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Councillor’s decision to put brakes on housing development flawed, says Ombudsman

A Haringey man was left in limbo for six years while the council decided whether to buy his house and develop the land around it, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman heard.

The man lives in a row of terraced homes which are part private-owned and part owned by the council. The council contacted the man in 2014 about its intentions for housing development on land which included his home

Because no progress was made for some years, in August 2018 the man entered an agreement that gave a developer the right to buy the man’s home for £1.75 million should he wish to sell it. Two days after he had signed the agreement the council contacted him about the possible purchase of his home.

The next month the council’s Cabinet agreed to buy both the neighbouring property and the man’s home. The council bought the neighbour’s home for £2.15 million in June 2019, but the man was not free to sell his house because of the agreement with the developer.

In early March 2020 the then council leader, Councillor Ejiofor, met with some of the council tenants and other political representatives and decided not to proceed with a version of the development which included the terrace of houses.

The man complained to the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman’s investigation has raised concerns about the way the council dealt with the two sets of neighbours: while there was no contact with the man about purchasing his property, the council must have been in discussions with his neighbours about the purchase of theirs. The council could not provide the Ombudsman with any information about why the neighbours were treated differently.

The man said he only entered into the option agreement with the developer because he had not heard anything from the council. This option agreement partly informed the Councillor’s decision not to go ahead with the development of the row of terraces.

The Ombudsman’s investigation also found flaws in the way the Councillor made the decision without proper scrutiny and analysis of all options and consideration of the consequences. The council had already invested a significant amount of public money in the purchase of the neighbouring property – despite that home’s value only being so high because it was a key part of the larger housing scheme. There was no briefing paper or discussion, the decision was entirely his, taken at the time of the meeting.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said:

“Transparency should be at the heart of council decision-making. Without this, people can lose confidence that their local authority is acting in a fair and equitable way.

“In this case because of the council’s poor communication and lack of even-handedness, the man was left in limbo with the uncertainty of not knowing whether his home would be purchased by the council.

“I now urge the council to look again at the plans for the development and reconsider all options available.”

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services. In this case the council should apologise to the man and pay him £1,000 for the stress and uncertainty it actions caused.

The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve processes for the wider public. In this case the council should reconsider its proposals for the site’s development. These should be discussed by full Council or Cabinet. If the decision is to proceed with development, the council should provide a remedy to the tenants who were wrongly assured they would be able to stay in the properties

Article date: 19 January 2022