Councils called to heel over ‘bureaucratic nightmare’

Two Victorian councils have been called to heel by the state’s ombudsman after a bungled building approval left an elderly woman ‘entangled in a bureaucratic nightmare’ for  six years with no resolution in sight.

Deborah Glass

Ombudsman Deborah Glass says the case, involving Mitchell Shire and Yarra Ranges Shire councils, underscores the importance of good complaint handling systems for all councils.

“We all make mistakes, but when they are compounded by officialdom we should expect agencies to help us find solutions,” Ms Glass says in a report tabled in parliament this month.

“Behind every complaint is a human story needing to be heard.”

The report centres on the experience of the 72-year-old, identified as Robyn, who had survived the 2009 Black Saturday  bushfires and lost her husband some years later.

In 2015 she built small dwelling on her land for her son, who requires dialysis.

Robyn did so with the belief she had a permit, but in fact her builder had applied to the wrong council – Mitchell Shire – for a permit to build a shed.

Mitchel Shire then sent a copy of the permit to the wrong person at the wrong address and it wasn’t until 2017 that Robyn learnt from her local council – Yarra Ranges – that she had the wrong permit.

Robyn was ordered by Yarra Ranges to stop using the building as a habitable building because of health and safety reasons, but by this time the hospital had already installed a dialysis machine in the building, which her son needed to survive.

Robyn’s building. (Victorian Ombudsman/Bushfire Audit Report December 2020)

She found herself stuck in a bureaucratic limbo between one council that had issued the permit, and another which was ordering her to stop using it.

Repeated attempts of conciliation – including one involving Robyn, the two councils and the Omudsman – have failed, because no one can agree on key facts  or who’s responsible for fixing the problem.

“In attempting to resolve this tangled bureaucratic web, Robyn complained repeatedly to both Councils,” Ms Glass found.

“The Councils did not always coordinate with each other, and at times their requirements were conflicting. Neither Council initially demonstrated the kind of effective complaint handling a ratepayer should expect.

“Councils need to communicate clearly and consistently, to use their discretion, to find flexible solutions and to give reasons for their decisions. They need to treat dissatisfaction as a complaint and respond appropriately, rather than adopting a defensive position.”

Both councils are continuing to struggle to find a solution to the problem.

“No solution has been found and Robyn’s problem is not resolved, despite a great deal of time and effort being spent on it,” the report concludes.

It remains unclear whether Robyn will ever receive a final certificate for her building.

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