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Brighton & Hove City Council (21 005 935)

Category : Transport and highways > Parking and other penalties

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 23 Mar 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complained the Council unlawfully disposed of his car without trying to contact him. The Ombudsman did not find fault with the Council’s actions.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complained the Council unlawfully disposed of his car without trying to contact him. He said his car was legally parked, not abandoned, was in good condition, and had his identity documents inside.
  2. Mr X lost his car and personal belongings when the Council disposed of it. He also said he suffered emotional distress.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  2. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. As part of the investigation, I have considered the following:
    • The complaint and the documents provided by the complainant.
    • Documents provided by the Council.
    • The Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978.
    • The Removal and Disposal of Vehicle (England) Regulations 1986 (as amended).
    • Government guidance on Abandoned vehicles: local authority responsibilities.
  2. Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

Legislation and Government guidance

  1. The Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978 and the Removal and Disposal of Vehicle (England) Regulations 1986 (as amended) set out the legal framework for the removal and disposal of abandoned vehicles.
  2. The legislation says councils have a duty to remove abandoned vehicles from land or roads in their area.
  3. Government guidance lists the following factors to consider when a council is deciding whether a vehicle is abandoned:
    • There is no registered keeper on the DVLA’s database, and it is not taxed.
    • It is stationary for a significant amount of time.
    • It is significantly damaged, run down, or unroadworthy.
    • It is burnt out.
    • It has number plates missing.
  4. If a council decides a vehicle is abandoned, it can dispose of it immediately if:
    • It is only fit to be destroyed.
    • It has no number plates or tax disc.
  5. In all other cases, the council must try to find the owner.
  6. If a council proposes to remove a vehicle, it must fix a notice to the vehicle saying it intends to remove it after a stated time period ends. Where the vehicle is on private land, councils must give the owner or occupier 15 days’ notice. However, if the vehicle is on a road or highway this does not apply.
  7. If a council cannot find the owner, or the owner fails to comply with the notice to collect the vehicle, the council can remove it.
  8. After a council has removed a vehicle, it may dispose of it as it sees fit. If the vehicle is taxed, the council must wait for the tax to expire before destroying it. If the vehicle does not have road tax or number plates, a council can destroy it at any time after its removal.

Registering a car in the UK

  1. Any car brought into the UK permanently must be registered with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA).
  2. It is possible to use a car with foreign number plates in the UK without registering it if:
    • You are only visiting and do not live in the UK, and.
    • You only use the car for up to six months in a single year.
  3. You may be able to use a car with foreign number plates for longer than six months if:
    • You normally live outside the UK.
    • You are in the UK for a set period, and.
    • If you ask Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) for tax relief.

What happened

  1. Mr X said he left his car legally parked in June 2020. He explained his car was in good condition and contained his identity documents and other personal possessions.
  2. The Council received an abandoned vehicle report on 18 June. An officer completed a site visit on 19 June. They noted the front number plate was missing from Mr X’s car and attached a 7-day notice (requiring Mr X to contact the Council or it would remove his car).
  3. An officer revisited on 30 June and saw Mr X’s car remained parked in the same place with the notice still attached. On 1 July, the Council was granted permission by the Police to remove and store Mr X’s car.
  4. The Council stored Mr X’s car until destroying it on 28 July.
  5. Mr X telephoned the Council to trace his car on 10 September. On finding out the Council had destroyed his car, Mr X complained.
  6. The Council sent Mr X an email the same day with a timeline of events and the actions it took. It said:
    • Officers followed all legal requirements and took relevant steps.
    • It extended its standard processes to give Mr X more time to claim his car.
    • Because Mr X had not registered his car in the UK, and the Council does not have access to the details of foreign registered vehicles, it had no way to get his details.
    • Mr X could make a stage two complaint if he remained unhappy.
  7. Mr X made a stage two complaint on 17 September. He said the Council stored his car for only four weeks before destroying it and without contacting him. He said the car was in great condition and was valuable. He also said he parked his car legally. He asked the Council to provide paperwork and evidence of the actions it took.
  8. The Council sent its stage two complaint response on 12 October. It provided Mr X with a copy of the Government’s abandoned vehicle procedure, and photographs of his car. It said his car was inspected and was missing its front licence plate. Officers also considered the debris around his car suggested it had not moved for some time. It said it is a legal requirement for cars parked on a public road to have both licence plates visible. As this was not the case it said officers acted correctly.
  9. Mr X brought his complaint to the Ombudsman on 23 July 2021.

Response to enquiries

  1. The Council recognised Mr X’s displeasure that it removed and disposed of his car. However, the Council said Mr X left his car, which he had not registered in the UK, parked two miles from his home for 82 days (between 19 June 2020 and 9 September 2020). During that time, the Government lifted COVID-19 lockdown restrictions (so Mr X could have visited his car).
  2. The Council told me it works with the Police to trace all abandoned vehicles. However, the Police did not have details of Mr X’s car.
  3. The Council could not contact Mr X as he had not registered his car in the UK, so it had no owner details. It could not check the contents of Mr X’s car, because he had locked it.
  4. The Council said it only stores details for a year, under its data retention policy, and details cannot be shared between its parking contractor and the highways department due to data protection. It therefore did not have Mr X’s details about his earlier penalty charge notice.
  5. The Council said it gave Mr X more time to get in touch about his car, because of the pandemic. It waited eleven days, rather than seven, to remove his car. It then stored it for 27 days, not the standard 14.

Analysis

  1. The Council was told Mr X’s car was possibly abandoned. A highways officer attended and considered his car was abandoned. That was because Mr X’s front number plate was missing, and officer considered his car had not moved for some time.
  2. The Government guidance says it is up to councils to decide whether a car is abandoned. The guidance specifically states missing number plates as a consideration. The officer was therefore entitled to decide Mr X’s car was abandoned.
  3. The Government guidance does not detail what specific steps councils are expected to take to find a car’s owner. It simply says they must try. The guidance does not place a duty on councils to contact foreign vehicle licensing agencies. In this case, the Council checked with the DVLA and Police.
  4. Mr X said the Council had his details because he challenged a penalty charge notice (PCN) in summer 2019. The Council has explained departments are not allowed to share personal data and it does not hold personal data for more than a year.
  5. Mr X did not confirm how long he has been living in the UK. He confirmed he was in the UK and using his car in summer 2019, and that he had a ferry booking to leave the UK in March 2020 (which was postponed due to COVID-19). Mr X parked his car in June 2020. He told me he left it parked because he broke his toe and could not drive. He then discovered the Council had destroyed his car in September 2020.
  6. While I recognise the distress Mr X has suffered in having his car destroyed, his car is his responsibility. There was nothing preventing him from visiting his car while it was parked, and he could have registered it with the DVLA. The evidence seen suggests Mr X has used his car in the UK for longer than six months. If he had registered his car with the DVLA, the Council would have been able to trace him before destroying his car.
  7. I consider the Council took reasonable steps to trace the car’s owner and I have not seen evidence of fault.
  8. The Ombudsman is not an appeal body. This means we do not take a second look at the Council’s decision to decide if it was wrong. Instead, we look at the processes the Council followed to make its decision. If we consider it followed those processes correctly, we cannot question whether the decision was right or wrong, regardless of whether a complainant disagrees with the decision.
  9. I have considered the steps the Council took to consider the issue, and the information it took account of when deciding to remove and dispose of Mr X’s car. I have not seen evidence of fault in how the Council made its decision, and I therefore cannot question whether that decision was right or wrong.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. The Ombudsman did not find fault with the Council’s actions.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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