The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr S complains that the Council delayed in installing the agreed signage at the nearby recreation ground and that the new signage wrongly restricts dog-walkers access to the whole cricket pitch area. The Council was at fault in that it delayed installing signage and miscommunicated its intentions in respect of the wording. The Ombudsman considers that the replacement of the signage, once the Council has introduced a new Public Space Protection Order later this year, is a suitable response to Mr S’s complaint.
- Mr S complains that:
- the Council delayed in installing the agreed signage at the nearby recreation ground; and
- has not installed the signage that makes it clear that the public has the right to use the whole recreation ground, aside from the wicket area, as agreed with the Ombudsman.
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)
- 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 considered Mr S’s written complaint and supporting papers and the background papers on his previous complaint to the Ombudsman. I have made enquiries of the Council and considered its response to my enquiries. I have also sent Mr S and the Council a draft decision and invited their comments.
What I found
- Mr and Mrs S have lived next to a community recreation ground for more than 30 years. The recreation ground has long been used for leisure activities including dog-walking and by both the previous and current cricket club.
- In August 2016, the cricket club signed a 21-year lease to use the recreation ground without the Council undertaking the necessary consultation for disposal of public open space. Mr S says that, after the Council granted the lease, two of the cricket club’s officers harassed, intimated and verbally abused members of the public who wanted to walk their dogs on the recreation ground. He complained to the Council about these and associated problems.
- Mr S felt that the Council had failed to investigate and resolve his concerns about restricted access to the recreation ground or to respond to his stage two complaint, so he complained to the Ombudsman. He said he wanted people to be able to freely use the ground when matches were not being played, as before.
- The Ombudsman reached a decision on Mr S’s complaint in February 2019. The Council accepted fault in how it had drafted the lease and that this had contributed to subsequent problems on the recreation ground. However, the Ombudsman could not determine the lawfulness of the lease, as that would be for the courts to decide.
- The Ombudsman found very significant delay by the Council in responding to Mr S’s complaints. There had also been multiple and lengthy delays, largely on the part of the Council’s Estates Team, in arranging meetings to try to resolve these problems and a failure to communicate the steps it had agreed.
- The Council apologised to Mr S for the lack of consultation and delay in dealing with his complaints. It also agreed within three months to:
- review its policy and procedures where disposing of public open space, so as to undertake the necessary consultation;
- ensure that its Estates Team reviews how it responds to complaints in future; and
- ensure that appropriate signage is put in place so that members of the public are made aware of their right to use the recreation ground.
- The Fouling of Land by Dogs Bradford Order 2011 applies to the land and requires owners to remove dog mess. However, the Council says it is not possible to police the area at all times. Moreover, the cricket club does not have sufficient funds to install CCTV to prevent dog fouling.
- The Dogs on Leads (City of Bradford MDC) Order 2013 requires dogs to be kept on a lead at all times if walked on any of the sites listed in the schedule attached to the Order. This does not apply to the recreation ground.
- The Dogs on Leads by Direction (City of Bradford MDC) Order 2013, applies to all the land in the Council’s administrative area to which the public are entitled to have access. This states that “A person in charge of a dog shall be guilty of an offence if, at any time, on any land to which this Order applies, he does not comply with a direction given him by an authorised officer of the Authority to put and keep the dog on a lead…”. The Council considers the signage constitutes a clear direction (in compliance with the Order) by an authorised officer requiring dog-walkers to keep their dogs on a lead.
- no member of the public has been refused access to the ground (with or without a dog);
- the entrance gate has no lock (and the latch has been removed to make access easier for users with restricted mobility); and
- the Estates Office has received no complaints from members of the public about access restrictions placed (with the exception of Mr S’s initial complaint about parking outside his garage).
- The Council delayed unreasonably in putting in place appropriate signage, after agreeing to install new signage in February. In all, it took eight months to put further signage in place. This is particularly disappointing given the extensive delays that Mr S had already encountered in response to his earlier complaints.
- It is also disappointing that the Council agreed to install signage allowing access to the whole pitch, except the wicket area, but then installed signage restricting access to the whole pitch. Although there may have been a misunderstanding by a Council officer, the Council had specifically agreed this wording with the Ombudsman. I would expect the Council to have established and communicated its position clearly at the time.
- Given that the signage has not been installed as agreed, I have considered whether to ask the Council to install new signage and, if so, what wording to use.
Restricting access to the pitch
- The restriction originally agreed was to “Please keep dogs away from the wicket area”. The Council has replaced this with “Dogs must only be walked around the perimeter of the cricket pitch and must not be allowed on the cricket pitch at any time”.
- The Council says it must balance up the needs and wishes of different users of the recreation ground. It says the cricket club provides a benefit to the community by providing an activity (for local people) and maintaining the land at its own cost but it must also safeguard its users, by restricting access to dogs from the pitch for health and safety reasons.
- Mr S says the signage will restrict the public to a small area outside the perimeter of the pitch. He says the recreation ground is not just for dog-walkers, but for groups of people who wish to play football, their own games of cricket, ball games and other sports and social activities, including family picnics and parties.
- However, according to the signage, the public is not prevented from using the cricket pitch, except for the restriction on walking dogs. I appreciate that this significantly limits the available space for dog-walkers, but aerial photographs suggest that there is sufficient space around the perimeter for people to walk their dogs. On balance therefore, I do not consider it unreasonable for the Council to ask dog-walkers to keep their dogs off the cricket pitch.
Keeping dogs on a lead
- The wording originally agreed with the Council was that dogs should be kept on a leash at all times.
- The Dogs on Leads by Direction (City of Bradford MDC) Order 2013 states that “an authorised officer of the Authority may only give a direction under this Order to put and keep a dog on a lead if such restraint is reasonably necessary to prevent a nuisance or behaviour by the dog likely to cause annoyance or disturbance to any other person on any land to which this order applies or the worrying or disturbance of any animal or bird”.
- The Council considers that installing a sign constitutes an officer providing a “direction” to prevent the walking of dogs without a lead.
- Mr S does not consider that this Order provides a blanket authority to require dogs to be kept on a lead but it is intended to allow officers to require owners to put dogs on a leash where they are out of control etc. Mr S considers this to be an unreasonable restriction, unless dogs are out of control and aggressive.
- It seems questionable whether the Order can be used to place a blanket requirement to keep dogs on a lead, and whether this would be enforceable. However, it would ultimately be for the courts to decide if such a blanket restriction was enforceable, not the Ombudsman.
- As stated above, I do not consider it unreasonable for the Council to restrict dogs from accessing the cricket pitch. I also consider it a relevant factor (though Mr S disagrees) that the Council intends later this year to require all dogs to be kept on a lead on Council land. Given that the current signage welcomes the public to the cricket ground, I do not see sufficient grounds to ask the Council to replace the signage now. Rather, I think it would be appropriate to replace the signage once PSPOs have been introduced, to reflect the restrictions then in place.
- The wording is not as discussed with the Council in one further respect. The Council had previously agreed to the following wording: “Access to this ground is provided at the will and pleasure of the City of Bradford Council MDC and [the] Cricket Club for the Community and Club members/Users”. I will therefore ask the Council to include this wording when it comes to install the new signage.
- The Council has agreed:
- in addition to placing notices in local newspapers to inform members of the public of the forthcoming PSPO consultation, it will send Mr S details of the consultation and ask for his comments; and
- within three months of the introduction of the new PSPOs, it will replace the signage with signage updated to reflect the restrictions set out in the new PSPOs and the wording in the “Other wording” section above.
- I have closed my investigation because I consider that the agreed changes to the signage are an appropriate response to Mr S’s complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman