The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained the Council failed to deal with his complaint about financial mismanagement of an allotment site. We have ended our investigation as we cannot achieve the outcome Mr X is seeking.
- Mr X complained the Council failed to deal with his complaint about financial and site mismanagement of an allotment by its allotment committee. He says this has caused him frustration and distress.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We cannot investigate a complaint about the start of court action or what happened in court. (Local Government Act 1974, Schedule 5/5A, paragraph 1/3, as amended)
- 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’. We provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we believe:
- the fault has not caused injustice to the person who complained, or
- the injustice is not significant enough to justify our involvement, or
- it is unlikely further investigation will lead to a different outcome, or
- we cannot achieve the outcome someone wants.
(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered the information provided by Mr X and have discussed the complaint with him on the telephone. I have considered the Council’s response to my enquiries.
- I gave Mr X and the Council the opportunity to comment on a draft of this decision. I considered any comments I received in reaching a final decision.
What I found
The role of the allotment associations
- In 2013 the Council leased its allotments to allotment associations on 38-year leases. The associations are responsible for all aspects of the site management and the Council does not have a contract with individual plot holders. Each allotment association has control of the land and does not act as an agent of the Council when running the allotments.
- The lease between the Council and allotment association B states ‘in the event of any third party complaint concern or dispute arising in connection with the exercise of rights under this lease then the tenant (or the tenant shall procure that the association) shall use their reasonable endeavours to resolve any such complaint concern or dispute having due regard to any relevant guidelines for dealing with such complaints concerns or disputes as may be agreed from time to time between the Corporation and the Barnet Federation of Allotment and Horticultural Societies’.
- Barnet Allotment Federation provides support to advise and assist allotment associations. It has produced guidance for allotment associations on site management. This includes a memorandum of understanding between the Council and Federation which provides a framework for the relationship between the Council, Federation and allotment associations concerning the management of complaints. This makes it clear that the complaints procedures operated by the allotment associations are the responsibility of those societies alone.
- Mr X has several allotments in the Council’s area.
- In February 2020 allotment association B served a notice for him to quit the allotment.
- In June 2020 Mr X raised his concerns about potential fraud involving the association with a Council officer. He said he had completed the internal stage of allotment association B complaints’ procedure. The officer asked Mr X for details of his specific allegations. Mr X responded that he had an issue with the management of allotment association B but did not provide enough information. Mr X sent a further email saying that the association refused to provide him with an audited account and instead issued him with a notice to quit.
- The officer responded that the Council has no power to intervene in the management of allotment leases but could only get involved in breaches of the Allotments Act. Mr X responded and referred to what he considered threatening behaviour from committee members. He also raised general concerns about the operation of two other associations where he is a member. Mr X continued to email the Council with concerns about the allotments and in particular about the operation of allotment association B. Mr X said he was a committee member and he raised concerns that the annual accounts were not audited and about different figures being provided in the Treasurer’s report at each meeting.
- Mr X said he installed CCTV which was broken by members of the allotment committee and that he was threatened by a committee member. Mr X said as a result of this the committee served him with a notice to quit. Mr X referred to harassment and cases with the police.
- Mr X wanted the bank accounts of allotment associations, of which he is a member, to be investigated. He wanted a review of the self-management of allotments and a review of the lease for those involved in what he claims are the wrong doings at allotment B. The Council responded that his concerns related to the governance and committee structure at the allotments and it had no power to intervene. It referred Mr X to us.
- In January 2021 allotment association B filed a case in the county court to take possession of Mr X’s allotment plot. Mr X lost the court case and has since appealed the court’s decision.
- The role of the Ombudsman is to consider complaints of fault leading to injustice and we look to remedy the injustice caused. For us to decide to investigate we need to be satisfied we can probably achieve the desired outcomes of the complainant.
- Mr X has complained about the Council not investigating his complaint. Central to this complaint is allotment association B’s decision to evict Mr X from his allotment. This is the injustice caused to Mr X by the alleged faults. Allotment association B has taken court action to repossess the allotment. Mr X was able to raise his arguments in court and has since appealed the court’s decision. We cannot consider matters which have been considered by a court. We cannot change the court decision or therefore achieve the outcome Mr X seeks.
- Mr X raised a number of wider public interest concerns about allotment association B and two other associations. These include allegations of criminal matters. Such allegations are better dealt with by the police. We can only make findings of fault and cannot definitively say, whatever evidence we find, whether the law has been broken. In addition, we cannot require action is taken against individual plot holders.
- Mr X wants a review of the Council’s decision to allow self-management of allotments. I will not investigate this matter further as this is a policy decision the Council was entitled to make, follows well established practice across the sector, happened several years ago and is not directly linked to personal injustice to Mr X. It is open to Mr X to lobby local councillors if he believes the scheme should be changed.
- I have ended my investigation as I cannot achieve the outcome Mr X wants.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman