A dialysis machine, two local councils and one ‘tangled bureaucratic web’

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A 72-year-old widow suffered “a catalogue of misfortune and mistakes” involving two local councils after building a structure specifically designed to house her son’s dialysis machine, the Victorian Ombudsman has found.

The watchdog’s latest investigation, released on Wednesday, lays bare a “tangled bureaucratic web” that ensnared the woman, who built the detached unit a few years after the Black Saturday bushfires destroyed everything on her land, including her home.

The woman’s son requires a dialysis machine to stay alive.Credit: Michelle Mossop

The structure was assembled in 2016, but unknown to the woman – who did not want to be interviewed by the media and whose name in the report is simply listed as Robyn – her builder had applied to a council that was not her local shire for a shed permit.

Mitchell Shire Council, on Melbourne’s northern fringe, issued a building permit but sent a copy to the wrong person at the wrong address, according to the Ombudsman. Yarra Ranges Shire Council, Robyn’s actual shire, later ordered her to stop using the structure as a habitable building.

In a statement included in the Ombudsman’s final report, Robyn said the back-and-forth had dragged on for the better half of a decade and impacted her ability to prepare for ageing.

“I have suffered from anxiety and sleeplessness and related physical and mental health issues,” she said.

“My family member has been subjected to years of insecurity when I had wanted to provide him with a safe and secure environment.”

Ombudsman Deborah Glass said the councils’ actions served as an important lesson for how local governments should communicate with ratepayers.

“The councils did not always coordinate with each other, and at times their requirements were conflicting,” she said.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass. Credit: Penny Stephens

“Neither council initially demonstrated the kind of effective complaint handling a ratepayer should expect. At times, both councils struggled to recognise the human story behind the complaints – or that a vulnerable person who had lost so much might not be familiar with the Building Act and regulations.”

Mitchell Shire Council and Yarra Ranges Shire Council have been approached for comment.

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