Thursday, 14 December 2017

Garden centre fails to stop council enforcement action

THE owner of a garden centre involved in a planning dispute could face criminal proceedings.

Rob Scott, of Hare Hatch Sheeplands, near Wargrave, is accused by Wokingham Borough Council of using green belt land without permission and has been facing enforcement action for four years.

He claims the action threatens the future of the business and has taken his appeal to the High Court while his supporters have been running a campaign to save the business.

However, a council meeting last week heard that Mr Scott is likely to face further legal action by the borough.

Councillor Mark Ashwell said: “The council has sought to work with the owner but he has been unwilling to compromise his position and has continued to expand the unauthorised activity at the site.

“If the council had withdrawn the enforcement notice we would have had no means with which to seek removal of the harmful breaches of the green belt.

“It’s a complete disregard for planning regulations and not enforcing this would set a very dangerous precedent, making it very hard for the council to resist more harmful and less popular applications across the borough.”

He said the council had already spent more than £45,000 on the dispute but would be seeking costs from Mr Scott. Cllr Ashwell said: “The council’s costs in respect of this action would not have been incurred if the owner had not shown flagrant disregard for planning regulations.”

He said Mr Scott could be prosecuted for not complying with the enforcement notice and the council could then seek reimbursement using the Proceeds of Crime Act.

The council debate was sparked by a petition launched by Mr Scott which called for an end to the dispute on the grounds that it was costing him and council taxpayers “ridiculous amounts of money”. It was signed by more than 4,800 people.

Dozens of members of the public attended the meeting on Thursday last week so that the council chamber was filled and some people had to watch a live stream from a meeting room at the council’s offices in Shute End.

More than 30 questions from members of the public were submitted to councillors and the public participation session was extended to an hour in order to answer as many as possible.

These included how the council would respond to the strength of feeling in the community which was demonstrated by two petitions, the amount of time the dispute has taken to resolve and how businesses and staff at Sheeplands would be helped by the council if the business closed.

Councillors said the business only had planning permission to operate as a plant nursery, café and farm shop, not a full garden centre, and that Mr Scott couldn’t prove the unauthorised operations had been running for 10 years or more.

His own evidence submitted in 2014 was “contradictory” and undermined his argument and reinforced the council’s position.

Councillor David Chopping said: “The petition is put in a very emotive way to encourage support but no facts and figures are given. If it’s a viable business then it has no need of our help.”

Councillor Keith Baker said: “The principle of making decisions based on emails, letters or press campaigns is not one that this council or any other adheres to and it would be ridiculous for any council to do that.

“It makes decisions on the basis of current law and that’s what’s happening here.

“The council can’t be seen to favour one business over another. On this stretch of road there are four places selling garden products. The council will support all legitimate businesses without showing favouritism.”

Councillor Chris Smith said: “The sentiment behind the petition shows how deeply the local community feels about Hare Hatch Sheeplands.

“Wokingham will support local businesses but must not show favouritism. This would undermine the council in the eyes of residents and force us into situations which could cause damage in the long term.” But Councillor Lindsay Ferris said: “Many residents like myself have visited this site for many years. You can see how big an asset it is by the number of people here tonight. I support the petition and ask you to do the same.”

Councillors agreed a motion put forward by Councillor John Halsall, who represents the Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe ward, that the council could not stop the enforcement action and should seek to ensure that Hare Hatch Sheeplands operated as a viable business while complying with green belt policy and within the law.

After the meeting, Mr Scott said: “The whole evening was a farce and an insult to the many thousands of people who signed the two petitions, those who wrote to the council and those who took the trouble to travel to Wokingham to ask questions and to support us.

“It wasn’t a debate. It was a carefully scripted and orchestrated exercise just to go through the motions but without any real desire to take note of public opinion.

”I believe that all fair-minded people will see the logic of lifting the enforcement notice so that an independent inspector can hear the evidence and take a decision.

“Leaving the notice in place will cost the council, and ourselves, thousands of pounds and that is such a waste of taxpayers’ money when we are being told the council has to make savings.”

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