The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs Y complains the Council failed to give her important information, affecting the location of her beach hut, before she accepted its offer of a site there. The Ombudsman has found fault by the Council causing injustice. It has agreed to remedy this by paying Mrs Y £2,870 to reimburse the costs she incurred and reflect the avoidable time and trouble its fault caused her.
- The complainant, who I am calling Mrs Y, complains the Council failed to tell her about its decision to apply for funding for a new seafront project before she accepted its offer of a beach hut site at the location of the proposed development. The application was successful and the Council has now told Mrs Y, and the other affected beach hut owners, they must remove their huts.
- Mrs Y says she would not have accepted the Council’s offer and incurred the expense of building and furnishing a new hut on the site, had she known about its plans at the time.
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 spoken to Mrs Y, and read the information she and the Council have given us about the complaint.
- I invited Mrs Y and the Council to comment on a draft version of this decision. I considered their responses before making this final decision.
What I found
The Council’s Local Code of Governance
- This is published on the Council’s website. It sets out the arrangements the Council has put in place to ensure how intended outcomes for service users and stakeholders are achieved.
- It says this is about doing the right things, for the right people, in a timely, inclusive, open, transparent, honest and accountable manner. All members and officers have a responsibility for upholding the principles of good governance.
- Mrs Y had been on the Council’s waiting list for a beach hut site for some time.
- In March 2018 the Council offered her a licence for one of its sites. The licence terms required Mrs Y to place a hut on the site within three months, remove it immediately on termination of the licence, and allowed the Council to terminate the licence with 28 days’ notice.
- Mrs Y accepted the Council’s offer and completed the licence agreement on 16 March 2018. She has told us she had a new hut built at a cost of £2020 and spent £500 on its decoration and furnishing.
- In September 2019 Mrs Y saw a local press article about the Council’s successful bid for funding for a new seafront development at the location of her beach hut site. She contacted the Council’s seafront team. A member of the team said she had not been told about the proposals at the time she was offered the site because they did not think they would get the grant.
- The seafront team emailed Mrs Y and the other affected beach hut owners advising more information would be given at the appropriate time. Despite chasing, Mrs Y heard nothing further until the 17 March 2020 when the team sent an email to all the affected owners telling them their licences would be terminated on or before 31 August 2020 and offering £250 for the hut.
- There was some further correspondence between the team and Mrs Y about the Council’s offer, which later also included an offer of a rented hut on another site. In July, Mrs Y complained to the Council about the way it had dealt with the matter.
- In its final response of 6 August, the Council said:
- At the time Mrs Y was offered the hut site, senior seafront management believed the possibility of the funding bid being successful was extremely low. They decided it was not necessary to make the seafront team dealing with potential hut owners aware of the proposed scheme.
- The offer of £250 for the hut was its standard offer to tenants affected by a development requiring the removal of their huts.
- There were no other sites available for the relocation of Mrs Y’s hut.
Analysis – was there fault by the Council causing injustice?
- It is clear from the Council’s complaint response, its senior management knew in early March 2018 about the possibility of new development which, if it went ahead, would require the removal of the beach huts at that part of the seafront. I also consider it is clear this information would affect decisions of those being offered hut sites at that location from that point on.
- I understand a feature about the funding bid and proposed development appeared in the local press in May 2018, but I have not seen any evidence the Council publicised the proposals before 16 March 2018. The application for planning permission for the new development does not appear to have been submitted until July 2020.
- The Council’s senior management decided not to share the information about the funding bid and the proposed development with the seafront team, or ensure the information was made available to applicants for beach huts at this location. In my view this decision was not in accordance with the good governance principles set out in the Council’s code. The relevant information was not shared in a timely, inclusive, open, transparent, honest and accountable manner. This is fault by the Council.
- I consider this fault has caused injustice to Mrs Y. She has told us, and I accept, she would not have accepted the offer and gone on to invest a significant amount of money - £2,520 – in the beach hut, had she known about the possible development. She has had to pay for the hut to be removed from the site, at a cost of £250.
- I also find there was fault by the Council in its communication with Mrs Y after she contacted it in September 2019 about the situation with her beach hut. In its complaint response of July 2020, the Council accepted and apologised for the lack of communication. I consider this fault caused Mrs Y further injustice. uncertainty about what was happening with the hut and avoidable time and trouble pursuing the matter with the Council.
- The Council has agreed it will, within four weeks from the date of this final decision:
- Apologise to Mrs Y for the time and trouble its fault in not sharing the information about the potential development caused her.
- Pay Mrs Y £2,770 as reimbursement for the money she spent on the new hut and its removal from the site.
- Pay Mrs Y £100 to reflect the time, trouble and upset its failure to share the relevant information and lack of communication caused her.
- I have found fault by the Council causing Mrs Y injustice. I have completed my investigation on the basis the Council will take the above action as a suitable way of remedying the injustice.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman