Council apology is not enough say ReadiBus, after Ombudsman ruling
The community bus charity at the centre of a row with West Berkshire Council over funding cuts says the authority needs to do more than apologise.
The Local Government Ombudsman found that West Berkshire Council was at fault for failing to carry out a public consultation about its 68 per cent reduction in grant funding to ReadiBus.
The district council has apologised to ReadiBus, but the charity is accusing it of ‘corporate defensiveness’.
“There now needs to be more from West Berkshire Council than just a written apology – there needs to be action by the leadership to address what has happened here,” said ReadiBus chair of trustees, Prof Sophie Bowlby.
“We would very much welcome an approach from the council leadership to meet with us with a view to fully exploring what went wrong and how the council can put this right.
“So far, West Berkshire Council’s response to us bringing these matters to its attention has been to introduce a ‘gagging clause’ as a condition of future funding and since last summer it has refused to speak with or engage with us.
“We have been the conveyer of important messages, it is not an appropriate response from a responsible authority to simply ‘shoot the messenger’ and to try to cover up its failings by requiring a right of censorship of any public statements, as the council has done.
“We look forward to being invited to meet with the council leadership to resolve all of the matters that we have raised with the council over the last three to four years.”
The Ombudsman said: “I am satisfied the council’s consultation policy and the video published on the council’s website by the council leader gave the expectation that a public consultation would happen. Therefore the council was at fault for failing to carry out a public consultation.”
The Ombudsman report also criticised West Berkshire Council for its explanation for its failure to publicly consult.
In response to ReadiBus’ complaint and to enquiries made by the Ombudsman, the council had said: “Public consultation with service users on the proposals was not considered to be appropriate by officers due to a significant number of them having learning difficulties. This would have made it difficult for them to comprehend what was being proposed.”
The Ombudsman said: “If this was the council’s reason for not carrying out a public consultation this is concerning, as many of [ReadiBus’] clients have mobility issues and not learning disabilities.
“In addition, a public consultation could have engaged with the families and carers of those with learning disabilities and to exclude them from this process on the basis they may not understand the process is fault.”
West Berkshire Council has issued a written apology to ReadiBus.
In a statement, the council said it values the views of local residents in helping to design and deliver services which meet their needs and helps to enhance their lives. This complaint relates to a decision made in 2018/19 and since then the council has improved its engagement with local residents.
West Berkshire Council continues to support community transport schemes and has allocated £55,000 in funding this year to help local providers deliver services, as well as making grants totalling £50,000 available for specific projects each year.
Professor Bowlby further commented: “West Berkshire Council’s apology does not acknowledge the impact their fault and injustice has had. And there is no apology to the residents who have been impacted and discriminated against.
“There needs to be an end to the ‘corporate defensiveness’ that West Berkshire Council has shown over the last three to four years, to be replaced by some learning from the Ombudsman’s criticism and some commitment from the leadership to make good.
“The council dismissed our complaints when we brought them up via their internal complaints process. It has been a huge amount of work to take our complaint to the Ombudsman to try to get some justice and a resolution. The WBC leadership should now want to talk to us to put things right. We would welcome that.
“We have been supportive partners to the council for over 35 years – sometimes that requires telling a partner something that they don’t want to hear. The council should be valuing such a partner, not refusing to speak with them.”