The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms Z complains on behalf of several allotment tenants about the management of three allotment sites. The Council was not at fault.
- Ms Z complains on behalf of allotment tenants at three allotment sites, that the Council in 2012 granted a local society (the Society) a 25 year lease without specific clauses, such as break clauses, which would allow the Council to take a more involved approach or oversight.
- Ms Z also complains the Council has failed to ensure necessary policies and procedures are in place to enable the effective running of the sites by the Society. She says oversight by the Council is minimal and there are no regular officer site visits. Ms Z states the Council agreed to carry out a consultation with plot holders but has delayed in doing so. Ms Z also complains the Council failed to set up the forum as agreed previously.
- Ms Z complains tenants have previously sent the Council a list of their concerns and none have been resolved. Specifically, that the Society:
- has failed to keep a record of all past and present members of allotment plots in line with the terms of its lease with the Council;
- refuses to share a copy of allotment holder details with the Council although its lease states it must;
- does not have a mechanism in its constitution which allows action to be taken against trustees in regard to misgovernance;
- does not have a trustee policy in place;
- fails to send plot holders who do not have email a hard copy of agendas and minutes;
- is failing to consult with allotment holders before making changes and decisions which affect the allotment sites;
- is not transparent in the rental fees it charges for each plot;
- pays the proceeds from the allotment shop into the Society bank account and not the allotment bank account;
- is failing to implement its complaints policy properly.
What I have investigated
- I have considered the complaints Ms Z made in paragraphs 2 and 3. I have not investigated her complaint in paragraph 1. This is because it has already been the subject of a previous Ombudsman investigation.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- This complaint involves events that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government introduced a range of new and frequently updated rules and guidance during this time. We can consider whether the council followed the relevant legislation, guidance and our published “Good Administrative Practice during the response to COVID-19”.
- 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)
- 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 spoke to Ms Z and considered her view of her complaint.
- I made enquiries of the Council and considered the information it provided.
- I wrote to Ms Z and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments before I made my final decision.
What I found
- The three allotment sites in this complaint are managed by a local society (the Society). The Council acts as the landlord and there is a lease between it and the Society.
- The Society has a constitution which deals with matters such as election of members to the allotment committee and the role of the trustees.
Previous Ombudsman investigation
- In 2019, we received a complaint from an allotment holder, Ms X, who stated the Council failed in 2012 to undertake due diligence in assigning a 25-year lease to a local Society to manage allotments.
- We did not find the Council at fault in how it assigned the lease to the Society.
- During this previous investigation, the Council told the Ombudsman that it had commissioned an independent auditor to look into the matters of concern. The auditor made eight recommendations and set out an action plan. Some of these recommendations related to the management and governance of the three sites.
- Around summer 2019, when the previous investigation concluded, the Council said it intended to work with the Society to ensure the implementation of the findings of the audit and its concerns regarding governance were addressed. It said this included ensuring a wider engagement with plot holders more generally and making sure that the control and accountability for allotment matters rested with a representative group of allotment plot-holders not the wider Society, some of whom were not plot-holders. It said a senior representative would attend committee meetings to ensure an agreed improvement plan was implemented.
- The Council confirmed a meeting with the Society was planned for 18 July 2019, at which most of the recommendations set out in the audit report would be considered.
- In August 2020, Ms Z wrote to the Council to complain about the delay in progressing the findings of the audit report. She said no work had been undertaken by the Council.
- The Council responded later that month and said that following the audit the Council planned to survey all plot holders and then draw up an improvement plan. The Council stated “In addition to setting out priorities for improvements, engaging with plot holders in this way would help with greater transparency, build up some trust amongst plot holders and hopefully garner interest in more people becoming involved in the work of the allotment committee. I understand work is progressing with officers on this consultation. Whilst I can understand that the time it has taken to make progress on this issue is frustrating, you will appreciate that officers have many other more pressing issues to be dealing with”.
- Ms Z remained unhappy and complained to the Ombudsman on behalf of several allotment holders (although not Ms X).
- In response to my enquiries, the Council said that at the end of 2020, it carried out a satisfaction survey with all plot holders on the three sites managed by the Society. In order to facilitate this, the Society provided a list of current membership. The Council analysed the results of the survey and sent them to all plot holders in early 2021.
- In April 2021, the Council and the Society met and the Society agreed to draw up a management improvement plan based on the results of the survey. The Council stated it expected the draft to be completed by the end of July at which point the Council would consult on it with all plot holders.
- Following consultation, the Society would produce an amended plan reflecting the consultation feedback. The Council said that if this differed significantly from the original, further consultation may take place. A final plan would then be issued with the Council keeping a “watching brief”. The plan would then to be added to each committee meeting agenda as a standing item for review.
- Twelve months after the implementation of the plan, the Council said it would conduct a follow-up satisfaction survey to measure the impact of the plan. The results of the survey would inform the next steps.
- Ms Z is unhappy at the amount of time it has taken the Council to progress the recommendations of the independent auditor. She believes misgovernance by the Society is continuing.
- There were no timescales set at the end of the previous Ombudsman investigation in relation to when the Council would begin its work with the Society over the governance arrangements. It would have been good practice to keep the previous complainant, Ms X, updated, but as Ms X has not complained about that, I will not investigate it further.
- In March 2020, the country went into the first of the COVID-19 lockdowns. At this point, many councils put non-essential work aside to deal with the pandemic. Under these circumstances I do not consider the Council was at fault for not taking any action in relation to the issues raised by Ms Z concerning the allotment sites. Furthermore, even if the Council had started work prior to the start of the pandemic, it is likely all work would have ceased at that stage.
- Towards the end of 2020, the Council began work to address the issues of governance. It has specified its timescales for this work. Although they are longer than Ms Z would like, this is not fault.
- In relation to Ms Z’s specific complaints in paragraph 3, these are best raised as part of work currently underway by the Council. Any investigation at this time by the Ombudsman could achieve nothing further. If Ms Z believes the Council has acted with fault once the work is complete, she can return to the Ombudsman.
- I have completed my investigation. The Council was not at fault.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman