The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council had failed to respond to Mr X’s complaint about its decision to approve works to a protected tree. We found the Council suitably put matters right when it then apologised and replied to the complaint.
- Mr X said the Council failed to investigate his complaint about it misdirecting itself and unlawfully approving works to a tree protected by a tree preservation order (TPO). The environmental and amenity benefits of trees are important to Mr X. Mr X wanted the Council to respond to his complaint to ensure it understood the law and so could correctly apply it when dealing with future applications.
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)
- 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 Mr X’s written complaint and supporting papers;
- contacted the Council, which agreed to respond to Mr X’s unanswered complaint;
- considered the Council’s complaint response to Mr X;
- asked for and considered Mr X’s comments on the Council’s response; and
- given Mr X and the Council an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
- Mr X complained to the Council about how it had reached its decision to approve works to a tree protected by a TPO. Essentially, Mr X believed the Council had misdirected itself about relevant laws making its resulting decision unlawful. Mr X waited three months but, getting no response from the Council, complained to us. Mr X said the tree works were now complete, but he wanted to ensure the Council properly understood the law for the future protection of local trees.
- The Council has a two-stage complaints procedure. At stage 1, it aims to respond to a complaint within 15 working days and, at stage 2, within 20 working days. The Council failed to meet these published time targets in Mr X’s case. This was fault.
- However, as part of our investigation, the Council replied to Mr X’s substantive concerns and explained its TPO decision. The Council also sincerely apologised to Mr X giving reasons for its significant delay in responding to his complaint.
- Mr X was dissatisfied with the Council’s response. He continued to disagree with the Council about its interpretation of the law and said it only responded to his complaint because of our intervention.
- We can find fault where councils do not follow the law, but the courts determine disputed legal points. Here, the differing views on the law held by Mr X and the Council are not matters I can resolve but are for the courts to determine. I therefore cannot help Mr X further with his substantive complaint.
- We recently published a Report about our investigation into other complaints against the Council (our reference numbers 20 007 914 and 20 007 915). The Report includes complaint handling and recommends the Council:
“review its revised arrangements for monitoring complaints and ensuring compliance with any future recommendations we make”.
- We have therefore already addressed the wider issue raised by Mr X about the Council’s complaint handling. I found no need now to make added recommendations about the Council’s complaints handling.
- Overall, I found the Council’s apology and complaint response had reasonably and proportionately put right any annoyance and frustration its delay would have caused Mr X.
- I completed my investigation finding the Council had now suitably addressed the injustice it caused Mr X in failing to reply to his complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman