Decision : Closed after initial enquiries
Decision date : 20 Mar 2020
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Ombudsman will not investigate how the Council dealt with a complaint about a breach of its code of conduct. This is because it is unlikely he would find fault by the Council.
- Mr X has complained about how the Council dealt with his complaint about the conduct of a member of its planning committee. He says the councillor failed to disclose a conflict of interests and argues the councillor’s improper intervention delayed his development.
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’. 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 it is unlikely we would find fault.
(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered Mr X’s complaint and the Council’s responses. I invited Mr X to comment on a draft of this decision and considered the comments he made in response.
What I found
- Local Authorities have a duty to designate a Monitoring Officer to ensure the lawfulness and fairness of authority decision making. The Monitoring Officer must ensure that the authority, its officers and members maintain the highest standards of conduct.
- Each council has different rules for dealing with complaints about code of conduct breaches. In this case, the Monitoring Officer will first decide if the complaint is valid. If the complaint is valid the Officer will then decide if a formal investigation is required. If the Monitoring Officer decides a formal investigation is not needed, they will write to the complainant, the member and the Independent Person to notify them of the decision. If the Monitoring Officer decides that a formal investigation is needed, they will appoint an Independent Person who will investigate and produce a report.
- Mr X applied to the Council for planning permission to build houses on land which is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The application was referred to the Council’s planning committee for determination. Members considered the proposal but voted to refuse planning permission.
- Mr X has complained about the actions of a councillor who is a member of the planning committee. The councillor spoke against the proposal during the meeting and strongly opposed the development. The councillor raised a few concerns about the development and said there were other sites available outside of the AONB that could deliver the housing numbers needed in the area. At the time of the committee meeting the Council had proposed a draft local plan. If the plan was adopted, it would change the settlement boundaries for the area. Land owned by the councillor would fall within the new settlement boundary and therefore become one of the sites more suitable for development. Mr X says the refusal of his planning application would enhance the chances of the councillor being given planning permission. Mr X argues that this is a clear conflict of interests and should have been declared.
- The Council’s Monitoring Officer considered Mr X’s complaint. The Monitoring Officer reviewed the recording of the planning committee meeting and contacted both Mr X’s representative and the councillor complained about. However, the Monitoring Officer decided the complaint did not warrant a formal investigation as there had been no breach of the code of conduct. The Monitoring Officer said the councillor had disclosed their ownership of the property on their Register of Interests and the ownership did not constitute a disclosable pecuniary interest or a non-pecuniary interest that needed to be declared.
- Mr X is unhappy with the response from the Monitoring Officer. He says this is based on false information from the councillor and argues that the Monitoring Officer has not properly considered the issues he raised.
- I will not investigate this complaint about how the Council dealt with Mr X’s complaint about a code of conduct breach. This is because I am unlikely to find fault by the Council.
- It is not the Ombudsman’s role to replace a Council’s decision with his own. Where a decision has been made in line with the correct procedure, taking account of the relevant evidence, the Ombudsman will generally not criticise the decision, even if the complainant does not agree with it.
- In this case, I am satisfied the Monitoring Officer dealt with the matter in line with the Council’s rules for dealing with code of conduct complaints, before deciding not to formally investigate as there had not been a breach. This was a decision the Monitoring Officer was entitled to make.
- I understand Mr X says the Monitoring Officer misunderstood his complaint and wrongly said he claimed the councillor would benefit from the refusal of his planning application. Mr X also says the Monitoring Officer based the decision on false information from the councillor. However, I am satisfied the Monitoring Officer did properly consider the issues Mr X raised before deciding the code of conduct had not been breached. Therefore, it is unlikely I could find fault by the Council.
- The Ombudsman should not investigate this complaint. This is because he is unlikely to find fault by the Council.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman