Decision : Closed after initial enquiries
Decision date : 09 Mar 2021
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: We will not investigate this complaint from a businessman about the Council’s failure to pay him a grant under its Business Growth Scheme. This is mainly because the man’s dispute with the Council about whether he breached the grant agreement is ultimately a matter for the courts to decide on. In addition, the man has complained late about this matter.
- The complainant, who I shall call Mr B, complained about the Council’s failure to pay him a grant which had already been agreed, after it unreasonably decided he had breached conditions of the grant agreement. Mr B suggested the Council had pursued a personal vendetta against him for other reasons. He said the Council’s actions had caused him substantial financial loss and had impacted on his health. As a result Mr B wanted the Council to honour the agreement and pay the grant.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- The Local Government Act 1974 sets out our powers but also imposes restrictions on what we can investigate. In particular the Act says we normally cannot investigate a complaint when someone could take the matter to court. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to go to court. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c), as amended)
- In addition 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered the information Mr B provided with his complaint. I also gave Mr B an opportunity to comment on a draft of this decision before I reached a final view in his case. In addition I considered the Council’s response to my enquiries in Mr B’s case.
What I found
- In 2014 Mr B applied for grant funding from the Council under its Business Growth Scheme. This was to help pay for the refurbishment of his business. Later that year Mr B and the Council signed a grant agreement for the funding he requested, subject to certain conditions.
- In 2015 Mr B approached the Council to release the grant funds as he had completed the refurbishment works. However the Council raised an issue about whether Mr B still owned the business, which was one of the conditions for paying the grant.
- Mr B said he was still the owner and that he tried to clarify this matter with the Council. But early in 2016 the Council sent Mr B a letter saying he was in breach of the agreement. In particular it said Mr B had breached a condition relating to carrying out activities likely to bring the project or the Council into disrepute. It appears this related to recent contraventions of food hygiene regulations. The Council subsequently terminated the grant agreement.
- Mr B said he continued to make representations to the Council, and had a meeting with officers in 2017, but without finding a resolution.
- In March 2018 Mr B’s solicitor took up the issue again and made further submissions to the Council about Mr B’s ownership and the reasons why the conditions it had invoked did not apply.
- Mr B complained to us about this matter in December 2020.
- But I have concluded that we should not investigate Mr B’s complaint.
- In particular, I consider that Mr B’s complaint is essentially about whether or not he breached the grant agreement, and whether the Council was legally entitled to terminate the contract on that basis.
- But I do not see that we have a remit to interpret the terms of contractual agreements or make rulings about whether there has been a breach of contract. I suggest these are matters which are ultimately for the courts to decide, and we cannot act as substitute for the courts in this respect.
- In addition, I consider that Mr B has complained to us late and, therefore, the jurisdictional restriction I refer to in paragraph 3 also applies in his case.
- In particular I note the Council’s decision which Mr B complains about was taken in early 2016. Even if we accept Mr B needed some time after that to make further representations to the Council to try and persuade it to pay the grant, he did not complain to us until December 2020. As a result it is clear that Mr B has made his complaint well over 12 months after he became aware of the issues in question.
- We will not investigate Mr B’s complaint about the Council’s refusal to pay him a grant it had agreed for the refurbishment of his business premises. This is because it is reasonable to expect him to have gone to court about this matter, and we are not a substitute for the courts. In addition his complaint has been made late.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman