.
- Some days later, Mrs B chased the Council for a response. She said her bins had been left in the wrong location again. Mrs B suggested a face-to-face meeting between the Council and affected residents.
- In February, the Council sent Mrs B its final complaint response. In its response, the Council:
- apologised for the ongoing issues with the collection and return of her bins;
- told Mrs B her address remained on a hotspot, which meant crew members should be aware of the point of collection and return of her bins. The hotspot instructions meant her bins should be returned to the edge of her property and not left at the end of the alley;
- accepted her bins had not been returned to the agreed location on one occasion in January; and,
- said it would strictly monitor Contractor Y’s compliance.
- Some days after the Council’s final complaint response, Mrs B contacted the Council to report that her green waste and blue bin waste bins had not been returned to the agreed location.
Analysis – was there fault by the Council causing injustice
- Mrs B complains the Council has repeatedly failed to collect her bins on the scheduled day and return them to the agreed location outside her house.
- The Council has accepted on several occasions that Mrs B has experienced ongoing issues with missed bin collections and failures to return the bins to her collection point. It has apologised to Mrs B for this fault.
- Based on the evidence I have seen, I am not satisfied the action the Council has taken fully remedies this fault. This is because of the following:
- Monitoring is often an essential part of resolving a complaint and when done properly, it can lead to an improved service. The Council made numerous requests to both Contractor X and Contractor Y to ensure it did not miss Mrs B’s collections and returned her bin to the collection point. However, I have seen no evidence that shows the Council consistently monitored Mrs B’s collection service over a period of time to ensure her service issues were fully resolved. This is fault. This monitoring, which would include crew members taking photographs and completing monitoring forms, does not feature in its policy on missed collections and collection points. I would expect this to be a standardised response to repeated collection issues;
- When problems with a service are detected, any monitoring of the issue should be meaningful and not just a tick-box exercise. The Council advised Mrs B it would monitor Contractor X by raising Mrs B’s issues at a monthly contract meeting with Contractor X. I have seen no evidence that shows this took place or how the outcome of this meeting was communicated to Mrs B. This is fault;
- In response to questions I raised as part of my investigation, the Council said it had challenged Contractor Y to put in place a permanent solution and apologised for the ongoing issues. It said Contractor Y’s supervisors would check Mrs B’s service each week. However, it said performing such checks each week could not be a permanent solution. As explained in paragraph 14 above, the council retains ultimate responsibility for ensuring the quality of the service and being accountable if things go wrong when it has contracted out its bin collections service. Outsourced should not mean out of touch. I find the Council at fault here as it should have ensured Mrs B’s service had been monitored over a sufficient period of time and until it was satisfied the issues had been resolved;
- In December 2019, the Council told Mrs B that her address would be placed on a permanent hotspot. Mrs B’s address had already been placed on a non-permanent hotspot until this point, but I do not find this resolved the matters for her. When considering a solution to the issue, I would have expected the Council to have assessed how successful previous solutions had been and discussed options with Mrs B. Indeed, Mrs B requested a face-to-face meeting in January 2020 to find a sustainable solution to the issues. This is something the Council should have considered and responded to, but I have seen no response from the Council to Mrs B on this. This is fault, which caused uncertainty and is likely to have further delayed finding a sustainable solution; and,
- Due to the lack of effective monitoring of her service, Mrs B has gone to significant time and trouble complaining and reporting the persistent issues with her service. She has experienced disruptions to her bin collection and return service for over a year. I do not find the apologies and assurances the Council has given Mrs B sufficiently remedy these injustices.
- The Council has confirmed it has now resolved the issues with Mrs B’s bin collection service so that a sustainable solution is in place. It says this has been working properly for over three months. I am satisfied with the action the Council has taken here and that this has resulted in a sustainable solution to Mrs B’s issues. I do not make any further recommendations on this point.
- To remedy the remaining injustice Mrs B has experienced, the Council has agreed, within four weeks of my final decision:
- to apologise to Mrs B in writing for failing to establish a sustainable solution to the issues with her service in a timely manner; and,
- to make a payment of £400 to Mrs B to recognise the avoidable distress, inconvenience and uncertainty caused. When recommending this remedy, I have considered the Ombudsman’s published guidance on remedies. This usually recommends a payment of between £100 and £300 for such injustice. However, I have recommended a slightly higher payment to acknowledge the prolonged avoidable distress Mrs B has experienced.
- review its missed bin collections policy to ensure effective monitoring of recurrent issues becomes standard practice. The Council should have regard to the monitoring expectations that I have detailed in paragraph 39 above; and,
- share this decision with relevant staff members.
- I have completed my investigation. I have decided to uphold Mrs B’s complaint because there is fault causing her injustice. The Council has agreed to my above recommendations as a suitable way of remedying the injustice.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- Mrs B says the issues with her bin collections have been ongoing since July 2018.
- In line with paragraph seven above, 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. Mrs B has explained why she did not complain sooner and I have considered her reasons.
- In Mrs B’s case, I think that she could have complained sooner. I therefore do not consider there are good reasons to exercise the Ombudsman’s discretion and investigate that far back.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman