The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained on behalf of himself and three other residents. They complained about work carried out on their land to extend the rear boundary of their gardens during 2019 and about delays in legally conveying land from an old alleyway to them. The Council’s contractor carried out the works in line with the proposed plans. The Council was at fault for not confirming its ownership of the land before agreeing the scheme, which has led to delays in conveying the land to the residents. The Council agreed to write to the residents and apologise for the uncertainty caused by the delay and explain to them how it is going to resolve the matter. It also agreed to provide the Ombudsman with an action plan with timescales of how it intends to legally convey the land to the residents.
- Mr X complained on behalf of himself and three other residents about how a contactor working on behalf of the Council carried out works on their land to extend the rear boundary of their gardens. The scheme involved demolishing an old rear wall and conveying the land of an old alleyway to Mr X and the others. Mr X and the other residents say the contractor failed to rebuild a like for like wall at their boundaries which is a security risk. Mr X and the other residents further complained the Council has failed to legally convey the land now included within their boundaries which is causing them uncertainty.
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)
- We investigate complaints about councils and certain other bodies. Where an individual, organisation or private company is providing services on behalf of a council, we can investigate complaints about the actions of these providers. (Local Government Act 1974, section 25(7), 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 spoke to Mr X about the complaint.
- I considered the Council’s response to my enquiry letter.
- Mr X and the other residents and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered comments before I made a final decision.
What I found
- Conveyancing is the legal transfer of land or property from one owner to another. The process includes legal and administrative work which concludes with a transfer of deeds to the new owner.
- Mr X and the three other residents live in a row of terraced houses which I will refer to as properties 1 to 4. I have referred to Mr X and the others as the residents within this statement.
- The residents live in a row of terraced houses which all have rear garden/yard areas. Within these garden areas the residents all had a rear boundary brick wall which was in poor condition. The other side of the resident’s boundary wall was an alleyway. In 2010, the Council started to regenerate the area where the residents live, and this included proposals on land directly behind the resident’s rear boundary. The scheme included work to improve the general environment. This included the improvements and treatment to the alleyway between the resident’s boundary and the proposed new housing.
- New housing was built on land the other side of the alleyway. The Council said it originally intended to build the housing up to the residents’ boundaries, however the brick wall was in too poor condition to withstand the erection of fencing at the boundary of the new housing. So, the boundary of the resident’s properties was now separated from the boundary of the new properties by the alleyway. The Council said it would consider what to do with the alleyway once the housing development was complete.
- In 2017, the Council secured a small budget for the alleyway and consulted with the residents about what to do. Informal discussions took place between the residents and Council where different options were discussed. The residents decided they wanted to incorporate the alleyway into their gardens by extending the boundaries of their gardens. The Council agreed to this and said it would convey the land from the alleyway to the residents as part of the scheme, and at no cost to the residents.
- The Council commissioned a contractor to carry out the work at the start of 2018. In April 2018 the contractor wrote to the residents about the proposed scheme and included a plan of the proposed works to the old wall and the side walls and fences between the properties.
- The contractor held a consultation meeting with the residents to agree the scope of the work. However, there are no notes or records of those meetings.
- Between May and June 2018 records show the contractor emailed each resident individually with the proposed plans and asked for confirmation they were happy to proceed. The plans I have seen state ‘existing fence line at rear will be the new boundary’. Records show three residents emailed the contractor confirming their agreement with the proposals. The Council said the other resident gave verbal confirmation.
- The contractor completed the works between March and May 2019. The contractor demolished the old rear wall and existing side fences and walls. They replaced the side fences and walls and the residents new rear boundary now met the fencing at the boundary of the new housing.
- Mr X complained about the matter in April 2019 via his Councillor. In August 2019 Mr X formally complained to the Council on behalf of himself and the other residents. They were unhappy with the contractor who they said misled them about the works that would be completed. They said the contractor supplied confusing sets of plans and had agreed to build like-for-like brick walls and fences. The residents were unhappy the contractor did not rebuild the rear wall and were concerned there was now no rear boundary divide. The residents said the works presented a security risk.
- The Council responded at stage 1 of the complaint’s procedure. It said it did not accept the contractor misled the residents. The Council said each resident had the opportunity to clarify the plans and said the contractor asked them to spend time reviewing the plans and ask any questions they had. The Council said the scheme commenced only after the contractor received confirmation from the residents that they were in agreement with the proposed plans. The Council said at no time did it suggest it would construct a new brick wall in place of the old one. It said the residents do have a boundary in the form of the fence of the new housing. It said the new layout had improved security as there was now no alleyway or old wall.
- The residents were unhappy with the response and Mr X asked the Council to escalate the complaint to stage 2. The residents insisted the contractor had misled them. They said the contractor agreed at consultation meetings to replace walls with walls and fences with fences. The residents raised a further concern that that the Council had not legally conveyed the additional land to each of the residents.
- The Council responded at stage 2 in September 2019. It said there was no minutes or records from the meetings between the contractor and the residents so could only rely on its own written records. The Council said each resident gave confirmation of their agreement to the plans. The Council said the old alleyway had issues with anti-social behaviour, fly tipping and drug use. It said it had ‘gifted’ the land to the residents which now made their garden areas bigger. It said there was no requirement for another brick wall. The Council concluded the plans were clear and showed where the boundaries met and that the old wall would be demolished.
- The residents remained unhappy and Mr X brought the complaint to the Ombudsman.
- The residents have complained the contractor did not rebuild the rear boundary wall and instead their boundary now meets fencing from the new housing. The records I have seen show the contractor sent proposed plans to each resident and asked them to review them and ask any questions they had. Those plans state, ‘the existing wall to be fully removed’ and ‘existing fence line at rear of new housing will be the new rear boundary’. I have seen no plans that show otherwise, therefore the contractor carried out the works in line with the proposed plans and the Council is not at fault.
- The residents said the plans were confusing, and the contractor misled them in the consultation meetings. There are no records of those meetings therefore it is not possible to confirm what was said. I have therefore relied on the available evidence which is the plans and the email correspondence. I have seen no evidence which shows any of the residents questioned the re-building of the old boundary wall. Three of the residents confirmed their acceptance of the plans via email to the contractor and the other verbally. There was no fault in how the contractor carried out and completed the works on the residents’ boundary. The Council was not at fault.
- The residents also complained the Council had still not legally conveyed the additional land to them which is now incorporated inside their boundary. It its response to my enquiry letter the Council said it checked the Land Registry at the completion of the scheme. It said following this it became apparent that the Council only owns half the land that lay in the alleyway and therefore it is still looking for a solution to legally convey all the land it agreed.
- The Council commissioned a contractor for the scheme in April 2018, but work did not start until 2019. Therefore, it has had plenty of time to carry out its legal checks prior to the start of the works. Had the Council carried out these checks before the works started, it would have discovered it did not own all the alleyway land and could have worked to find a solution much earlier. Instead, the residents are left with uncertainty about how the Council intends to legally complete the transfer of the land to them.
- I have seen no evidence to show the Council has communicated or explained the issue to the residents. The residents raised their concerns about this at stage 2, however the Council made no reference to it in its response. The Council is at fault for agreeing to convey the alleyway land to the residents without first confirming it owned all the land. This fault has caused delays in the legal process of conveying the land. It also did not communicate this problem to the residents. The fault has caused delay in the conveyance of the alleyway land to the residents and the lack of transparency has caused the residents uncertainty.
- Within one month of the final decision the Council agreed to write to each of the residents to apologise for the delay and lack of transparency in legally conveying the alleyway land and explain to the residents how it proposes to resolve the matter.
- The Council agreed to take action to resolve the matter and convey the land to the residents as soon as possible. It agreed to provide the Ombudsman with an action plan to include the likely timescales for this process within one month of the final decision and provide us with monthly progress updates until the land transfer is completed.
- The above recommendations do not prevent any of the residents bringing the matter back to the Ombudsman if ongoing delays cause them further significant injustice.
- I have completed my investigation. I found fault and the Council agreed to my recommendations to remedy the injustice caused by the fault.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman