Saturday, 16 December 2017

Garden centre closure threat

THE owner of a garden centre near Wargrave who lost a long-running planning dispute says he may have to close the business in order to avoid bankruptcy.

Rob Scott has applied for planning permission to create new retail space at Hare Hatch Sheeplands but Wokingham Borough Council has declined to make a decision due to outstanding legal action.

Mr Scott and the owners of seven businesses formerly based at the centre are due to face trial at Reading Crown Court in March after pleading not guilty to charges of breaching enforcement notices in May.

This follows a five-year dispute with the council over unlawful development at the site, which came to head in July when Mr Scott received a two-month suspended prison sentence and was ordered to pay thousands of pounds for contempt of court.

Now he wants permission to convert part of a greenhouse and outside space in order to sell trees and shrubs, compost, bulbs and seeds as well as paraphernalia such as terracotta pots, canes and netting.

The council says it declined to determine the application under the Town and Planning Act, which allows councils to do this in cases where the applicant is the subject of an existing enforcement notice.

But Mr Scott says the centre has suffered so much that he may have to close it if the application isn’t approved soon.

He said: “It has almost got to the point where the only way I can avoid personal bankruptcy and closure of the business is to accept one of the offers I have received from developers, or find an individual who is willing to buy the business and continue to run it. I know people will think I am selling to developers to make a lot of money but I have rejected previous offers.

“The fact is that the council has now put me in a position where any income would only be enough to clear some of the existing debts and not all of them.

“That’s why I am facing bankruptcy and local residents face the prospect of even more development on the green belt which I thought the council wanted to avoid.

“From my point of view, the council has been totally vindictive towards us and it almost seems as if there has been some sort of campaign to close me down.

“I have had to make it clear to my employees that the way the council has behaved towards me over this application could be enough to finish the business off, close down an amenity much-loved by local residents and throw even more people out of work.”

Mr Scott said he would be selling Christmas gifts from the centre’s car park which would help the business keep running at least until the new year.

He said: “Despite all these problems, we fully intend to put on a brave face and give our customers the best Christmas offering we possibly can.

“We look forward to them coming to shop with us and enjoying what is on offer.”

Simon Weeks, the council’s executive member for planning and enforcement, said that in August 2013 the council served a planning enforcement notice on Mr Scott to stop retail sales on the site as he did not have planning permission and they were not allowed anyway as the site is in the green belt.

Mr Scott failed to comply so the council successfully applied to the High Court for an order to force him to comply, resulting in his suspended prison sentence.

Councillor Weeks said: “Failure to comply with an enforcement notice is a criminal offence and the landowner and other retailers have been charged as such.

“All the defendants have pleaded not guilty and trial has been set for March 2018.

“To date, the landowner has lost every legal challenge and appeal and continues to owe thousands in court costs, which the council is pursuing.”

He said the council was seeking legal advice on its decision not to determine Mr Scott’s recent application after his solicitors queried it.

• The centre will hold a Christmas food festival over the weekend of December 2 and 3, including cooking demonstrations, wine and beer tastings and activities for children.

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