The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs X complains about how the Council dealt with her neighbour’s planning application because it failed to consider her objections. The Council has already apologised to Mrs X for its fault in mislaying her objection letter, where it explained it had still considered the impact on her amenity without this. The Ombudsman does not consider a further remedy is needed as the decision to grant planning permission was unlikely to change because of Mrs X’s objections. The Council took too long to respond to Mrs X’s complaint and has agreed to apologise to Mrs X for the frustration this caused.
- Mrs X complains about how the Council dealt with her neighbour’s planning application because it failed to consider her objections. The Council lost Mrs X’s objection letter and it was too late to consider her comments by the time the letter was found. Mrs X feels the Council has not taken her concerns seriously and has ignored the impact of her neighbour’s extension on her property. Mrs X says she wants the Council to apologise and compensate her for this error.
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 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:
- the injustice is not significant enough to justify our involvement, or
- 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.
(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 have spoken to Mrs X and considered the information she provided.
- I have considered the information the Council has provided in response to my enquiries.
- I have considered the rules around planning set out in the National Planning Policy Framework.
- I have written to Mrs X and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments.
What I found
Guidance on planning
- Most development needs planning permission from the local council. Councils should approve planning applications that comply with policies on the local development plan, unless other material planning considerations indicate they should not.
- Material planning considerations include things like:
- the impact on neighbouring amenity;
- loss of sunlight;
- overshadowing/loss of outlook to the detriment of residential amenity (though not loss of view as such);
- overlooking and loss of privacy;
- layout and density of building design, visual appearance and finishing materials.
- Councils are required to give publicity to planning applications. The publicity required depends on the nature of the development although in all cases the application must be published on the council’s website. In this case, the Council sent notification letters to occupiers of properties most likely to be affected by the proposal, including Mrs X.
- Mrs X lives in a semi-detached property. Her neighbour made a planning application to add an extension to the front of their house, which would bring the existing front porch of the property that is directly attached to Mrs X’s house out by one metre. The Council sent notification to Mrs X about her neighbour’s planning application on 14 November 2018 and requested she made any comments by 5 December 2018.
- Mrs X wrote a letter on 22 November 2018, objecting to her neighbour’s application. She commented that the proposed extension would impact on the amount of light into her property and would take away some of the view from her home. Mrs X commented that her and her neighbour’s houses were already quite dark at the front because of their configuration and this would be made worse by the further extension. Mrs X also invited the Council to visit her property to help understand the impact. Mrs X hand delivered her objection letter to Council offices on 26 November 2018.
- The Council’s IT system for scanning and distributing incoming documents was down when Mrs X delivered her objection letter. Although Mrs X’s letter was passed to the relevant team for scanning when the system was working again, it was missed from the bundle of documents received on the same day. This meant a scanned version of Mrs X’s objection letter was not passed to the Planning Officer dealing with her neighbour’s planning application until 12 January 2019.
- The Council had requested comments on this planning application from the Parish Council as is its standard practice in these cases. The Parish Council submitted its response via an online system on 22 November 2018. The Parish Council stated it had no adverse comments about the development provided there were no objections from the neighbouring property.
- The Planning Officer considering the neighbour’s application finalised their assessment and report on 28 December 2018. The report contained of material planning considerations including the impact on the character of the area and neighbouring properties. The Planning Officer noted the impact of the proposed extension given its scale would be relatively limited and would be in keeping with the area as other properties in the area had similar extensions already.
- The Planning Officer made specific comments on the impact of the proposed development on the neighbouring property, which is Mrs X’s house. The Planning Officer noted the limited scale of the extension and that it did not include any windows directly facing Mrs X’s property. The Planning Officer considered the proposal would not cause significant adverse overlooking or overshadowing impact on the neighbouring property. The Planning Officer’s recommendation was to grant planning permission and their manager confirmed approval on 31 December 2018.
- Mrs X contacted the Council to complain on 10 January 2019 after the neighbour had informed her that planning permission had been granted and building work was due to start. Mrs X complained that the Council had failed to inform her planning permission had been given to her neighbour and asked it to put an immediate stop on the building work until her concerns had been considered.
- The Council responded to Mrs X’s concerns under stage two of its complaint procedure on 14 January 2019. It explained how her objection letter had been mislaid and had not been seen by the Planning Team before it granted permission. The Council said it had still considered the impact of overshadowing on neighbours and concluded this was not substantial enough to refuse granting permission. The Council explained it could not stop building work now that planning permission had been granted. The Council also said it had no duty to notify objectors about the outcome of planning applications, which was why it had not contacted Mrs X when it had granted permission to her neighbour. The Council apologised to Mrs X for the error in mislaying her objection letter.
- Mrs X contacted the Council again on 18 January 2019 as she remained dissatisfied. She was unhappy the Council had not told her that her objection letter had been mislaid, particularly when she had gone to the trouble of hand delivering it to make sure it was received.
- The Council responded to Mrs X’s escalated complaint under stage three of its complaint procedure at the end of May 2019. The Council apologised again for the error that led to Mrs X’s objection letter being mislaid. The Council explained that the Planning Officer had carried out a site visit to the property as part of their assessment and had considered the impact of the development on neighbouring properties. The Council confirmed it would have granted planning permission to Mrs X’s neighbour even if the Planning Officer had seen her objection letter before recommending approval. The Council said it had put better contingency measures in place to make sure correspondence reached the Planning Team in time in the event of a similar IT failure.
Was there fault causing injustice?
- Mrs X’s objections centred on the potential loss of light to her living room. The Council was obliged to consider impact on neighbour amenity, including overlooking and overshadowing, as material planning considerations. The Council did this in the case of Mrs X’s neighbour even though it had not seen the content of Mrs X’s objection letter. I agree with the Council’s view that its decision was unlikely to have changed even if it had seen Mrs X’s objections beforehand.
- The Planning Officer’s report does not mention that they had consulted with the Parish Council or the content of comment in this case, which demonstrates poor practice. However, the Parish Council did not have any adverse comments to make about the proposed development. It is unclear how this might have been different had the Parish Council known Mrs X objected to the proposed development. If the Parish Council held any strong views about this planning application, especially if these were negative, it should have made these to the Council regardless of any comments from the occupiers of neighbouring properties. I am unconvinced the outcome of this planning application would have been any different had the Parish Council been aware that Mrs X had objected. While this is likely to have added to Mrs X’s frustration at the situation, I cannot find the Council at fault for the content of the Parish Council’s comments.
- Part of Mrs X’s complaint to the Ombudsman was that the Council had failed to apologise for mislaying her objections to her neighbour’s application. The Council made sincere apologies for this in both its complaint responses to Mrs X, so there is no fault in this respect.
- The Council did however take too long to respond to Mrs X’s escalated complaint. It took the Council nearly five months to provide its stage three complaint response. The Council’s complaint procedure states it will provide responses at stages one and two within five working days and will keep complainants informed of timescales for stage three complaints. I have not seen evidence to show the Council did this in Mrs X’s case, which is fault. Mrs X approached us for help in April 2019 as she had not received the Council’s response. This caused Mrs X avoidable frustration and inconvenience. The Council did not address the delay when it eventually responded to Mrs X’s complaint at the end of May.
- There was fault in the Council’s handling of Mrs X’s objections to her neighbour’s planning application. However, I have found that absence of this fault would not have changed the outcome. The Council has already apologised and made changes to its procedures to avoid a repeat of this problem. I have no further remedy to recommend of the Council in respect of this.
- The Council’s final response to Mrs X’s complaint was significantly delayed and contained no recognition of this or the frustration the delay might have caused Mrs X. I recommend the Council makes a formal apology to Mrs X for the unacceptable amount of time she had to wait for the Council’s response. The Council has agreed to complete this action within one month of the date of my final decision.
- I have completed my investigation and uphold Mrs X’s complaint. There was fault by the Council, which caused injustice that it has already taken appropriate action to remedy. Following my investigation, the Council has agreed to remedy the injustice caused to Mrs X by its delay in responding to her complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman