Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 10 Apr 2022
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained the Council repeatedly failed to collect the household waste and recycling where he lives and failed to ensure an improvement in the service. Mr X said this caused him frustration and inconvenience. We found the Council is at fault. We recommended it apologise to Mr X, pay him £300 and act to prevent recurrence.
- Mr X complains the Council repeatedly failed to collect the household waste and recycling where he lives and failed to ensure an improvement of the service despite saying there would be. This has led to overflowing bins, unpleasant smells and is a potential health hazard. Mr X said this caused him frustration and inconvenience in reporting the missed collections and chasing the Council.
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)
- We investigate complaints about councils and certain other bodies. Where an individual, organisation or private company is providing services on behalf of a council, we can investigate complaints about the actions of these providers. (Local Government Act 1974, section 25(7), 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 information provided by Mr X and the Council.
- Mr X and the Council had the opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments before making a final decision.
What I found
Council bin collections
- Councils have a duty under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to collect household waste and recycling from properties in its area. The collections do not have to be weekly, and councils can decide the type of bins or boxes people must use.
- This Council’s practice is to make alternate weekly waste and recycling collections.
- Missed collections must be reported by 4pm on the next working day after the scheduled bin collection. If a missed collection is not reported within this timeframe, the Council will not return for collection until the next scheduled collection.
- If a bin is tagged for reasons such as being too heavy or contaminated the Council will not return for the waste collection.
- The Council contract its waste services to a service provider.
Council’s complaint policy
- The Council has a two-stage complaint procedure.
- Stage one: A team leader or manager for the relevant service complained about will oversee the investigation. The Council will provide a response to the complaint within 10 working days. Sometimes a complicated complaint may take longer by the complainant will be kept updated.
- Stage two: The head of service will review the complaint and will try to provide a full response within 15 working days.
Effective complaint handling
- In 2020 the Ombudsman published its updated ‘Effective complaint handling for local authorities’. One of the core principles is an expectation local authorities will act on:
- ‘acting fairly and proportionately’ by explaining its thinking. Ensure the complainant knows how they can challenge the decision if they remain unhappy.
Principles of good administrative practice
- In 2018 the Ombudsman published its updated ‘Principles of good administrative practice’ guidance for local authorities. Some of the core principles are an expectation local authorities will act on:
- ‘being service user focused’ by having appropriate skills and capacity to effectively contract manage third party suppliers delivering services on behalf of the council.
- being service user focused’ by implementing contractual arrangements with supplier to maintain service standards and provide clarity on the responsibility for managing concerns and complaints.
- On 23 June 2021 Mr X complained to the Council about frequent missed collections of the household waste and recycling bins where he lives, including three missed collections in May and June. The Council acknowledged his complaint and said it aimed to respond within 10 working days, by 7 July.
- Mr X followed up his complaint with an email to the Council attaching additional evidence of missed and partial bin collections on 29 June. The Council acknowledged the email on 30 June.
- Mr X did not receive a response to his stage one complaint and telephoned the Council on 9 July to ask what was happening and progress his complaint to stage two.
- The Council emailed Mr X on 12 July apologising for not providing a response to his stage one complaint. It explained the service provider had fallen behind with collections and responding to complaints. It said the Council was working with the service provider to collect all outstanding household waste and recycling collections.
- Mr X was unhappy with this response and emailed the Council the same day to ask for a further response. He said other people living close by had no missed bin collections, and if there was a backlog, the Council would still collect the bins, but at a later date. He explained his bins were either partially collected or not collected at all.
- The Council emailed Mr X again on 14 July, explaining problems with missed and part or complete rounds was widespread, and the service provider was using agency staff unfamiliar with the routes. The Council said it would check with the service provider about any collection difficulties at Mr X’s address and ask it to ensure staff were properly instructed.
- Internal emails provided by the Council show it contacted the service provider on 14 July and asked it to contact Mr X directly. It also asked for it to let the Council know what went wrong and how it put things right.
- Mr X responded to the Council on 19 July and explained the service provider had collected the bins the previous week, after five weeks, however it had also collected the recycling with the household waste. He explained he would be paying attention the next day, a bin collection day, to see which bins the service provider emptied.
- Mr X emailed the Council the following day, to report the bins had not been emptied, and as far as he was aware, there was no attempt to empty them. He explained in the space of five weeks, the service provider collected the bins once.
- Further internal emails from the Council show it emailed the service provider on 21 July asking for it to contact Mr X. It also asked if anyone could collect the bins that day.
- The Council emailed the service provider again on 28 and 29 July asking for an update so it could provide a response to Mr X by 29 July.
- The service provider emailed the Council on 29 July. It said it had contacted Mr X that morning, had put the bin collection on the priority list and would empty the bins as soon as possible.
- The Council responded to Mr X’s complaint at stage two on 29 July, within 15 working days of the request of 9 July. It said the service provider had investigated the missed bin collections and resolved the matter. It explained the service provider had spoken to staff and they were aware the bins needed collecting on schedule going forward. It said a driver had been sick and covering staff were not collecting from all bulk bins. The driver had now returned, and collections were happening as they should.
- It apologised for the service failure and lack of response to Mr X’s stage one complaint. It explained the service provider was behind on responding to complaints and the Council had provided it with support to contact all outstanding complainants and address ongoing complaints. It did not let Mr X know what he could do if he remained unhappy with its response.
- Mr X was unhappy with the Council’s response and brought his complaint to the Ombudsman.
- On 31 August Mr X reported to the Council his household waste and recycling bins had not been collected for five consecutive weeks.
- The Council contacted the service provider on 1 September asking it to contact Mr X about the missed bin collections and to let the Council know the outcome.
- Mr X reported another missed bin collection to the Council on 14 September. He advised the bin shed doors had been changed but the code remained the same.
- The service provider responded by email to the Council on 17 September. It said Mr X had contacted them with a new bin store door code as he was now aware it had changed since the new doors were fitted. It said the bin collection staff now had the code so there should be no further problems.
- Mr X reported to the Council a further six missed recycling and two household waste bin collections, from 13 October 2021 to 1 February 2022.
- Mr X said the matter has not been resolved and missed bin collections are ongoing.
- In response to enquiries, the Council provided a copy of an internal email it sent to the service provider on 10 February, after it had received our enquiry letter. It explained Mr X had ‘a pretty poor experience with his waste collections’ and asked the service provider to comment on what caused the issues and how it would be resolved.
- The service provider said in response it had spoken to the bin collection staff. It explained the recycling bins where Mr X lives were always contaminated and rather than ‘booking the bin’, the staff come back the following week and ‘clear the lot’. It did not mention the failure to collect the household waste on two occasions.
- The email also said, staff had been advised this practice had to stop and contaminated recycling bins ‘need to be booked’ and not collected on the household waste week. It said it had faith the issues would now stop and the next ‘couple of collections’ would be monitored.
- The Council provided no further comment on Mr X’s concern that despite reporting problems and making a complaint, it had failed to address or resolve the issue and the problem had continued.
- Mr X said the issue has not just affected him but everyone where he lives. He said during the summer months when the bins were not collected, the smell was so bad that residents above the bin shed kept their windows closed. He also said foxes were regularly going through the rubbish and children playing outside played next to the bin sheds which presented a health hazard.
- In comments on my draft decision the Council said, in summary:
- There have been significant difficulties in collecting refuse and recycling from the property where Mr X lives over a period of time.
- There is a history of residents putting refuse in recycling bins and vice versa. Recycling that is contaminated in this way cannot be collected by the recycling round and is collected a week later by the refuse round.
- Bags of refuse are sometimes left blocking access to the communal bins.
- Service provider staff have intervened previously and discussed how to resolve the issues with the managing agents, but the problem has persisted.
- The Council believes the contaminated recycling is the cause of the service shortfall experienced by Mr X and other residents.
- Last summer the Council experienced significant disruption to its waste services through a shortage of HGV drivers and other factors. This meant the case did not get the attention that is deserved at the time to achieve early resolution.
- The Council did not respond to Mr X’s initial complaint, and it is unclear if the complaint was investigated at this stage. The Council should have provided a response within 10 working days, not doing so is fault.
- The Council’s stage two response failed to let Mr X know he could bring his complaint to the Ombudsman. In line with the Ombudsman’s effective complaint handling guidance as mentioned above in this statement, the Council is at fault for not doing this.
- While the Council contracts its waste services to a service provider, it remains responsible for the service provided to its residents. During the period of Mr X’s complaint from May to July, there were six missed bin collections. The issue continued after the Council’s final response and there were a further six missed collections from August to September. This is fault.
- There were another eight missed bin collections however, between October 2021 and February 2022 which the Council took no action on, despite knowing of previous issues with the collections. The Council only contacted the service provider in February 2022 after receiving our enquiries. Had the Council acted sooner when Mr X continued to report missed bin collections it could have discovered the problem with the contaminated recycling waste earlier. It did not do so, and this is fault.
- The Council believes the issue with contaminated recycling bins is the cause of the service shortfall. There were however, two missed household waste collections between October 2021 and February 2022 which suggests the problem is not limited to contaminated recycling bins. I have made a service improvement recommendation to address this.
- The Council said bags of refuse are sometimes left blocking access to the communal bins and that both this, and the recycling issues, were discussed with the managing agents. While this is inconvenient for bin collection staff and is a factor in the background of the complaint, Mr X still received a service shortfall which caused him injustice.
- The fault by the Council has caused Mr X frustration and inconvenience, both with his waste collections and the Council’s failure to resolve the problem. Mr X has also been put to unnecessary time and trouble trying to resolve this matter. I considered this injustice when calculating a suitable remedy.
- To remedy the injustice set out above I recommended the Council carry out the following actions:
- Within one month of the date of my decision:
- Issue a further apology to Mr X, for repeatedly failing to collect his waste and recycling and the handling of his complaint.
- Pay Mr X £100 for loss of service.
- Pay Mr X £100 which is a symbolic payment to reflect the frustration and inconvenience caused by Council’s failure to resolve the issue.
- Pay Mr X £100 for the unnecessary time and trouble he has been put to in trying to resolve this matter.
- Issue a briefing note to complaint handling staff, reminding them to signpost to the Ombudsman at the final stage of a complaint.
- Check if there have been any further missed bin collection reports from Mr X since 1 February 2022. If so, monitor Mr X’s bin collections for one month and ensure it takes action to resolve any further issues. Share with us the outcome of this review and any action taken.
- I have found fault by the Council. This fault caused Mr X injustice and the Council has agreed to my recommendations, therefore I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman