Ombudsman finds Shropshire Council at fault over planning complaint

A council has been advised to apologise to a couple for the way it communicated with them over a planning decision having caused "significant distress" to their disabled daughter.

The Local Government Ombudsman could however find no fault with Shropshire Council's decision making process.

But it has recommended that it provides the couple with an apology, a £200 payment for time and trouble, further written response and consider amending its process to improve its communications in future.

Calling the couple only Mr and Mrs X, the ombudsman said they had complained that the council had not shown due regard to their human rights in allowing a neighbouring developer to maintain a high fence around their garden.

They said it had caused "significant distress to their daughter, Ms Y" and had resulted in loss of amenity and loss of property value.

The ombudsman, which investigates complaints about maladministration and service failure, investigated the circumstances.

It the ombudsman's ruling, made in June but published this week, it said actions had been agreed with the council.

"To remedy the injustice, I recommend the council carry out the following actions.

"Within one month: an apology for the shortfall in its communications; to provide further information or explain why it cannot or will not address the issues, to pay Mr and Mrs X a total of £200 for time, trouble and uncertainty; and within three months to consider amending its enforcement process to include updating complainants on its progress, where it is unable to issue a report within eight weeks."

The council had decided that there had been no breach of planning control when a developer put up a 2.4m high fence, containers and a restroom at an unnamed site. Council officers had not been able to visit during the lockdown.

But the complainant did not agree with that assessment, providing a range of photos in November 2020.

In January 2021 Mr X chased the council for a response. He contacted the ombudsman and the ombudsman told the council to investigate it.

On May 28 the council replied to Mr X’s complaint, relying on the officer report sent to him in June 2020.

"In response to enquiries the council said it did not have a specific policy about site visits," said the ombudsman.

"Officers took a risk based approach and would undertake one if they were unsure they had sufficient information to make a fully informed assessment. The council did not adopt a formal policy during the Covid-19 pandemic, but after the lifting of the first lockdown, it was agreed to only do outdoor visits, where necessary to minimise risks.

"As to why the council did not respond to Mr X’s final points it said no additional evidence came to light to suggest its decision was incorrect.

"It therefore felt the need to bring an end to correspondence on the case and introduce a closing position. It saw no benefit in continued correspondence, accepting that Mr X was likely to pursue matters through the ombudsman."

The ombudsman said the council accepted there were issues with communication up to August 2021. Between August 2021 and January 22, while communication was generally prompted by the complainant, their queries were always responded to in a timely manner and there are at least seven examples of this.

"Given officers' caseloads of 50-60 current cases it is not realistic to expect regular updates to the complainants for each case, though clearly any communication should be responded to. The council is not sure there was injustice caused during this period or that this should be covered by an apology.

"It accepted it should have addressed the further questions raised by the complainant," the ombudsman said.

The council's planning enforcement team have decided to review its processes to provide regular prompts to officers reminding them to consider whether an update is required to a complainant. The provision of an update will still be at the officer’s discretion.

The ombudsman added: "Mr X's disabled daughter is wheelchair-bound and has no independent mobility. He cannot sell the property following the council’s decision and she therefore potentially faces years of further distress, a factor which they believe has not been given due consideration either by the council or in the draft decision.

"She has been deprived of her rights to enjoy her possessions despite the council providing no evidence of a greater public interest being served by their decision."

The ombudsman said because the council’s published enforcement policy does not require a site visit and it explained why it did not undertake one he found no fault in the council’s decision making process.

In January 2022 the council gave a further decision following a review of the case and having undertaken site visits.

The ombudsman added: "The council maintained the storage containers did not require planning permission, the fencing was permitted development and noted the soil would be removed.

"While the council did not confirm it found no breach regarding the soil it is clear it upheld its previous decision that this did not require planning permission.

"The council considered all relevant information and decided in line with the law, giving reasons for its decision. I find no fault in the council’s decision making process.

"While Mr and Mrs X dispute the council’s decision and question its views on the evidence, I cannot say the council’s judgement is right or wrong. I can only say whether it followed a proper decision making process; the evidence shows it did."

The ombudsman added: "I cannot say the council failed to have due regard to human rights when it acted properly in applying the law. Any dispute as to whether the council interpreted and applied the law correctly would be a matter for the courts."

But on the issue of communication the ombudsman added: "On review of the council’s actions I find no undue delay between January and June 2020 however there is a lack of evidence it kept Mr X updated on its key actions and decisions. This is fault. Mr and Mrs X suffered uncertainty as a result. This is injustice.

"Mr and Mrs X faced uncertainty and were put to avoidable time and trouble chasing the council for a response and escalating to the ombudsman. This is injustice."

On delays from August 2021 to January 2022 the ombudsman ruled "there is a lack of evidence it kept Mr X updated. This is fault. Mr and Mrs X again suffered uncertainty and spent time chasing the council. This is injustice.

"As to its final response, while I accept the council had reasons not to go over the same ground or to give further detail regarding its decision, we would expect the council to respond to new queries or give a reason why it cannot or will not. The council did neither. This is fault. Mr and Mrs X have suffered uncertainty as a result."

Shropshire Council has been asked to comment.

Top Stories

More from the Shropshire Star

UK & International News