Council complaint facing set-back

A SHELTERED housing resident complaining about an council consultation on the future of the service has been told he can’t raise his complaint with the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman – because the council’s own complaints procedure has yet to be exhausted.

Fraserburgh man Martin Coull raised a complaint on behalf of residents of a number of complexes across Aberdeenshire in response to what he described as a ‘deeply flawed’ consultation process on the future of sheltered housing. The results of that consultation have been used by Aberdeenshire Council to drive through changes which replace fixed warden cover in sheltered housing with mobile teams of housing officers.

However, despite raising his complaint with Ellon Councillor Rob Merson who took his concerns to council Chief Exec Colin Mackenzie, Mr Coull has been told that Aberdeenshire Council will not permit the ombudsman to investigate his complaint until it has been considered by their Area Manager.

Mr Coull said that he had raised his formal complaint after learning of similar complaints to the Social Work and Housing Service from other residents regarding the way the consultation was carried out, and had therefore become aware of Cllr Merson’s involvement on behalf of his own constituents.

“It became clear that there was an overwhelming similarity with the complaints which I had received independently from elsewhere, and he was therefore happy to co-operate and assist me with the complaint”, he said.

“Cllr Merson had also been extremely dissatisfied with the responses being received from the Head of Service, and ultimately referred the matter to the Director of Social Work & Housing. As such, he had the most comprehensive and continuous stream of correspondence, which I have cited extensively as evidence in support of my complaint.”

“In his Ellon Times/Inverurie Herald letter last week, the Director of Social Work & Housing said that he would be happy to co-operate with the SPSO. I was therefore surprised to learn that Aberdeenshire Council had taken the view that the SPSO should not investigate the complaint on the basis that it ‘had not been referred to the Area Manager’ - given that the matter had already been escalated to the senior management level by both Cllr Merson and myself.

“Had Aberdeenshire Council been fully confident of their handling of the consultation process, I would have expected that they should have welcomed the opportunity of an independent investigation by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman - but they have not.

“I believe this is a further indication of the lengths to which Aberdeenshire Council is prepared to go to suppress the volume of objection to the cuts in sheltered housing officer cover - and to obstruct the valid complaints which have been made with regard to the flawed consultation process which preceded them.

“It would appear that the Council’s entrenched view is that because the review and the cuts in sheltered housing officer cover which followed were duly approved by the Social Work & Housing Committee, they have fulfilled their obligations and followed due process. That is not the case, as is clearly indicated by their failure to accept that the consultation process was flawed, or to fully address the specific complaints which have been lodged repeatedly.”

Cllr. Merson added: “I have had a meeting with the Chief Executive of Aberdeenshire Council to ensure that he was personally aware of the background to the complaint.

“Mr. Coull has now submitted a further copy of the complaint to the Area Manager, who is also the Council’s SPSO liaison officer. It will therefore be interesting to see if his response is any more satisfactory than those of the senior management team to whom the complaints have already been sent. If not, then the complaint will be referred back to the Ombudsman immediately. The complaint to the SPSO was accompanied by petitions of endorsement from residents of Modley House, Meadowvale and Slater Court sheltered housing complexes in Ellon - who share his concerns.

“The Council is clearly determined to press ahead with the reductions in sheltered officer cover even though this matter has been the subject of ongoing complaint - I therefore trust that it will not delay in responding, given that the matter has already been receiving the attention of the Service management team for months.”

Responding, Director of Housing and Social Work Ritchie Johnson said: “Aberdeenshire Council has a clear policy for dealing with complaints.

“The ombudsman has advised that all internal procedures for dealing with complaints should be followed before any further investigation takes place. The final stage of our process is an independent review by an Area Manager.”