The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council failed to provide information to Miss B about the type of development it will allow when she applied to buy the loft above her flat. As a result, Miss B was put to avoidable time and trouble applying to buy the loft, and the unnecessary expense of having architect’s plans drawn up. The Council has agreed to make a payment to Miss B, reimburse the cost of the architect’s fees and take action to prevent similar failings in future.
- Miss B complained that the Council had failed to determine her application to buy the loft above her leasehold flat and had failed to properly respond to her emails and complaints about it.
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
- considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant;
- discussed the issues with the complainant;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council has provided; and
- given the Council and the complainant the opportunity to comment on my draft decision.
What I found
- Miss B owns a one-bedroom leasehold flat. In November 2017 she asked the Council, who owns the freehold, about buying the loft space above her flat to create another bedroom.
- The Council sent Miss B a guide to the consent process for structural alterations and buying additional land. It said that she would need to submit some detailed ‘to scale’ drawings identifying the works that she wished to carry out and the area she wished to purchase.
- Miss B arranged for an architect to draw up plans of the proposed loft conversion which she submitted to the Council in February 2018.
- Miss B chased the Council for a decision in May and June. Then in July, the Council asked Miss B to provide photographs of some pipes which were in the loft. After considering the photographs, the Council wrote to Miss B to tell her that she could not buy the loft because the pipes were part of the district heating system and could not be moved.
- Miss B was not happy with the Council’s decision and asked it to explain why the pipes could not be moved. The Council then agreed to carry out a site visit and make a more considered decision.
- A site visit was carried out in August and it was agreed that it was possible to move the pipes. A further site visit was carried out in October to estimate the cost of the works.
- Miss B made a formal complaint to the Council in November. She complained about the Council’s delay in progressing her request to purchase the loft space and about poor communication. She said that she was angry that she had been required to spend money on architect’s fees when examination of the photographs should have been the first step in the process. Miss B said that she was still waiting to hear how much it would cost to move the pipes and buy the loft space.
- When Miss B chased the Council for a response to her complaint, it apologised for the delay and explained that its technical lead wanted to carry out a site visit himself before confirming whether they could proceed.
- The Council’s technical lead inspected the loft and then wrote to Miss B in January 2019. He explained that the Council’s policy was to not permit development in areas where there were communal services, but it was reviewing the policy with a view to making it less restrictive.
- He said that the pipework in the loft area could be repositioned internally and the estimated cost for the works would be between £20,000 and £25,000. He asked Miss B to confirm whether she wanted to proceed.
- In Miss B’s response, she asked the Council to explain why it would cost so much to move the pipes as she understood that the works would only take a few days. She said that she was disappointed that she had not been told from the start that it was the Council’s policy to not allow development where there were communal services. She said that she had been told to submit architect's drawings as the first step, and this had potentially caused her to waste £1,000. Miss B said that she was still waiting for a response to her formal complaint about the delays and poor communication.
- The Council responded to Miss B’s complaint in July 2019. It apologised and offered to pay her £250 to compensate her for the time and trouble she had been put to as a result of the delays.
- The Council also provided a breakdown of the costs involved in moving the pipework which totalled £25,850. It told Miss B that if she wanted to proceed, she would need to pay a valuation fee of £500 and the Council would then sell the loft space for 35% of the total expected increase in value of the flat. The Council estimated that this would be between £50,000 and £60,000.
- Miss B says the estimated costs are too high to make the loft purchase and conversion viable. Miss B says that if she had known from the outset that the Council’s policy was to not allow development where there are communal services, she would not have gone to the time and trouble of applying to buy the loft and she would not have paid for an architect to draw up the plans.
- The Council’s policy says that it will not consider proposals which include the addition of dormer windows or where communal services exist. I consider the Council should have ensured information about this policy was available for Miss B to consider before she submitted her application. Its failure to do so has resulted in Miss B incurring unnecessary architect’s fees.
- The Council has apologised to Miss B for delays in the process and has offered to pay compensation of £250. I do not consider it likely that Miss B would have applied to buy the loft if she had known about the Council’s policy. Taking this into consideration, along with the significant delays by the Council in responding to her complaint, I consider the Council’s offer to be insufficient to remedy her injustice.
- Within four weeks, the Council will make a payment of £350 to Miss B to recognise her frustration and the avoidable time and trouble she has been put to as a result of the Council’s failings in this case.
- The Council will also reimburse Miss B for the cost of the architect’s fees within four weeks of Miss B providing a copy of the receipt.
- Within eight weeks, the Council will:
- Develop guidance on the types of alterations that it will allow and the areas it will sell, and then ensure this guidance is provided to potential applicants from the outset; and
- Review its procedural guidance to ensure the process is clear to all parties. It should consider whether architectural drawings are needed during the first stage of the process so that applicants are not put to any unnecessary expense.
- I have completed my investigation and uphold Miss B’s complaint. There was fault by the Council which caused injustice to Miss B. The action the Council has agreed to take is sufficient to remedy that injustice.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman