Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Are Local Government Ombudsmen a waste of time and public money?

During 1998 a Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) found Vale Royal Borough Council (VRBC) guilty of maladministration. VRBC had ignored serious planning breaches over the previous eight years.

Following the LGO’s report VRBC stated that lessons had been learnt and steps would be taken to improve the system. Did the LGO’s intervention bring about an improvement? Did VRBC learn their lesson and improve the system? During 2005/6 I set about trying to find out.

I identified that a local play area (linked to the problems over the previous eight years) should have been completed and handed over to the council before a number of houses on the development were occupied. This planning condition was also secured with a legal agreement between the developer and VRBC. During the spring of 2001 the houses, that were the subject of the planning condition, were sold by the developer and occupied.

During 2005/6 I became suspicious that the play area had still not been handed over to the Council. Using the Freedom of Information Act I identified that the Council were not responsible for maintaining the play area because it was still owned by the developer. I decided to bring the breach of planning condition to the attention of VRBC so they could take enforcement action. In fact I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t taken any action between 2001 and 2006.

VRBC confirmed that the play area was still in private hands and had not yet been handed over to the Council, then provided the most bizarre explanation as to why they hadn’t (and wouldn’t) enforce the breach.

They stated that it was up to the developer to ensure they were not in breach of the agreement by handing over the play area at the appropriate time. In addition, VRBC stated that they were not in a position to know when and if the houses were occupied because that would entail someone from VRBC doing a site visit. I pointed out that the people living in the houses had been paying VRBC council tax for the last 5 years but VRBC staff didn’t understand the irony of what I was saying.

Further evidence to prove my point can be found in the LGO’s latest annual letters to VRBC. The LGO is still critical of planning enforcement at VRBC.

'In the three cases involving the same issue we found that the Council failed to follow up breaches of planning permission with sufficient rigour and failed to keep the complainants fully informed. This is not uncommon nationally and is a general cause for concern. Control of development is important to citizens and if there are breaches in control rigour is needed. The Council has discretion here but cannot abdicate its responsibility. In the particular cases my Investigator was not convinced that the Council really accepted that anything had gone wrong. In one sense it clearly did because it paid out compensation but I trust that the Council has accepted these critical judgements. I would value some assurance on this point and information on action that was intended to improve the Council's performance in this area.'

To my knowledge VRBC have been guilty of ignoring planning breaches for over 16 years and in spite of the LGO’s involvement things have not improved.

So the answer to my question must be, the LGO are a waste of time and public money!

Footnote: VRBC Vale Royal Borough Council has now been replaced with CWaCC Cheshire West and Chester Council. Nothing has changed.

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