Suffolk County Council (18 018 021)

Category : Transport and highways > Traffic management

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 20 Aug 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr D complains the Council has failed to deal with his request for road traffic calming and safety measures. The Ombudsman has found evidence of delay by the Council and has upheld the complaint and completed the investigation because the Council accepts the recommended actions.

The complaint

  1. The complainant (whom I refer to as Mr D) says the Council has failed to deal with his requests for road traffic calming and safety measures on his village road. He also says the Council failed to escalate his formal complaint.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have looked at events from 2018 onwards.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. The Ombudsman cannot investigate late complaints unless he decides there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to the Ombudsman about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D)
  2. 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 the complainant disagrees with it. He must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3))
  3. The Ombudsman 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, he may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1))
  4. 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. I have considered the information provided by Mr D. I asked the Council questions and carefully examined its response and supporting documents.
  2. I have shared my draft decision with both parties.

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What I found

What happened

  1. On 12 February 2018 Mr D contacted the Council, he was concerned his village road had become a “rat run” for traffic with speeding and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs). The Council passed the case to its Safety and Speed Management Team (Safety Team). It replied on 5 March advising Mr D to contact his Parish Council to see if it supported his concerns. It explained the Council did not have a dedicated budget for traffic management and safety engineering schemes but the Parish Council could possibly access funding sources. Mr D did contact the Parish Council at the start of April.
  2. On 21 May Mr D emailed a County Councillor (Councillor A) because the Parish Council had advised him to go back to the County Council. On 4 June Councillor A said he was due to meet Officers soon. On 17 July, he told Mr D he had requested the Council visit the site to report on the success of implementing any change to the speed limit or other mitigation measures. On 14 August, the Council emailed Mr D that it no longer had a budget for traffic calming measures and advised customers to speak to their parish council. It was revising its website accordingly. On 22 August, the Council told Mr D it was not aware the Parish Council was looking into the case and would wait to hear from it. On 9 September Mr D asked Councillor A for an update, he responded that he had chased up the Safety Team.
  3. On 14 October Mr D lodged a formal complaint with the Council. He said the Council had not taken any action. The Council replied on 15 November. It said the road had a signed speed limit and enforcement of that limit fell to the Police as did weight restrictions for HGVs. The Council had looked at the accident database and there were no significant accidents, aside from a minor one on an adjacent road in 2008. The Council needed the view of the Parish Council. It recognised Mr D had been in touch with the Parish Council but had not heard back. The Council also detailed why specific calming measures sought by Mr A were not possible. It accepted it had a road safety duty but had to “prioritise very limited funds” to the areas of highest concern. There were budgets for highways available from the Parish Council and County Councillors. Mr D told the Council he did not accept its response and asked it to escalate his complaint to the next level (stage two) of the complaints process. On 22 November, the Council told Mr D it had passed his case back to be considered again at the initial stage (stage one) of the process. The Council sent its substantive response on 18 December. It had contacted the Police, Parish Council and Highways England. The Police speed surveys had not found there were sufficient levels of speeding to require a speed check site. The Police had asked a team to look briefly at the weight limit issue with HGVs. The Parish Council had not responded fully and the Council would chase it up. The Council subsequently told Mr D the Parish Council was due to meet in January 2019 and it would feedback to him.
  4. On 3 February 2019 Mr D wrote to the Chief Executive of the Council because he had not had any further information and was unhappy his case had previously not been considered at stage two of the process. On 6 February, the Council said to Mr D it would refer the case to the Complaints Team. On 8 February, the Council told Mr D it had discretion over which cases were considered at stage two or retained at stage one. On 9 February Mr D asked the Council for an update. The Council responded on 22 February, it had heard back from the Parish Council and it would meet Officers at the site. The Council sought suitable dates.
  5. On 1 April, the Council contacted Highways England with Mr D’s suggestions about signage on an A road. It asked for comments. Highways England replied a few days later that it had contacted the Parish Council for a meeting to discuss this and other matters. On 12 May the Council updated Mr D, the Parish Council had asked for Councillor A to attend the site meeting and was arranging a date. The Parish Council told the Council this would be after 17 May. The Council chased it up on 22 May and was told the meeting would have to take place after 6 June.

What should have happened

  1. A resident can request traffic calming/ safety measures from the Council. The case is referred to the Safety Team to consider. The Council says that it usually will carry out a preliminary desktop assessment. A Safety Engineer will look at the location (via an online site), the road accident database to see if there are a significant number of recorded injury accidents at the site and other relevant data. The Council will then give the resident their initial view on whether measures are feasible. However, the Council also states that residents should ideally contact their Parish Council in the first instance for its “local view” on whether it would support any measures. The Parish Council or a County Councillor can contact the Council, if they want to proceed with improvements, and the Council will provide an estimate for design costs.
  2. The Council does not have a dedicated budget for traffic calming and safety measures. These will usually requite “local funding” such as the Parish Council or County Councillor sources who have local highways budgets.
  3. Under the Road Traffic Act 1988 the Council has duties relating to traffic calming and safety. Section 31(3)(a) requires the Council to carry out studies into road traffic accidents and section 31(3)(b) says that in light of those studies the Council should take measures to prevent accidents.
  4. The Council’s Road Safety Strategy sets out how it works with emergency services and Highways England to assess data relating to road safety. It also sets out how it seeks to resolve issues.
  5. Under the Council’s complaints process an initial complaint is treat as a stage one complaint. If the complainant remains dissatisfied with the Council’s response they can request the case be escalated to stage two which means it is looked at by a senior officer. However, the Council has discretion to retain a case at stage one if “any further clarification” is needed. It should inform the complainant that it will be retaining the case at that level.

Was there fault by the Council

  1. I have found evidence of delay by the Council.
  2. Councillor A asked the Council to visit the site and assess mitigation measures in July 2018. I have seen no evidence from the Council of its taking any action in response to this request. Councillor A chased up the Team in September and again I see no evidence of action being taken. It was only when Mr D formally complained and pursued his case into December that the Council took any meaningful steps. It contacted the Police, the Parish Council and Highways England to consider Mr D’s case. I see no good reason why these actions were not taken much sooner. Clearly the Council was not dependent on the Parish Council contacting it in the first instance because it decided to take proactive steps in December without having received any such contact from the Parish Council. The Council could and should have taken this action when it was contacted in July by Councillor A. In my view, there is a delay of around six months.
  3. I do not see any delay attributable to the Council in 2019 however. The Council has sought to arrange site meetings with the Parish Council and Highways England. It is dependent on the Parish Council agreeing a date and this had not happened at the time of my draft decision. That is not a fault of the Council.
  4. The Council delayed responding to Mr D’s initial complaint by three days. Mr D feels his second complaint should have been escalated to stage two of the process. I do not see evidence of fault in this matter. The Council has discretion to reconsider a complaint at stage one. It acted in line with procedures in this matter.
  5. I understand Mr D wants the Council to carry out various traffic calming and safety measures. The Council has explained to Mr D its funding issues. I do not see the Council is at fault in this matter. It is fulfilling its minimum statutory duties as set out in its Road Safety Strategy. In respect of the works Mr D wants the Council has assessed the relevant databases and given its initial indications to Mr D. Funding is dependent on agreement from either the Parish Council or a County Councillor as they have highways budgets. Until the Parish Council meet to consider the case the Council cannot do anything further to assist. I consider the Council has followed it procedures in this case and the Ombudsman will not question the merits of decisions where the Council has adhered to its procedures and policy.

Did the fault cause an injustice

  1. The Council’s delay in taking forward Mr D’s case meant he had to make a formal complaint before action was taken. He was left without any useful updates for a significant period of time.
  2. I do not see there was an outstanding injustice in respect of the three-day delay to the initial complaint response. The Council has already acknowledged it did not meet its target. I do not see the fault is significant enough to warrant any further action.

Agreed action

  1. The Council agreed with my recommendations and will:
    • Send Mr D a letter of apology for the fault identified in this case;
    • Give an undertaking to keep Mr D informed about progress and a date for a site meeting once agreed with the Parish Council.

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Final decision

  1. I have upheld the complaint and completed the investigation.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I have not looked at events prior to 2018 because the Ombudsman expects a complaint to be made within 12 months of the problems arising.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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