Council ordered to pay compensation after complaints silence

Epping Forest District Council has been ordered to pay £100 and apologise to a resident after failing to respond to her for five months over business rates relief.

The woman, referred to in a Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman report as “Miss X”, did not hear from the council between May and September 2020 after she requested a review of its decision to refuse her car repair business rates relief intended for retail and hospitality.

Miss X was seeking the Expanded Retail Discount and Retail, Leisure and Hospitality (RLH) grant for her business, however the Ombudsman found no fault in the council’s decision making behind the refusal.

Another person, Miss Y, complained on behalf of Miss X that the district council refused to classify her business as retail which caused stress, time and trouble and a negative financial impact.

According to the Ombudsman’s report, the business is “mainly a car repair service”.

A section of the report reads: “Having reviewed the extensive correspondence exchanged, I am satisfied the council considered all the information provided, took account of and applied the Government guidance and reached an evidence based and reasoned decision.”

But the report continued: “However, I find the council at fault because it did not respond to Miss X’s request for a review, of May 6, 2020, or her further emails chasing a response.

“I find Miss X was put to avoidable time and trouble as a result. While I recognise councils were under increased pressure, Miss X did not hear from the council from May to September 2020, which is a significant delay.”

A spokesperson for the district council said in a statement: “We have apologised for the delay. This case stems back to the height of the pandemic when EFDC was taking emergency steps to provide millions of pounds in grant aid to local businesses.

“We focused most of our staff and concentrated maximum efforts in getting money out as quickly as possible to every local business that qualified.

“Unfortunately this particular business did not qualify and we are glad that the Ombudsman has supported our decision.

“However, within the stressed environment of the time, we acknowledge that we should have responded to the complainant’s appeal more quickly than we did.

“We are sorry for the delay and confirmed the payment of £100 in compensation.”

According to the report, Miss X first applied for rates relief in January 2020 and says she received no response.

On April 8 that year, Miss X sought the discount and RHL grant but was told by the district council later that month her business was not eligible because at least 51 per cent of the business was not “wholly or mainly used for the sale of goods to visiting members of the public.”

Miss X then requested a review of the district council’s decision on May 6, and did not hear from them again until September 16, even after chasing them in July.

In August, Miss Y reapplied for the relief on behalf of Miss X, but the request was refused on September 16.

The Expanded Retail Discount applies to businesses used “wholly or mainly” as shops, restaurants, cafes, drinking establishments, cinemas and live music venues, for assembly and leisure, or as hotels, guest & boarding premises and self-catering accommodation, according to the report.

Businesses which were eligible for the discount on March 11 2020, could also be eligible for a Retail, Hospitality and Leisure (RHL) Grant of up to £25,000.

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Charlie Ridler

Local Democracy Reporter