Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Council blunder costs £240,000

A BLUNDER by a council over the ownership of a Henley cul-de-sac has cost taxpayers £240,000.

A BLUNDER by a council over the ownership of a Henley cul-de-sac has cost taxpayers £240,000.

The High Court has ordered Oxfordshire County Council to pay this sum to a developer which bought 10 parking spaces on a section of Bell Street in 2007, saying it was negligent.

Chesterton Commercial was initially told by the council that the land was privately owned.

However, the authority did not reveal that it was investigating old records to decide whether it was in fact a public highway.

Chesterton sold four of the bays to residents and marketed the other six as parking for 94 and 96 Bell Street and 2A Bell Lane, which it had also purchased.

When it learned of the council’s investigation it applied for a “stopping-up” order to remove the street from public ownership.

The Department for Transport called an inquiry after Henley Town Council, the Henley-based Open Spaces Society and 39 residents objected.

The inquiry was chaired by government transport inspector Stuart Nixon who determined the land was public highway.

Chesterton’s compensation, awarded at the High Court last month, covers the loss in value of each of the three houses without parking bays. The company had to sell these at up to £45,000 beneath the asking price when it emerged that their ownership was in doubt.

It also spent about £15,000 in legal fees, including the pursuit of the stopping-up order.

The company, which is based in Marlow, had sought advice from South Oxfordshire District Council before buying the land.

However, the county council was held liable as it didn’t tell the planning authority about the investigation despite a legal duty to do so.

The county council argued that it only had to provide records of streets that were known to be highway, not those being investigated, but the High Court said it had been negligent as Chesterton might not have bought the land if it had known.

David Nimmo Smith, a Henley town councillor and the county council’s cabinet member for highways, said: “The county council accepts the judgement but we’re very disappointed that it was not in our favour.

“We felt we had a clear case that we had done all the right and honourable things but the court clearly believed otherwise. [Chesterton] sold the spaces on the basis of a rudimentary search with the district council and assumed ownership of that land.

Perhaps we should have been more upfront about it but then hindsight is a wonderful thing.”

Councillor Nimmo Smith said the council’s insurer was handling the matter.

During the High Court hearing, it also emerged that the buyers of the other four parking spaces are suing Chesterton to get their money back.

The company wanted the county council to cover its legal costs for dealing with these claims but the court turned this down, saying it was not directly linked to the authority’s error.

Cllr Nimmo Smith said: “I’ve spoken to one buyer and they say they’ve already approached the company directly. However, they aren’t paying anything out.”

The buyers included Amanda Chumas and Jose Goumal, of Bell Street, who both spoke in support of the stopping-up order.

This week Ms Chumas said she could not comment while Mr Goumal could not be reached.

Before the inquiry Chesterton offered to give Henley Town Council a small parcel of green space on the site if it withdrew its objection. However, the council argued the land was already public and turned down the offer.

Town councillor Ian Reissmann, who was a vocal opponent of the proposed order, saidhe was surprised at the court’s decision.

He said: “It has ensured that the gains that the developer and original seller of the land wished to make have been funded by the taxpayer, which seems perverse.

“Campaigners and residents fought a long and honourable battle to retain this public amenity as highway to be used for the benefit of the public. Sadly, others come out of this affair with less credit.

“The county council was careless in not keeping proper public highway records and then attempted to handle this error by working with the developer to give away the public amentity.

“The developer was happy to make a gain and sell the parking places to make a profit at public expense. The public campaign ensured this would not happen and the amenity was kept for public benefit when the stopping-up order was refused.

“It appears that the original vendor has gained an inflated value by failing to disclose the status of the land. I hope this undeserved windfall is now available to compensate the public purse but sadly I don’t believe this will happen.

“I hope the county council’s solicitors can use their professional indemnity insurance to pay the £240,000 and that the council will undo the damage done to the Georgian pavement and other heritage parts of the site while it failed to maintain it properly.”

Chesterton did not respond to a request for comment.

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