The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr F complains the Council has overcharged for the installation and maintenance of vehicle activated speed signs. The Ombudsman has found no fault.
- Mr F complains the Council has overcharged the community speed watch group he represents for the installation and maintenance of vehicle activated speed signs. Mr F says this means £24,398 of Local Innovation Fund monies cannot now be spent on further signs to benefit the community.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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 Mr F about his complaint and considered the information he sent and the Council’s response to my enquiries.
- Mr F and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
Vehicle activated speed signs
- The Council’s 2016 road safety strategy says vehicle activated speed signs (VASS) should be installed at locations where motorists understand the need to reduce their speed and in future should only be mobile units which can be relocated to locations where incidents are reported. The Council was to develop a policy to identify the circumstances/locations in which VASS should be used and guidance to ensure that overuse of VASS did not reduce their impact. I have seen no evidence this policy was produced.
- The Council says VASS are usually funded through its capital programme, either as a local safety scheme or a ward minor measures programme. Its Transport Delivery Group (TDG) and Transport Strategic Group (TSG) must consider a full business case before funding is approved.
Local Innovation Fund
- The Council set up a Local Innovation Fund (LiF) in 2016. It allocated £48,000 to each ward to fund innovative projects to improve neighbourhoods. The aim of the scheme was to use an “asset-based approach” to strengthen local social capital to improve communities. The fund was not intended to be a replacement for lost revenue budgets or core funding.
- Local community groups and stakeholders were asked to work with local councillors to jointly agree initiatives in ward meetings. Proposals for LiF funding would be approved by the Council’s Cabinet Committee for Local Leadership.
- The community speed watch group Mr F represents (“the Group”) agreed to apply for LiF funding to buy VASS for its ward. This followed the previous installation of two mobile VASS and the purchase of a laser radar camera.
- The Group submitted a proposal to the Cabinet Committee in January 2017. This said the aim was to roll out speed reduction programmes across all the through roads in the ward, starting with a bid to purchase at least two mains powered VASS for £11,850. The Council approved the application.
- On 31 August 2017 the Council emailed the Group that the cost of four VASS, including their installation and maintenance for ten years, would be about £32,000. The signs would need to be Council asset registered as the Council would need to install the posts and provide mains power. The cost of changing two existing temporary signs to permanent and providing a 10 year warranty would be about £8,000.
- At a ward meeting in October 2017, it was agreed to make a further application for LiF funding of £28,150 for more VASS.
- The Group made a LiF application to the Cabinet Committee in November 2017. The proposal said following the earlier LiF approval VASS were currently being prepared for installation, but this process needed to be extended with at least three further signs and data collectors installed on key roads. The application was therefore to purchase four VASS, with maintenance for ten years, a ten-year warranty, and removal at the end of the project, and to refurbish two other VASS to convert them to mains powered. The total cost was £40,00 including installation, poles/brackets as required, and electrical installation and testing. As £11,850 had already been provided, the Cabinet Committee approved a further £28,150.
- The funding was given to the Group in January 2018. During 2018 there were a number of discussions between the Council, Group and manufacturer to action the purchase and installation of the equipment.
- The Council says although LIF funding had been approved, its Transport Delivery Group (TDG) and Transport Strategic Group (TSG) still needed to consider a full business case. At the Transport Development Group (TDG) meeting on 27 June 2018 it was determined there was too much risk to allow a company to offer a warranty for 10 years. It was therefore decided that the assets should not only form part of the electrical asset inventory, but also be maintained by the Council. This meant any funding secured for the warranty should be paid to the Council to enable it to take on the responsibility of maintenance of the signs indefinitely. A fund of £2,300 per sign would be set aside to be used as and when required for repairs and replacements.
- The Council invoiced the Group in November 2018 for £39,698, broken down as:
- Cost of Equipment £15,300
- Installation Costs £6,698
- Maintenance costs for ten years £13,800
- Engineer fees £3,900
Mr F’s complaint
- In July 2019 Mr F raised concerns with the Cabinet member that over 60% of the charges the Group paid had gone back to the Council. The Cabinet member replied that the project’s costs appeared to be in-line with what would be expected. The Council’s development costs for minor highway projects were usually around 20% of the total, and the maintenance costs were the agreed rates. The Council had procured the works through its framework contract in accordance with its standing orders.
- Mr F was dissatisfied and approached the Ombudsman, but we could not investigate as Mr F had not completed the Council’s complaint process.
- Mr F made a formal complaint to the Council on 14 August 2019. The Council replied on 18 September 2019. It said highway assets introduced on the public highway required ongoing maintenance. The Council had agreed to add the VASS to the highway assets register, to be maintained as non-PFI assets by the Council. Any new enhanced assets that did not form part of the basic elements of a highway required specific funding for their on-going maintenance. In this instance that funding was provided through the LiF. The Council said it had acted responsibly and had not “overcharged” the Group.
- Mr F asked for the complaint to be escalated to the next stage of the process. The Council reviewed the complaint and wrote to Mr F on 5 November 2019 repeating its first response.
- Mr F complained to the Ombudsman. He said the Council had been fully aware that the Group’s project had not been for four new VASS signs and two converted signs, but for multiple stages and future installations on up to ten other roads. This was now not possible.
- Mr F also said signs had been installed in two other wards without the need to bid for grant funding. In response to my enquiries the Council said it was unaware of permanent VASS being installed in one of those wards in the last ten years, other than those installed by the Group. In the second ward three VASS had been installed as part of a road safety scheme. This was deemed necessary based on the number of injury accidents in the area.
- It is not the Ombudsman’s role to determine whether the costs of a council service are fair or appropriate. Nor can we question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was administrative fault in the way the decision was reached. I have therefore considered the way the Group’s LiF funding was approved and the way the Council decided on the costs of the project.
- The Council’s Cabinet Committee approved the LiF policy in September 2016. There is no evidence of fault in the way the Cabinet Committee considered the matter and I therefore do not find the policy to be flawed.
- The policy says the funds were to be used for innovative local projects put forward by each ward. There is no restriction on the use of these funds; the policy does not, for example, say the funding cannot be used to pay for ongoing revenue or maintenance costs. Nor does it say that any applications for funding for VASS have to meet a VASS criteria policy. It was for the Cabinet Committee to approve the applications and it was entitled to approve them as it saw fit. The Group’s proposals were put forward by a ward meeting and considered by the Cabinet Committee in line with the policy. I therefore do not find any fault with the way the Council considered and approved the Group’s LiF application for funding for the VASS.
- Mr F complains the Group was overcharged. The Ombudsman cannot determine the appropriate cost of maintenance or installation of VASS, so I have considered how the Council decided the costs of the project. The evidence shows that in August 2017 the Council informed Mr F that the costs would be about £40,000 for four new VASS and two re-conditioned VASS. Initially the intention was for the signs to be covered by a ten-year manufacturer’s warranty. At its TDG meeting in June 2018, the Council decided this was too risky and that the Council should be responsible for maintenance of the signs. These are decisions the Council was entitled to make and I have found no evidence of fault in the way they were made. I therefore cannot question the costs.
- In response to my draft decision, Mr F said the complaint was not about how the charges were determined but that it was unfair to charge the Group for maintenance and installation of VASS when they had been installed in other areas at lower cost. I have investigated Mr F’s complaint about the use of the LiF funding the Group applied for. I have not investigated, nor have I seen, any application to the Council for installation of VASS in Mr F’s ward to be funded through the Council’s capital programme for road safety reasons.
- There was some delay by the Council in its responses to Mr F’s complaint; both responses were two weeks overdue. However, I do not consider these delays caused Mr F significant time and trouble. The Council has already apologised for the late responses. That is a proportionate remedy for the injustice caused.
- There was no fault by the Council. I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman