Heavy workload for ombudsmen

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Indy Politics
A backlog of complaints alleging local authority malpractice has built up following a 32 per cent rise last year in the number of grievances lodged with local government ombudsmen.

Most of the 12,123 complaints made to the three ombudsmen for England focus on housing (37 per cent) and planning (26 per cent), according to a report by the Commission for Local Administration. Despite the increased workload, the ombudsmen's budget rose by just 7 per cent last year.

The ombudsmen criticised a few councils that still exihibited 'blatant disregard for the interests of complainants' and defied their rulings on disputes.

They warn that the Government has, through the Citizen's Charter, threatened to give their rulings legal status if defiance continues.

Since 1990, ombudsmen have had the power to require errant councils to publish a statement of their position in the local press. There have been 18 such cases since. Patricia Thomas, Ombudsman for northern England, said: 'My experience so far is that the further step of producing a statement has had little effect on those public authorities which set themselves against accepting the referee's verdict. For a public authority to fail to take action to redress injustice is to add insult to the injury its mistakes have already caused the individual.' She said Liverpool, Manchester and Wakefield city councils had been forced to publish explanatory statements for the second consecutive year.

Investigations into allegations of malpractice range from unreasonable delays in treating cockroach infestation in council flats to failure to protect historic fig gardens after granting planning permission for housing.

Only 3.5 per cent of complaints became the subject of a formal report last year, the vast majority being resolved within weeks after discussions with councils. Compensation usually accompanies a change of heart. Swale Borough Council paid an elderly woman pounds 4,000 last year after a contracted agency persuaded her to have improvement work done without telling her it would be only partly covered by a grant.