Decision : Closed after initial enquiries
Decision date : 22 Feb 2021
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: We will not investigate Mr X’s complaint about the Council’s handling of his neighbour’s planning application. This is because there is not enough evidence of fault.
- The complainant, Mr X, complains about the Council’s handling of his neighbour’s planning application. He believes the Council should have deferred the application until it could carry out a site visit and says the Council failed to properly consider the flood risk posed by the development. Mr X is concerned the development has devalued his property and caused damage to his garden.
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 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)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I reviewed Mr X’s complaint and the Council’s response. I shared my draft decision with Mr X and considered his comments.
What I found
- Mr X’s neighbour applied to build a new dwelling on land adjacent to Mr X’s property in 2020. The Council referred the application to its planning committee and the committee initially voted to defer its decision so it could carry out a site visit. However, due to the impact of COVID-19 the Council felt it was not safe to carry out the site visit so it was cancelled. The committee then considered the application at the next meeting and voted to grant planning permission.
- Mr X believes the Council’s decision to cancel the site visit was “nonsensical”. He says the proposal was wrongly described during the committee meeting and that the Council failed to properly consider the risk of flooding to his property. Work has now started on the new development and Mr X says he is unable to use his garden due to subsidence and flooding caused by the work.
- While COVID-19 has had a huge impact on local authorities and members of the public alike, national guidance to authorities encouraged them to continue working and making planning decisions; the Government made no changes to statutory deadlines for deciding planning applications and encouraged the use of innovative approaches to decision making.
- The planning committee clearly hoped to visit the application site to inform their decision on the planning application in this case but the Council felt this was not possible in the circumstances. It is unlikely we would find fault in this decision as the safety of committee members must come first.
- However, this did not mean the Council had to make a decision at the next committee meeting. The committee took part in a “virtual site visit” but could have decided this was not sufficient to reach a view on whether the proposal was acceptable; in this case it could have decided to refuse or defer the application again. Its decision to grant planning permission shows the committee members felt they had sufficient information from the “virtual site visit” to make its decision and it is unlikely we could say the outcome would or should have been different.
- Committee members were clearly aware of what the development involved and the planning officer’s report explains the reasons why flood risk, although a material planning consideration, did not provide grounds to refuse the application.
- Mr X says works to implement the planning permission have contributed to damage to his garden but this is a private civil matter between him and his neighbour/their builder; we could not hold the Council responsible for it.
- We will not investigate this complaint. This is because there is not enough evidence of fault by the Council affecting its decision.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman