Four in five complaints against Bristol City Council upheld

Four in five complaints against Bristol City Council were upheld after a detailed investigation by local government watchdogs, according to a new report.

The figure reflected “widening cracks” in council complaint systems across the country, in a year when more complaints were upheld than ever before, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman said. 

But Bristol’s performance was worse than many other authorities when it came to two of three key indicators used to measure how well council complaint systems work, the ombudsman’s review of local government complaints for 2020/21 found.

The city council had a much higher proportion of complaints against it upheld than similar councils or nationally, and made a much poorer job of successfully implementing the ombudsman’s recommendations, according to the report published on Wednesday 28 July.

Altogether, 83% of investigated complaints against the city council were upheld, compared with a national average of 67% and an average of 63% for similar authorities.

The ombudsman’s recommendations were successfully implemented in only 90% of cases, far fewer than the average of 99% for comparable councils and 99.5% nationwide.

Failure to comply with the recommendations is “rare” and any authority with a compliance rate below 100 per cent should “scrutinise those complaints where it failed to comply and identify any learning,” ombudsman chairman Michael King told the council in a letter sent to the council’s chief executive on July 21.

Bristol was better at providing a satisfactory remedy before the complaint reached the ombudsman, doing so in 16% of upheld cases, compared with an average of 10% for similar authorities.

83% of investigated complaints in Bristol were upheld

The council has said they welcome the ombudsman’s feedback and that the recommendations are an “invaluable” opportunity to improve services.

“We take every complaint seriously and where possible try to find a solution that meets all parties’ needs or provide clarity where a complaint is not upheld,” a spokesperson said.

Bristol’s results were based on 23 detailed investigations and 21 compliance results in the year from April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021, according to the watchdog report.

The council said the report covered complaints from September 1, 2019 to March 31, 2021, a period when less than one per cent of the 9,951 complaints against it were investigated by the ombudsman.

Mr King said the findings of the national review “deepened” his concerns about how councils across England handle complaints from the public.

The problems could not be fully blamed on the Covid-19 pandemic, which had added to but not caused the “general erosion” of council complaint systems, he said.

His comments follow a damning public interest report this year, in which the ombudsman censured the council for promising but failing to improve how it handles complaints.

But Bristol improved its rate of providing a satisfactory remedy to upheld complaints before they reached the ombudsman (16 per cent last year vs 10 per cent the previous year), whereas similar councils showed no improvement (10 per cent vs 11 per cent).

Credit: Amanda Cameron, Local Democracy Reporter