The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained about the way the Council disposed of a piece of greenspace land. Mr X said the loss has been detrimental to himself and other local people. There was no fault in the Council’s actions.
- In relation to the sale of a piece of land and subsequent planning application, Mr X complained the Council:
- incorrectly stated it used the same methodology to determine surplus green space land in its 2008 and 2019 open spaces audits (OSAs);
- presented a committee with incomplete and inaccurate information which was contrary to the 2019 OSA;
- failed to seek best value for the piece of land by not offering it for sale on the open market prior to deciding to exchange/sell the land to a Joint Venture company in which the Council has a direct financial interest;
- declined to provide a friend with details about the amount of money paid to the Council for the piece of land
- failed at first to display a site notice for the subsequent planning application and when it did display a notice, extended the consultation period; and
- lost their second letter of complaint.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We cannot investigate something that affects all or most of the people in a council’s area. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(7), as amended)
- 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 considered the complaints correspondence provided by Mr X. I also considered the relevant reports to the Council’s decision-making committees, the 2019 open space audit and the relevant parts of the Council’s local plan.
- I wrote to Mr X and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments before I made my final decision.
What I found
Open spaces audit (OSA)
- In 2019, the Council updated its Open Space Audit 2008. The 2019 OSA established new standards for determining and analysing open space in the borough. The new standards measured the average level of provision in the borough for each type of open space and compared it to a national Fields in Trust (FIT) quality standard
- In relation to greenspace in the area where Mr X lived, the OSA 2019 stated that the FIT standard calculated there was a deficit of greenspace of 1.08ha. However, the new standards used to measure open space, calculated there was a surplus of 0.13ha.
- Mr X lives around half a mile from a piece of land where he used to walk his dog. This is classified by the Council as open greenspace.
- In 2017, the Council’s Executive Committee declared the site was surplus to requirements and could be disposed of. The site was placed on the Council’s ‘surplus assets held for sale’ list.
- Around six months later, officers reported to the Council’s Policy and Resources Committee that the site was being considered by a joint venture company which was party owned by the Council. The report said the joint venture company was considering purchasing the land and submitting a planning application to the Council to build residential properties on the site.
- In 2019, the Council gave notice of its intention to dispose of the open space land in the local press for two consecutive weeks and invited objections. Nine objections were received.
- The Policy and Resources Committee met and considered the deposal of the site. Councillors received a two page covering report from a Council officer, a copy of each objection and the 2019 Open Spaces Audit. The covering report recommended approval. It also stated “The existing  open space audit has identified [Mr X’s town] as having a lack of amenity greenspace but the Council’s new open space audit... concludes that there is a surplus of amenity greenspace”.
- The Committee approved the disposal of the land. There is an ongoing planning application to build residential properties on the site.
- Mr X was unhappy and complained to the Council about the issues listed in paragraph 1 of this decision statement. Mr X was particularly unhappy with the officer’s covering report which he said was misleading. Mr X said the officer should have specified that under the national FIT standards there was a deficit of greenspace in his area. Instead, the officer only specified the outcome using the new standards.
- The Council responded. It said there were different types of standards for different types of open space and it did not use these as used a locally devised standard. The Council said this was the same methodology used in the 2008 OSA. Mr X was unhappy with this and said the statement was untrue. He subsequently complained to the Ombudsman.
- The Council followed the correct procedures in relation to the disposal of the land. It brought an officer’s report to the Policy and Resources Committee which approved the sale. The Committee was provided with a two page covering report from the officer, the objections and a copy of the full 2019 OSA. Councillors therefore had the information they required to make an informed decision about the land in question. There was no fault in the Council’s actions.
- Mr X believes the Council failed to ensure it got a best value price for the land. Even if this was correct and any injustice can be quantified, it is one which is shared with every council taxpayer in the area because it relates to an alleged waste of public money. Mr X is no more affected by this than anyone else. This means that this complaint is outside the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction because we cannot consider complaints about something that affects all or most people in the area.
- I will not investigate Mr X’s complaint that about whether the statement in the Council’s complaints response was incorrect when it said it used the same methodology in 2008 and 2019. It does not warrant the costs of an investigation and I could not achieve anything meaningful.
- Even if I did find fault in the way the Council disposed of the land, it is unlikely Mr X experienced a significant personal injustice. This is for the following reasons:
- Mr X lives around half a mile from the land. He states he used to walk his dog on the piece of land. The fact that he can no longer do so is insufficient personal injustice to warrant an investigation into the matters he complains about. In addition, it is not the sale of the land that has prevented Mr X from accessing the land; it would be the building of residential properties which would curtail his use of the land and this has not yet been decided;
- any development is too far away to cause any injustice to him. Therefore, I will not investigate the complaints he has raised about the site notice; and
- the Council’s decision not to share with his friend the price it received for the land has not caused Mr X a significant personal injustice and it is open to his friend to complain to the Ombudsman if he wishes. But it is unlikely we would look at a complaint of this nature. That is because it relates to the sharing of information. The Information Commissioner’s Office is better placed to deal with this type of complaint.
- There was no fault in the Council’s actions. Therefore, I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman