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GBC’s Complaint Response Sent to Neighbour Who Was Being Complained About

Published on: 18 May, 2022
Updated on: 24 May, 2022

By Emily Coady-Stemp

local democracy reporter

A woman has been paid £400 by Guildford Borough Council after her complaint form about a neighbour’s high hedge was accidentally returned to the neighbour she was writing about.

The woman made a complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman following a series of delays in her contact with Guildford Borough Council and the “avoidable distress” she suffered.

The ombudsman found the borough council to be at fault in its handling of the process, which began in August 2019, and has also told the council to refund her high hedge fee of £600 paid to the council.

The anonymous woman, known as Mrs X, made a complaint to the council about their handling of the process, after the letter sent to her neighbour in error and a delay in the following communications she had with staff.

Of sending the letter to the incorrect address, the ombudsman’s report said: “This caused her avoidable distress.

“It also meant she was unaware for several months that the council was not progressing her high hedge complaint application.”

What is a high hedge complaint?

Legally, councils have the power to serve a “remedial notice” requiring the owner of a hedge to cut it back but first has to consider if it should accept the complaint and if the hedge complained about “is adversely affecting the complainant’s reasonable enjoyment” of their home.

Mrs X said the boundary hedge blocked light to her home and garden.

A council spokesperson said the £600 fee covers costs including investigating the complaint and considering if a remedial notice should be served.

Cllr Tom Hunt

Cllr Tom Hunt (Lib Dem, Friary & St Nicolas), lead councillor for development management, said the borough council took all complaints and any failures on its part “very seriously”.

He added: “We are sorry and could have done better. We have apologised to Mrs X and put further measures in place to avoid this happening again.”

Data entry error to blame

Mrs X first sent a complaint form about the high hedge to the council in August 2019.

In September 2019 the council decided the complaint was not valid, but sent Mrs X’s form back to the neighbour she was complaining about because of a “data entry error” on the council’s part.

She then chased the council in November 2019 for a response, and communicated with them until May 2020 when she was told to submit a new complaint form.

At the end of that month the council agreed to use a copy of the August 2019 application to log a new high hedge complaint and then in June 2020 she paid the £600 fee.

But the council took until September 2021 to issue its findings, by which time she had complained to both the borough council’s managing director and the ombudsman.

It was not until February 2021 that Mrs X was made aware that the council had sent her form back to the neighbour by mistake, with the council telling the ombudsman this was when they realised what had happened.

The borough council spokesperson said the breach was reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office as soon as it was identified, and that the commissioner decided no further action was needed.

They also said the delay to the process as a whole was due to workload pressures and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as a need to re-visit after Mrs X suggested the hedge had been cut in 2021.

£400 for distress and “time and trouble” spent

In May 2021, the council offered to refund £200 of the £600 she paid for her high hedge complaint.

But the ombudsman ruled the council should pay £200 “to recognise the distress the council’s fault has caused her when it wrongly sent her application form back to her neighbour” and another £200 “in recognition of the avoidable time and trouble she spent in chasing the council”.

The council also repaid Mrs X the £600 fee for her high hedge complaint application, as advised by the ombudsman and has made changes to its processes in high hedge complaints.

A council spokesperson said: “We are setting target timescales for investigations like this.

“We are also reviewing the process and creating template documents to make the administration and report writing faster.

“To remove the chance of data entry issues in future we are creating an online rather than paper application form.”

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