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Council caused purchaser injustice after supplying incorrect information on local land charges, Ombudsman finds

A district council has agreed to reimburse professional fees and pay £500 compensation to a man who was misinformed by it about the planning status of his property.

Mr X complained to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman that Wychavon provided incorrect information in local land charges searches regarding the permitted development rights for his property.

He said that had he been aware these had been removed he would not have proceeded with the purchase.

Professional advice was that he overpaid around £5,000 for the property on the basis it had permitted development rights.

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Mr X also complained that a council solicitor wrongly told him Wychavon was not at fault for inaccurate information on the local land charges register and advised him to seek legal advice.

The solicitor subsequently confirmed this had been incorrect, but by then Mr X had incurred legal fees based on the original advice.

Mr X intended to increase the size of the existing windows, add a dormer window and install bifold doors to the rear garden, work he believed was allowed under permitted development rights.

The council though said an earlier planning permission had removed these and the proposed alterations would require planning permission, which was unlikely to be given as the property was a non-designated heritage asset.

This latter point though would not come up in local land charge searches or in the purchaser’s pack, the council said.

Mr X discussed the removal of permitted development rights with the council’s legal advisor and was given to understand he would need to bring a negligence claim against his conveyancing solicitor.

Wychavon then changed its position and said the removal of permitted development rights is a local land charge which should have been discoverable through a search of the local land charge register.

Mr X made a formal complaint after taking legal advice that the council was negligent in not reporting the removal of permitted development rights to the conveyancing solicitor.

He asked for compensation for the reduction in value of his property, reimbursement of legal fees and compensation for the cost of having to apply for planning permission.

Wychavon said it was unclear how much Mr X was seeking in reimbursement but would refund his original search fees of £144.50 and pay him £500 to close the matter.

Mr X rejected this as inadequate and engaged a surveyor who concluded the property without permitted development rights and as a non-designated heritage asset at the date of purchase was worth £5,000 less than Mr X had paid for it.

The Ombudsman concluded Wychavon had been at fault but said: “I do not however consider the council should bear the cost of Mr X’s legal fees.

“Mr X states he incurred legal fees based on the initial, incorrect advice. However Mr X had already sought legal advice regarding his purchase of the property…prior to the council’s legal advisor’s incorrect advice. Mr X contacted the solicitors again…in relation to his complaint about the council. The evidence does not suggest Mr X incurred these legal fees based on the council’s legal advisor’s suggestion his conveyancers may be at fault.”

He was also unpersuaded Wychavon should pay Mr X the £5,000 for loss of value because this “takes account of not only the removal of the permitted development rights, but also the non-designated heritage asset status.

“There is no evidence Mr X was unaware of the non-designated heritage asset status due to fault by the council.”

Wychavon agreed to pay Mr X his local land charges search fee, the fee for pre-application advice and for a lawful development certificate application, together with his surveyor’s fee of £840 and £500 for distress and uncertainty.

Wychavon confirmed that it has taken all steps recommended by the Ombudsmen including payment.

Holly Jones, Director of Planning and Infrastructure, said: “We apologise to the complainant for this error and the distress it has caused and are happy the issue has now been resolved. This was caused by human error and it is an experience we have learnt from so we can prevent something similar happening in the future.”

Mark Smulian

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