Welsh council spends nearly £20k on private investigation firm
Richard Youle – Local Democracy Reporter
A man who said his wife was handed a document outside their timber roundhouse by private investigators working on behalf of a Welsh council said she felt intimidated by it.
Daniel O’Reilly, whose roundhouse smallholding is the subject of a lengthy planning dispute, alleged the investigators hadn’t provided identification and that they had said that they weren’t actually employed by the council.
He said that he only got an inkling as to who they were after submitting a subject access request to Carmarthenshire Council.
A subject access request allows members of the public to find out what personal information an organisation holds about them, how it’s being used and with whom it’s being shared.
Mr O’Reilly said he spotted an invoice from a private investigation firm among documents sent to him by the council in response to his request.
“It’s a wonderful tool for individuals,” Mr O’Reilly said of subject access requests. “It’s not perfect, but you do get a good idea of what’s going on behind the scenes. You also see a lot of correspondence between council staff.”
Mr O’Reilly said he then found out, via a freedom of information request, that the council had spent £19,523 on the private investigation firm between 2018-19 and 2022-23.
The council said in its response to Mr O’Reilly that the firm was mainly instructed to serve legal documents and correspondence to people in cases where the postal service was not deemed sufficient, and also to trace people required to attend court proceedings.
It said the company hadn’t been instructed to conduct covert surveillance.
Mr O’Reilly said he felt the serving of the correspondence last summer to his wife, who was with one of their two children at the time, was over the top as he said they had always engaged with the council over the planning dispute.
He described the correspondence as a planning enforcement “ultimatum” requiring the family to cease residential use of the roundhouse and move out within three months, with prosecution a possible outcome unless they complied.
The council told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that it had been reasonable to serve the documentation in person.
A spokesman said the planning “contravention” involving the O’Reillys was “a long-standing issue and the authority required assurance that the documentation was served correctly”.
An email to Mr O’Reilly from the council’s head of place and sustainability, Rhodri Griffiths, said the intention had not been to intimidate or cause anxiety but to clearly set out the council’s position.
He added that the authority had extended the enforcement compliance deadline.
Mr O’Reilly, 41, said he had built the timber structure on the 14-acre smallholding he owns near Rhydcymerau, south-east of Llanybydder, years before moving into it with his wife and two children in February, 2017.
He said they only moved into it after being made homeless. “The priority was having a roof over our head,” he said. The roundhouse has mains power, heating and three small bedrooms, and Mr O’Reilly said he started paying council tax as soon as they moved in.
He received an enforcement notice from the council in June, 2017, which said the change of use of an agricultural building was unauthorised, and that they must cease residential use.
Mr O’Reilly didn’t appeal the enforcement notice but claimed it was “defective”, “vague” and in his view invalid. He has asked for it to be withdrawn, giving the council the opportunity to serve another one or drop the matter.
The council’s position is that a breach of planning has occurred. The O’Reillys are still living in the roundhouse.
Asked about the enforcement notice, the council spokesman said: “The council stands by the service of the notice and Mr O’Reilly would have had the right to appeal the council’s decision. On that basis the council will not consider the revocation of the notice and (will) decide on the next course of action.”
Asked if it wanted to comment on the use of the private investigation firm beyond what it said in the freedom of information response to Mr O’Reilly, the spokesman said it didn’t, other than to re-confirm that the authority only used the firm “to trace and serve legal documentation on those that they have an interest in”.
Mr O’Reilly said four generations of his family lived in Carmarthenshire and that he had lived in the area for 20 years. He claimed there were no affordable properties in the vicinity.
“Everyone must live somewhere, and it is really not clear what the council expects people to do,” he said.
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