Northamptonshire County Council (18 003 607)

Category : Transport and highways > Public transport

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 01 Nov 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mrs B complained the Council failed to properly consider the decision to remove bus subsidies which led to the service to her village stopping. There is no evidence of fault in the Council’s consideration of the removal of the bus subsidy.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mrs B, complained the Council failed to properly consider the implications of removing a bus subsidy or properly consult about that decision.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. The Ombudsman investigates complaints of injustice caused by maladministration and service failure. I have used the word fault to refer to these. The Ombudsman cannot question whether a Council’s decision is right or wrong simply because Mrs B disagrees with it. He must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3))
  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 complaint and Mrs B's comments;
    • made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided; and
    • considered section 63(1)a of the Transport Act 1985;
    • considered Mrs B’s comments on my draft decision; and
    • gave the Council an opportunity to comment on my draft decision.

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What I found

  1. The Council began the process of setting a budget to deal with financial difficulties in 2017. That included various cabinet meetings and scrutiny committees considering proposals for reducing Council expenditure to ensure it produced a balanced budget.
  2. On 19 October 2017 the Cabinet considered a report which proposed various budget cuts. That included removing bus subsidies where the Council had no statutory duty to provide them. The report noted various impacts, including on rural areas. Following that meeting the Council consulted on the budget strategy and the revised bus strategy. I understand Mrs B became aware of that consultation given she emailed the Council on 2 November to raise concerns about losing her bus service as she relied on it to get to work.
  3. At the end of the consultation period the Council held another meeting on 19 December and carried out further consultation. That completed in January 2018.
  4. On 2 February the Council’s Chief Finance Officer issued a section 114 report. That is a report issued when it appears the Council’s expenditure in a financial year is likely to exceed the resources available to meet that expenditure. The report outlined the grave implications for the Council and the limits on its choices available.
  5. On 13 February 2018 the Council considered a revised budget report. That report recorded the Council’s concern about the impact of the proposal to remove bus subsidies, as well as some other proposed cuts. It was therefore proposed to remove those budget cuts from the budget.
  6. On 20 February the Council’s external auditors issued an advisory notice. That notice was served because the external auditor believed the course of action the Council had begun to take would, if followed to its conclusion, be unlawful and likely to cause a loss or deficiency. That was due to concerns about having an unbalanced budget.
  7. A further meeting took place on 22 February. The information considered by the meeting included an equalities impact assessment which set out the impact of the removal of bus subsidies, particularly on rural areas. The budget, which included retention of bus subsidies, was not agreed at that meeting due to comments from the external auditor and the service of the section 114 report.
  8. On 27 February the Cabinet considered the updated final budget which reinstated the bus subsidy cut in full. The Council approved that budget on 28 February.
  9. On 13 March the Council approved the revised bus strategy to remove the bus subsidies.
  10. On 17 April the Council gave formal notice to the operator to terminate the County Connect service, which is the bus service Mrs B used. That bus service ceased operation on 21 July.

Analysis

  1. Mrs B says the Council, in removing the bus subsidy which led to the bus service to her village ceasing, failed to properly consider the impact or potential alternatives. Having considered the documentary evidence it is clear the Council has faced significant financial pressures which has forced it to consider what in some cases are unpalatable decisions. It is clear the decision to remove the bus subsidy which led to Mrs B losing her bus service was part of a wide-ranging review of the Council’s service provision when setting its budget in 2017/18. It is not the Ombudsman’s role to comment on how the Council allocates its resources. The Ombudsman’s role is to consider whether the Council, in making its decisions, has done so with fault. If there is no evidence of fault in how the Council has reached its decision the Ombudsman has no grounds to criticise it.
  2. The starting point here is the Transport Act 1985. That Act says the Council has a duty to secure the provision of public passenger transport services as it considers appropriate to provide public transport which would not, in the Council’s view, otherwise be provided. That does not, however, mean the Council has an duty to ensure every area has in place a bus service. In this case it is clear Mrs B lives in a rural area and without a car her only means of travelling to her employment is by use of the bus service. It is also clear though the Council is under significant financial pressure. The cost of providing the bus service, part of which serves Mrs B’s village, after taking into account revenue, is £432,518.67. The Council, as part of a package of budget proposals to address financial issues has now removed the subsidy for Mrs B’s bus service which has led to the bus service ending. I understand Mrs B’s concern about that. However there is no requirement for the Council to continue to provide or support a loss-making service. In this case I am satisfied the Council reached the decision to remove the bus subsidy properly after carrying out appropriate consultation and considering detailed reports which included consultation responses raising concerns about the impact on rural areas, as well as an equalities impact assessment which outlined the impact. The documentary evidence I have seen satisfies me the Council did not want to proceed with the bus subsidy removal but did so due to the difficulty in balancing its budget in light of the section 114 notice and letter from its external auditor. As there is no fault in how the Council reached its decision to remove the bus subsidy there are no grounds on which I could criticise it.
  3. In reaching that view I recognise the removal of the subsidy has a significant impact on Mrs B’s ability to leave her village for work. That is because Mrs B does not drive and due to a medical condition is not able to learn to drive. I am satisfied though the Council was aware when it made the decision to remove the bus subsidy there would be a significant impact, particularly for those in rural areas. I say that because the various reports detail that impact and the Council also had access to the consultation responses which again raised that concern. The equalities impact assessment also outlined the impact on rural groups as well as others. The evidence I have seen satisfies me the Council nevertheless felt unable to continue the bus subsidy due to the significant financial pressures it is under. As there is no requirement for the Council to continue to provide a bus service to Mrs B’s village and it has reached its decision properly after considering various reports and consultation feedback I have no grounds to criticise it.
  4. I am also satisfied the Council properly consulted on the proposals. That included
    • consultation on the draft revised bus strategy between 30 October and 11 December 2017;
    • consultation on the proposed budget between 20 October and 1 December 2017;
    • consultation on the proposed budget between December 2017 and January 2018;
    • details published on the Council’s website;
    • notification to local bus and community transport operators, bus user’s representatives, adjoining local transport authorities and district and borough councils;
    • press coverage;
    • a newsletter;
    • social media channels;
    • consultation with Councillors, local MEPs, MPs, district and borough councils, parish and town councils, partner organisations, voluntary and community sector groups, representatives of protected characteristic groups, local business groups, customer and user groups; and
    • holding drop-in sessions over the two consultation phases.
  5. I am also satisfied Mrs B knew about the proposals and had an opportunity to comment given she emailed the Council on 2 November 2017 as she had heard about the proposal to remove the bus service to her village. I recognise the Council has made a decision which has had a significant impact on Mrs B and many others. However, as I said earlier, as the Council has reached its decision properly there are no grounds on which I could criticise it.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation and do not uphold Mrs B’s complaint as I have found no evidence of fault by the Council.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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