21 June 2006
Mr J Everitt
Bath and North East Somerset Council
Bristol BS31 1LA
Our ref: JRW/B3/BRH/jb
If telephoning contact: Mrs B Hedley on 02476 820018
Dear Mr Everitt
Annual Letter 2005/06
I am writing to give you my reflections on the complaints received against your authority and dealt with by my office over the last year. I hope that in reviewing your own performance you will find this letter a useful addition to other information you hold highlighting how people experience or perceive your services.
This year we will publish the letters on our website and share them with the Audit Commission as there was widespread support from authorities for us to do this. We will wait for four weeks after this letter before making it more widely available in these ways to give you an opportunity to consider and review the letter first. If a letter is found to contain any factual inaccuracy we will reissue it.
In addition to the narrative below there are two attachments which form an integral part of this letter: statistical data covering a three year period and a note to help the interpretation of the statistics.
This year we received a total of 39 complaints from residents in the Council’s area. Last year we received 43. There has therefore been a slight decrease but we do expect numbers to vary from year to year.
As was the case last year, most complaints (17) are about planning. These 17 complaints comprise over 40% of the total complaints received. The total number of complaints about planning is, however, slightly lower than last year and this decrease is against the national trend.
I am aware that the Council has now completed a review of its planning services. I welcome this. I understand that fundamental operational and structural changes were made during 2005 to address a number of issues including continuity in the operation of enforcement action. These difficulties have not so far resulted in an increased number of complaints being made to me.
The number of complaints about social services has increased from one to four but as these cases are only a very small proportion of the decisions the Council takes each year I have no special concern about this rise in numbers.
Decisions on complaints
I made decisions on 37 complaints this year. In seven cases I decided that the complaint was premature and that the Council should have an opportunity to consider it first. In one case I took the view that the matter complained of was outside my jurisdiction.
Of the remaining 29 cases, I found no maladministration in 13 cases and I exercised my discretion not to pursue the complaint further in 10 cases.
Reports and local settlements
When we complete an investigation we must issue a report. But there are a significant proportion of investigations that do not need to be completed because a ‘local settlement’ is reached during the course of the investigation and it is therefore discontinued.
I issued no reports against your Council last year.
Six complaints were settled locally. Three of these were planning complaints, two were about highways and one was a local taxation complaint. These cases resulted in total compensation payments of £2450.
In one case an application for a conservatory was refused because of the impact on the complainant’s home. A new application was submitted. The planning officer noted that the proposal would be acceptable if conditions were attached to remove permitted development rights and to ensure that the conservatory was permanently glazed with obscure glass. The Council failed to put these conditions on the decision notice. The complainant suffered unacceptable overlooking from the conservatory. The Council accepted that it had made an error and apologised quite quickly. However, it took 21 weeks for the settlement, which was a compensation payment of £2000, to be put into effect. We had to send several reminders.
Failure to attach a condition was also the issue in another case. This resulted in a compensation payment of £250. Again, there was a delay by the Council in responding to us about the local settlement.
In another case the Council failed to inform the complainant about the suspension of parking bays and her car was towed away. The Council had offered her £50 compensation but, as a result of my involvement, it was agreed to increase the payment to £200.
In the other three cases the Council agreed to take practical action to settle the complaints and these did not involve any compensation payments.
Your Council’s complaints procedure and handling of complaints
As in the previous two years, the number of complaints referred back to the Council to deal with under its own complaints procedure is lower than the average for all Councils which indicates that the Council’s procedure is readily available to people who wish to complain. Details of the procedure and a complaint form are available on the Council’s website.
In one case the Council failed to respond to a complaint that we had referred back and so the complainant made another complaint to us. This complaint was not pursued further, however. Two other complainants were not satisfied with the Council’s response and resubmitted new complaints to me. One was not pursued further and the other complaint resulted in the Council agreeing a higher compensation payment.
No other issues arose during the course of investigating complaints to lead me to believe that the Council’s complaints process does not work well.
Training in complaint handling
Our training in complaint handling is proving very popular with authorities and we continue to receive very positive feedback from participants. Over the last year we have delivered more than 100 courses from the range of three courses that we now offer as part of our role in promoting good administrative practice.
Effective Complaint Handling was the first course we developed, aimed at staff who deal with complaints as a significant part of their job. Since then we have introduced courses in complaint handling for front line staff and in handling social services complaints.
All courses are presented by an experienced investigator so participants benefit from their knowledge and expertise of complaint handling.
I have enclosed some information on the range of courses available together with contact details for enquiries and bookings.
Liaison with LGO
I made enquiries on 18 complaints this year and the Council’s average number of days to respond was nearly 36 days. This is longer than last year and exceeds our target of 28 days. The most serious delay occurred with planning complaints. These took an average of 44 days before a response was received. In your letter to me dated
9 September 2005 you said that all managers in the Council had been sent a copy of my 2004/5 annual letter and their attention had been drawn to the importance of adhering to timescales. I would ask you now to take steps to improve these times in 2006/7.
When the information does arrive there has been a thorough review of the facts and appropriate documentary evidence is provided. This is much valued. But as I indicated above, the Council can be slow in responding to suggestions from my staff that a complaint has merit and should be settled by the Council. Perhaps the Council could review its delegation arrangements here to secure a more timely response.
I note that two officers from your Council attended the last link officer seminar held in November 2005.
Mrs Hedley has written to you about a presentation I will be giving about my work to Councillors and officers in the Bristol area on 7 July 2006. I hope that Councillors and officers from your Council will be able to attend.
I welcome this opportunity to give you my reflections about the complaints my office has dealt with over the past year. I hope that you find the information and assessment provided useful when seeking improvements to your Council’s services. I would again very much welcome any comments you may have on the form and content of the letter.
I would again be happy to consider requests for myself or a senior colleague to visit the Council to present and discuss the letter with councillors or staff. We will do our best to meet the requests within the limits of the resources available to us.
I am also arranging for a copy of this letter and its attachments to be sent to you electronically so that you can distribute it easily within the council and post it on your website should you decide to do this.
J R White
Local Government Ombudsman