There's more to local government than planning, parking tickets and potholes. Local authorities are responsible for a huge range of activities that affect our lives and, inevitably, they don't always get it right. So if you feel as if you have been unfairly treated, how can you go about seeking some action or redress?
According to the Local Government Association, almost all councils say they experienced a rise in claims against them in recent years, thanks in part to the availability of 'no win, no feel' fee deals from solicitors and claims handling companies and the introduction of the Human Rights Act. Most legal action against councils falls into one of a few areas - personal injury, housing, employment, education, social services and discrimination claims are increasing too as more anti-discrimination legislation comes on-stream.
For many complaints against local authorities, however, there are plenty of remedies available that do not require you to set foot in a courtroom. All councils have an official complaints procedure, although this may operate slightly different between councils, with a right of appeal to the independent Local Government Ombudsman The initial target of any complaint should be the head of the council department responsible – if this does get a result, then the next port of call should be the council's complaints officer and, if you're still not happy, your local councillor or the councillor with responsibility for the department you are complaining about. When these avenues are exhausted, you can appeal to the Local Government Ombudsman (www.lgo.org.uk) who has the power to intervene with the council.
Some specific areas, such as parking and social services, have their own complaints and appeals procedures while, in England, complaints about the ethical behaviour of individual councillors are handled by the Standards Board of England (www.standardsboard.co.uk).
The ultimate legal sanction against local authorities is to take them to Judicial Review if you have evidence that a council has exceeded its legal authority or been unreasonable – unlike the Government appeals to the Ombudsman, this is a long, expensive and public process for individuals to undertake and is should be treated as a last resort.
Another tool at your disposal when dealing with public authorities is the Freedom of Information Act, which came into force at the beginning of 2005 and gives individuals the right to see a wide range of policy documents and statistics held by councils. Some information remains confidential, but requests are usually free.
Council tax levels have been increasing faster than inflation for some years now and as they do, so the number of complaints about have mushroomed too. Most administrative issues – if you think you apply for an exemption, for example, or you think you qualify for a discount - can be dealt directly by your local council, but if this does not resolve your complaint, then you have a right of appeal to the the Valuation Tribunal within two months of the council's decision. This involve either a hearing or submission of evidence on paper and you can be represented by a solicitor if you prefer (although no funding is available to pay for this).
Another increasingly common source of appeals is the valuation of property for council tax. Although the last valuation for council tax banding was made back in 1991, council tax payers are still making successful appeals against their valuations, especially where they are different from similar properties nearby. Appeals against council tax banding are dealt with by the Valuation Office Agency (www.voa.gov.uk), on whose website you can also check the banding of your neighbours' houses.
Few issues raise more passion than planning and as property prices soar and the government and councils look for new land to tackle housing shortages, planning decisions are becoming more and more controversial. But if somebody is intending to re-route the local by-pass through your back garden, you can don;t just have to sit there and take it.
For all but the biggest projects your local council – district, borough or unitary, depending on where you live - is the initial arbiter of planning applications. On receiving an application, a council must notify neighbouring residents and other interested parties and allow them 21 days to object or suggest changes. A council planning officer will make a recommendation based on national planning guidelines, its own local development plans and the comments it receives from the neighbours and the final decision is usually made by the council's head of environment.
If the plan is rejected, the applicant can appeal (within six months) to The Planning Inspectorate, although the grounds on which appeals can be made are limited and a more successful approach is often to work with the council to amend the original proposal rather than appeal. Appeals are often considered without a personal hearing, but if there is a hearing than either side can be liable for the other side's costs if they are unsuccessful. Those who objected to the original application will also be informed of the appeal so that they can comment again.
Very large or controversial schemes can be 'called in' by the Department of Communities and Local Government and decided by the Deputy Prime Minister, while councils also take legal action on behalf of their residents against planning decisions made at national or regional level.