Sunday, 21 July 2019

Council to pay costs over failed prosecution

THE owner of a garden centre has been awarded legal costs following a failed bid to prosecute him in a planning dispute.

Rob Scott, of Hare Hatch Sheeplands, near Wargrave, and a small group of businessmen will receive up to £68,000 from Wokingham Borough Council.  

Judge Angela Morris made the order on Thursday last week in a bid to “draw a line” under the seven-year case, which is estimated to have cost taxpayers more than £1 million.

The dispute began in 2012 when the council accused Mr Scott of breaching the green belt and extending a café and play area unlawfully. It insisted that Hare Hatch Sheeplands was only authorised to run as a plant nursery, café and farm shop but seven other businesses were operating from there.

When Mr Scott ignored an enforcement notice, the council took him to court and the High Court ruled in favour of the council and granted an injunction against the garden centre.

The unauthorised businesses had to leave but not all the changes required by the council were made in time, including the demolition of buildings, which resulted in Mr Scott receiving a two-month suspended prison sentence and being ordered to pay thousands of pounds for contempt of court.

But in June last year Judge Morris, sitting at Reading Crown Court, said the council had “offended the court’s sense of justice” by prosecuting Mr Scott for breaching an enforcement notice after it had convinced him to drop an appeal.

Judge Morris said: “The fact they [Wokingham Borough Council] have chosen to do so under these circumstances — coupled with the clear and, in my view, inappropriate consideration of seeking to reclaim costs through the application of proceeds of crime, is unjust and unfair and so offends the court’s sense of justice that it must stay the proceedings in respect of all these defendants to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system.”

The council appealed but in January this year the Court of Appeal upheld Judge Morris’s decision and ruled that Mr Scott and the other seven business owners had no case to answer, saying the council’s decision to prosecute them had not been properly considered.

The businesses then went back to court to claim costs.

Judge Morris ruled for them and said: “This matter has gone on for an inordinate length of time and I am quite sure that from both sides everyone will want to have a line drawn under this matter at the earliest possible opportunity.

“What I am desirous of is to find a sensible timetable at this stage which will ensure there is finality before the conclusion of this.”

Saira Kabir Sheikh QC, for the council, said the council would be willing to repay 43.5 per cent of the total amount that Mr Scott and the other respondents were claiming in costs within 28 days. The remaining amount, about £30,000, would be up for dispute between the parties.

The council has rejected a call for an inquiry into the botched prosecution, saying it will not apologise for protecting the green belt.

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