The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council wrongly promised to complete works to a tree outside Mr B’s house. This raised Mr B’s expectations. The Council took no action for a year; because of this it completed the works as a gesture of goodwill but failed to explain this to Mr B to manage his future expectations. The Council acknowledged Mr B’s complaint on three occasions over the year, but never investigated or provided a response until Mr B involved the Ombudsman. The Council has apologised for failures in service, but to recognise Mr B’s unnecessary time, trouble, and frustration the Council will pay £100.
- The complainant, who I will call Mr B, says it took over a year for the Council to complete tree pruning confirmed in June 2020 by the Love Clean Streets Application. Mr B complained to the Council in August 2020 about the lack of action, but only received automated acknowledgements at all three stages of the complaint. The Council only responded to Mr B after contact from the Ombudsman. The Council has apologised and completed tree pruning but has not explained what went wrong in this case.
- Mr B felt the Council stonewalled him as was not responding to his correspondence, which left him frustrated, upset, and disempowered. Mr B is concerned the tree is affecting the structure of his property, which causes worry and anxiety. Mr B says the delay completing the pruning added to that stress. Mr B wants assurance the failures in service will not recur in future should he need to make any further requests for tree pruning.
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 considered:
- Information provided by Mr B, including during a telephone conversation.
- Information provided by the Council in response to my enquiries.
- Information on the Council’s website.
- The Ombudsman’s guide ‘Good Administrative Practice during the response to Covid 19’.
What I found
- The Council is responsible for trees on its land. The Council owns trees on the public highway along Mr B’s Street. The Council has a three-yearly cycle of inspecting the 24,000 trees it is responsible for. If the Council finds there is a risk or a nuisance it will prune the tree.
- In the meantime, the public can report problems with trees via the Council’s website. The Council will investigate in 20 working days.
- The Council completed its standard inspection of Mr B’s Road in November 2019 and decided to remove a hanging branch and lightly prune the tree on the road outside Mr B’s house. In May 2020, before the Council had completed these works, Mr B reported a concern about the tree and asked the Council to cut it back from his house. The Council visited the site and responded saying “This tree will be cut back from your property”. The Council removed the hanging branch as specified from its inspection.
- Two months later the Council had not cut the tree back from Mr B’s house, so Mr B put in a formal complaint. The Council sent an automated acknowledgement confirming it would send a formal acknowledgement in four working days. Nothing happened, so two months later Mr B put in another complaint form, this time complaining both about the lack of action on the tree and the Council’s failure to respond to his complaint. Mr B again got the same automated acknowledgement.
- Nothing happened, so three months later Mr B e-mailed the Chief Executive of the Council. Nothing happened, so Mr B escalated his complaint to the Ombudsman.
- We contacted the Council who confirmed it had not properly dealt with Mr B’s complaint. A Council officer visited the site to inspect the tree, they said they did not see any branches hitting Mr B’s house, but the tips of the twigs were close to the property. Though it was not work the Council would normally carry out, as a gesture of goodwill the Council decided to prune back the overhanging branches giving a two-metre clearance from Mr B’s house. The Council wrote to Mr B apologising for its unacceptable service and confirming the pruning was now complete. The Council gave no explanation to Mr B for its delays in completing the tree pruning originally promised a year earlier, for the failure to deal with his complaint, and did not explain it had completed the pruning as a gesture of goodwill. Mr B remained dissatisfied and wished the Ombudsman to continue an investigation.
My investigation and findings
The tree works
- I asked the Council how it decided the work to cut back the tree was done as a ‘gesture of goodwill’ when it previously told Mr B it would cut the tree back. The Council explains it made a mistake when it told Mr B it would cut back the tree. The actual work required, as per the standard inspection, was to remove a hanging branch. The officer misread the information and then gave wrong information to Mr B.
- Mr B’s concerns about the tree are that its branches hit his house when it is windy, and its roots appear to be undermining his front wall. Mr B is concerned about damage, and potential damage, to his house.
- The council does not prune or remove trees for the following reasons:
- Interference with satellite, TV or media reception
- Touching telephone wires
- Falling leaves, fruit, pollen, honey dew or bird fouling
- Where a tree is considered to be too large
- Obstruction of view
- Overhanging branches
- Lack of/too much light
- Because someone is willing to pay
- The perceived risk that a tree may damage a building
- I accept the Council’s argument that it was not likely to have agreed to cut back the tree, given it had recently inspected and not found cutting back was needed, and it would not do so based on a perceived risk of damage.
The complaint handling
- The Council cannot explain why it did not respond to Mr B’s complaint. The Council only has record of Mr B’s correspondence in October, but not from August or January. The Council clearly received Mr B’s complaint because he received the automated acknowledgements.
- The Council is not aware of any other complaints it failed to deal with over the same period. If the Council had failed to deal with other complaints, I would expect that to have been highlighted by now, as has happened in this case. It therefore does not seem to be a systemic problem in the Council’s system, but a specific error in Mr B’s case.
- The one communication the Council can confirm it received was dealt with by a new employee, who wrongly directed it.
Was there fault causing injustice?
- I must now consider whether there was fault in the Council’s actions which has caused Mr B an injustice.
- I recognise that since the Ombudsman contacted the Council it took swift action to visit the site, undertake works to the tree as requested by Mr B which it would not normally have done, and apologised to Mr B for the failures in its service.
- However, prior to this Mr B had already had a year of failing to get any response from the Council. Mr B explains he felt stonewalled by the Council, and it was upsetting and frustrating. Mr B had no ability to contact anyone directly and felt disempowered. Mr B was worried about the tree affecting his property and had that worry for a year because the Council had not responded in any meaningful way.
- I recognise these events took place during the Covid-19 pandemic and that affected the Council’s normal service. The Ombudsman published a guide about good administrative practice during the pandemic. We still expect councils to respond appropriately to complaints even though there was a national emergency. We recognise responses may look different than during normal arrangements, for example normal response timescales may be extended. But we would expect councils to inform the complainant accordingly.
- The wrong information the Council gave to Mr B raised his expectations about the work the Council would do, and he expected the tree to be cut back. The Council has resolved Mr B’s raised expectations by completing the works it originally promised, even though it is not works it would normally do.
- However, it took a year for this to happen, over which time Mr B was upset, frustrated, and worried about a potential impact on his property. When the Council contacted Mr B to say it had now pruned the tree, it did not explain this was a gesture of goodwill. Therefore, the Council leaves Mr B with the impression this sort of work was needed and leaves him with raised expectations for any future requests. It is only through the Ombudsman’s involvement this has been clarified.
- The Ombudsman has a guidance on remedies which explains there is inevitably time and trouble involved in bringing a complaint. We may consider a remedy where there was fault in how the Council considered the complaint. In this case Mr B raised his complaint three times, and the Council failed to deal with it. The Council cannot explain why. It took a year for the Council to respond to the complaint, and that was only after Mr B involved the Ombudsman. I therefore find Mr B has had unnecessary time and trouble caused by the Council’s failures in complaint handling.
- To acknowledge the unnecessary time and trouble Mr B had pursuing his complaint, the Council will pay him £100 within 90 working days. The Council must evidence to the Ombudsman it has made the agreed payment to Mr B.
- Because the failures in complaint handling appear to be only in relation to this case and not systemic there are no service improvements I can recommend as we cannot establish what caused the problem. The Council are only aware on one occasion it was user error of a new employee; it has raised this with the individual to prevent future problems.
- I have completed my investigation on the basis the actions the Council has already taken, plus the agreed action above, is sufficient to acknowledge the impact on Mr B by the Council’s failings.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman