The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained the Council’s pre-application planning advice was incorrect and the Council had not followed procedure. We have found fault causing delays to Mr X’s project. The Council has acknowledged some service failures and has agreed to refund Mr X his planning fees. We consider this to be a satisfactory outcome.
- Mr X complained the Council’s pre-application planning advice did not comply with its own published guidance. He said this caused delays to his building project and increased costs.
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)
- 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 could add to any previous investigation by the Council, or
- it is unlikely further investigation will lead to a different outcome, or
- we cannot achieve the outcome someone wants, or
- it would be reasonable for the person to ask for a council review or appeal.
(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), 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 considered Mr X’s complaint and supporting information and spoke to him about it.
- I also considered the Council’s response to Mr X and to my enquiries.
- Mr X 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
- In February 2019, Mr X applied for pre-application planning advice from the Council. The Council acknowledged Mr X’s request and said he should expect to receive the Council’s response by 18 March. When he did not receive a response, Mr X chased the Council twice.
- The Council responded on 26 March, explained the delay was due to heavy workloads and gave Mr X a brief summary of its advice ahead of sending out the formal pre-application advice. The summary said the proposed development would not be supported by the Council. This was due to the impact it would have on the character and appearance of the area. The Council also said the prominent extension would be beyond the building line.
- Mr X was unhappy with the advice. He questioned how the Council had determined the building line. When the Council provided its official pre-application advice on 4 April, it offered a more comprehensive explanation of its reasons for the proposed development being unacceptable.
- Mr X remained dissatisfied with the Council’s response. He considered some of the Council’s observations to be incorrect and that officers had misunderstood his proposal. On 7 April, he wrote a long letter to the Council seeking clarification on a number of issues. When Mr X did not receive a response, he chased it on 24 April.
- Mr X submitted a complaint on 4 May, one month after receiving the Council’s official pre-application advice.
- Over the following months, Mr X and the Council exchanged several emails. The Council generally gave dates it would respond by, and then missed them, resulting in Mr X chasing the Council for responses. The Council apologised for the delays.
- The Council responded to Mr X’s complaint on 4 July. It upheld his complaint about poor customer service and officers failing to follow correct complaint procedure. It apologised and assured that officers would be attending a training course about following procedure.
- It explained that Mr had still received correct pre-application advice that would not be changed through the complaints’ procedure. However, the Council offered Mr X a full refund of his pre-application planning fees (£86.40) in recognition of the Council’s service failure.
- Mr X continued to contact the Council to request it responded to his many queries about its pre-application advice. The Council reviewed Mr X’s complaint and his reasons for dissatisfaction and responded to Mr X on 9 October. It explained it would not be an appropriate use of public funds for the Council to engage in protracted debate about the merits of a case when its view was not going to change. The Council said Mr X could submit a planning application and if it were refused, he could appeal to the planning inspectorate.
- From the evidence I have seen, it is clear Mr X is annoyed and frustrated by the Council’s handling of his planning case and subsequent complaints. I can see the Council was delayed in its responses to Mr X, and it has apologised for this. The Council has also acknowledged its service failure to follow correct procedure. It has provided additional officer training to prevent this happening again. The Council has offered to refund Mr X’s pre-application fees to remedy any injustice he might have experienced as a result of this failure.
- As the Council explained, Mr X did receive valid pre-application advice from the Council, albeit, slightly delayed. The Council maintained this advice is correct and has not been affected by the recognised service failures. Therefore, I consider the Council’s offer to refund the fees, a satisfactory remedy for Mr X’s injustice.
- I have completed my investigation. The Council was at fault which caused Mr X an injustice. I am satisfied the Council has taken action to remedy that injustice.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman