Case number: D/98/63
Date of Decision: 29 September 1999
Decision accepted by the customer: Yes
A customer contacted EIOV stating that his electricity company had installed thick black cabling in front of his business and residential premises and the vacant lot next door, which he also owned. He claimed that as a result the value of his properties had dropped and he had lost visual amenity. The customer was also dissatisfied with the level of consultation undertaken by the company prior to and during the works. He stated that the only notification he had received was a "Planned Outage Notice".
The company advised EIOV that it had replaced existing open wire overhead conductors with HV ABC cable to improve the area's supply reliability in response to concern by local businesses. The feeder supplied 1,812 residents in the area and had been identified as the company's most unreliable feeder.
In response to EIOV's request for details of its procedures for notifying those persons who might be affected by the works, the company advised it had undertaken a pamphlet drop, had put weekly advertisements in the local newspaper, had attached signs to poles near the location of the works and had sent a "Planned Outage Notice" to affected residents informing them of times that the works would disrupt their supply. The company also said the customer should have received five letters about the planned works because he had 5 meters. In addition, it had requested an onsite meeting with the customer two days after the works had commenced to discuss the concerns he had raised, but the customer had declined the offer.
The company stated that during the installation of the cable it had removed unsightly pole-top hardware from the pole in front of the customer's premises, including HV isolators, 3 large surge diverters, 3 strain insulators and a cross arm.
EIOV sought from the local Council any relevant Council planning guidelines and environmental impact requirements that needed to be met by the company when installing the cables. The Council advised that it did not have any policy or planning requirements for the installation of high voltage power cables within its municipality.
EIOV discussed the option of undergrounding the cable with the electricity company. The company advised that the cost of this would be about $80,000, which would have to be borne by the customer. It also advised that the option of undergrounding the cable was complicated by the existence of other underground cables.
The customer advised EIOV that, for him, the only acceptable solution would be the undergrounding of the cable. However, he was not prepared to pay for the cost of that. The customer also complained that access to his business premises was blocked by the company's vehicles, both during the installation of the cables and subsequently when the company accessed a substation at the rear of his property. The company denied that this had happened during the installation works and stated that it had only occurred once when accessing the substation. The company advised EIOV that it had notified all relevant personnel not to park in or obstruct the customer's access and a no parking sign had been erected. EIOV facilitated an interim solution whereby the customer agreed to contact EIOV if the company caused access problems for his business, and EIOV would in turn notify the company.
As part of its investigation, EIOV considered the regulatory context of the company's actions, in particular, the Electricity Industry Supply and Sale Code 1997 which states that an electricity company must "provide, install and maintain" its equipment "in a manner which is sensitive to the environment and the amenity of the area".
EIOV sought advice from the Office of the Chief Electrical Inspector (OCEI) as to whether the new wires and pole configuration complied with relevant regulations. They did. OCEI also advised that the company, under the relevant regulations, did not have a duty to consult, notify or negotiate with persons affected by works such as those carried out. An independent property valuer advised that the cabling had had some effect on the value of the customer's property. With the new cabling, the customer's property would fetch a marginally lower price on the open market (estimated at $4,000 less because of the high value of the property).
As the case was not resolved through conciliation, the Ombudsman made a Binding Decision. In making the determination, the Ombudsman noted that she had taken into account a number of factors, including the visual impact of the cable outside the customer's premises, the company's obligations and responsibilities under current regulations and codes, its reasons for the installation of the HV ABC cables in the customer's suburb, regulatory advice and customer service issues.
The Ombudsman noted that, in these situations, it was often difficult to reconcile and balance the interests of individual customers with those of the community as a whole. While the company's upgrading of supply in the customer's area had improved the reliability and quality of supply generally, this did not fully balance the issues raised by the customer. In particular, it did not resolve the issue of the degree of consultation he received about the installation of the cable. The Ombudsman directed that the company review its consultation policy and procedures to ensure that customers are provided with sufficient information to make them aware of the implications of upgrading or extension works. The procedures should give customers the opportunity to provide input or further discuss any issues they may have in relation to proposed works. The consultation process should be made transparent to customers.
The Ombudsman noted that she could understand the customer's concerns as to the visual amenity of the HV ABC cable, especially as its impact was greater outside his premises due to the absence of mature trees. However, she determined that it was not appropriate to direct the company to underground the cable, having considered the cost and potential technical difficulties, as well as the fact that this could affect third parties. The Ombudsman also noted that in upgrading its assets the company was endeavouring to improve supply reliability for its customers and had acted in accordance with the relevant regulatory framework.
In this case the Ombudsman did not consider it appropriate for the company to compensate the customer for loss. However, with regard to the degree of consultation carried out by the company and the aggravation caused to the customer by the ongoing issue of access to his property, the Ombudsman did consider it appropriate that as a matter of customer service, the company should pay to the customer the sum of $300.