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London Borough of Bexley (20 004 721)

Category : Planning > COVID-19

Decision : Closed after initial enquiries

Decision date : 03 Nov 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: We will not investigate this complaint about Ms Y’s planning objections not being read aloud at a planning committee meeting as it is unlikely we would find the Council at fault.

The complaint

  1. Ms Y complains the Council did not read her objections to a planning application at a planning committee meeting when she was unable to attend virtually due to a technical problem.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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”.
  2. The Local Government Act 1974 sets out our powers but also imposes restrictions on what we can investigate.
  3. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered the information the Council and Ms Y have provided. Ms Y had an opportunity to comment on the draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

  1. Ms Y registered to provide her objections to a planning application during a planning committee meeting. Due to Covid-19, the Council held the meeting virtually, rather than in person. As part of the Council’s confirmation that Ms Y would have opportunity to speak, it advised her to join the meeting online five minutes before it began, to ensure any technically problems could be resolved.
  2. The Council’s guidance also explained that if she did not want to attend the meeting virtually, she could choose to ask the Council’s committee officer to read her objections on her behalf. It also said in the event of technical difficulties, a Council officer would attempt to connect her and if she was unable to re-join the meeting, her speech would be read on her behalf.
  3. Ms Y provided her objections in writing in June before the meeting went ahead in July 2020. Ms Y says she was unable to connect to the virtual meeting due to technical problems. The Council says Ms Y did not connect to the meeting until after the application was considered, forty minutes into the meeting, and did not raise the problem with the Council before this stage. Consequently, it says it followed the guidance and did not read Ms Y’s objections to the committee. The meeting minutes show the Council based its decision on the views it heard and the planning officer’s report, which included details of objections received earlier in the process.

Analysis

  1. The Council outlined its guidance on what would happen if Ms Y experienced technical difficulties during the committee meeting and was unable to speak. It also offered her the opportunity for her objections to be read to the committee if she did not want to attend virtually.
  2. Ms Y did not contact the Council until after the decision was made, more than forty minutes into the meeting. This would have been sufficient time, especially as Ms Y was due to attend five minutes before the meeting began at least, for Ms Y to have contacted the Council to say she had such difficulties and ask for her objections to be read to the committee on her behalf.
  3. As Ms Y did not contact the Council during this time and the Council followed the guidance it had issued before the meeting, to not read the objections. The Council instead based its decision on the planning report, which considered the objections already raised, and the views of others who raised objections or were in favour of the application. This included any comments Ms Y may have made when the application was consulted upon earlier in the process.
  4. It is therefore unlikely the Ombudsman would find fault in the way the Council’s dealt with Ms Y’s objection to the application, so we will not investigate this complaint.

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Final decision

  1. We will not investigate this complaint. This is because it is unlikely the Ombudsman would find fault.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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