Plymouth City Council’s delay in fulfilling a settlement remedy it had agreed with the Local Government Ombudsman demonstrated “a lack of appropriate commitment to customer service”.
The Ombudsman said: “I can agree remedial action with a council during an investigation to enable complainants to receive a remedy more quickly. This demonstrates a willingness by a council to make amends. It relies on councils providing accurate and well-researched information.” But in this case, the remedy was not fulfilled, and information provided was inaccurate.
A woman wished to develop her land, and asked the Council to release her property from a restrictive covenant that prevented further development. The Council at first said it agreed in principle, but later proposed, instead, to vary the covenant. Negotiations continued until eventually the woman complained to the Ombudsman.
During the Ombudsman’s investigation, she proposed a remedy aimed at breaking the stalemate between the parties. The Council agreed to consider whether to release the restrictive covenant in whole or in part and reflect the delays to which it had contributed by reducing any fees or costs. The Ombudsman therefore discontinued her investigation.
The Council delayed in carrying out the terms of the settlement and then discovered the transfer of its housing stock to a local housing association in 2009 meant that it no longer owned the covenant. It could not therefore deliver the remedy it had agreed with the Ombudsman. The benefit and right to enforce, release or vary the covenant now rested with the housing association.
The Ombudsman found maladministration causing injustice because the Council:
- delayed in acting on the remedy it had agreed, and
- failed to identify the situation about the ownership of the covenant either when the woman complained to the Ombudsman, or when the Ombudsman proposed the settlement remedy.
The Ombudsman pointed out that, having spent years pursuing her goal of a release of this restrictive covenant, the complainant had to start again with the new owner of that covenant. She was put to considerable inconvenience and no little expense.
Accordingly, the Council agreed to:
- apologise to the complainant
- pay her £1,000 in recognition of the distress, delay and inconvenience caused, and as a contribution towards her abortive costs, and
- review its procedures.
Remedy agreed prior to report publication: 19 September 2012