The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complains the Council was at fault in the way it carried out public consultation over a decision to dispose of Open Space Land. And in the way it recorded the result of a statutory public consultation period. The Ombudsman has found no evidence of fault in the way the Council considered these matters.
- The complainant whom I shall refer to as Mr X complains about the way the Council carried out formal public consultation to dispose of open space land needed to enable a development.
- Mr X says due to this the Council’s Cabinet ignored objections residents previously sent when it decided on the Disposal Notice for the land. So, the Council’s minutes of the meeting and information on its website about the development are wrong.
- Mr X lives near to the development and says he will be affected by the loss of open space. Mr X does not consider the land swap to be like for like.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), 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 read the papers submitted by Mr X and spoken to him about the complaint. I have viewed the relevant Cabinet papers on the Council’s web site and considered the Council’s response to Mr X’s complaints. I have explained my draft decision to Mr X and the Council and considered the comments received.
What I found
- In 2017 the Council carried out public consultation on a proposal to replace a local facility with a new building. It included ‘swapping’ some open space land with a local town council. This resulted in some residents raising concerns about the proposed development. The Council’s Cabinet met in 2017. It agreed officers should place statutory notices and carry out further consultation about the proposal and disposal of land to allow the development to go ahead. This would ensure the Council would protect and develop existing green spaces.
- The Cabinet met in early 2018 to consider the results of the public consultation on the proposed land swap. The Cabinet report noted the responses received and the major concerns raised. The Cabinet considered the report and agreed to progress with the plans.
- The Cabinet met again several months later to consider a report on the formal public consultation about the land swap. The report explained the public consultation carried out in 2017 and the responses received. It explained Cabinet agreed to officers placing the statutory advertisements and carry out public consultation. The report said officers placed the statutory advertisements and public consultation needed with a press releases and information on town and parish council web sites.
- The report noted no objections to the statutory advertisements and public consultation received so far. It referred to a letter sent to a local newspaper and copied to the Council. This did not object to the disposal but commented on the overall loss of green space in the area. The report recommended the Cabinet agree to the land swap to help facilitate the new development. The Cabinet considered the report and agreed to the recommendation.
- Mr X complained to the Council the valid objections he and other residents made to the proposed land swap during public consultation had been ignored. And written out of the Council’s records about the matter. This was due to the Cabinet minutes of the meeting stating there had been no objections to the land transfer. Mr X said it was not true and he and other residents had objected. Mr X asked the Council to re-consider the proposal and correct the minutes to show residents had sent objections. Mr X considered the Cabinet had been misled about objections from residents.
- The Council replied the Cabinet had considered the response to the public consultation carried out about the land swap at its earlier meetings. So, members were aware of concerns raised by residents to the proposal. The Council explained it was required to advertise its intent to dispose of the open space land through a formal Notice and in a newspaper. And then consider any objections made.
- The Council said it displayed the statutory notice about the intent to dispose of the land around the site and in a local newspaper. The notice gave details of the land to be transferred, the date of the notice and where objections should be sent by a certain date. The Council confirmed it received no objections to the statutory notice and public consultation carried out during the period of the notice. This was reported to the Cabinet meeting. So, the Council did not consider Cabinet had been misled and the minutes were correct. The Council also considered information on its web site about the matter was correct.
- Mr X remained unhappy with the Council’s response and said the Notice did not refer to an early cut-off date for objections and gave no starting date. Mr X said the Notice did not tell residents that the Council would disregard previously submitted objections. Otherwise he would have resubmitted his objections. So, Mr X said the Council should not have ignored his valid objections.
- The Council responded the Cabinet report was to formally report the results of the statutory consultation into the land swap. So, the report was correct to say it had not received any objections. It said the Cabinet was aware of previous reports about the level of public support for the land swap.
- The Council said the notice was required to have a date of publication on it which was the date it was issued. The Notice then gave an end date for the statutory public consultation period.
- The Council noted Mr X’s comments about telling residents who had previously commented about the statutory consultation period. The Council said it may consider whether it could make improvements for future consultations. But it had carried out the legal requirements to advertise the disposal in this case.
- The documents I have seen show the Cabinet reports refer to the public consultation carried out by the Council in 2017 and the responses received. I am aware Mr X does not agree with the Council’s decision to carry out the land swap and does not consider it is a like for like swap. However, I see nothing in the evidence I have considered to show the Council was not aware of all the relevant facts, including objections from Mr X when it made its decision. There are therefore no grounds for me to criticise the merits of the Council’s decision on the land swap and no evidence of administrative fault.
- The documents I have seen show the Council carried out the statutory consultation it needs to do when wishing to dispose of Open Space land. The Council confirmed it erected notices at the site and placed an advert in the local newspaper. The Notice gave the relevant dates of publication and the response date due for any objections. The later Cabinet meeting was to consider the response to the statutory notice period. The Cabinet report referred to the earlier public consultation carried out so I consider it was clear the Cabinet were aware of this and the responses received from residents. But there had been no objections made during the statutory consultation period. So, this was correctly reported in the Cabinet minutes. Due to this I do not consider there is evidence of any administrative fault by the Council in the way it recorded the outcome of the statutory public consultation period.
- The Council has recognised Mr X’s point about telling those who have responded to previous consultation about the need to object during the formal consultation period. And it is to consider whether it needs to make any improvements to its public consultation. But this is a matter for the Council to consider and decide whether to make any changes.
- I am completing my investigation. I have found no fault in the way the Council carried out public consultation on a proposal to swap land for a development and recorded the outcome of a statutory consultation period.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman