Thursday, 11 August 2022

Council mistake over status of street cost taxpayers £337,000

A BLUNDER by a council over the ownership of a Henley cul-de-sac cost taxpayers £337,000, it has been revealed.

The High Court ordered Oxfordshire County Council to pay £240,000 in damages plus costs to a developer which bought 10 parking spaces on a section of Bell Street in 2007, saying it was negligent.

The council had initially told Chesterton Commercial that the land was privately owned but did not reveal that it was investigating old records to decide whether it was in fact a public highway.

The company 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 bought.

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

The application was opposed by Henley Town Council, which argued the road had always been public highway and a public inquiry determined this was the case.

As a result, the company had to sell three houses without parking bays at up to £45,000 beneath the asking price.

Chesterton was awarded damages by the court in July last year but it has now been revealed that much of it was not covered by the council’s insurance. It follows a Freedom of Information request to the county council made by Amanda Chumas, of Bell Street, who bought two bays in 2008 and supported the application for a stopping-up order.

She found that the county council was ordered to pay a total of £463,000, which included the damages payment, Chesterton’s costs and legal fees.

The council also had to pay its own costs of almost £82,000, which included its legal fees.

However, it was only liable for £300,000 of this as the rest was covered by insurance, plus £37,000 in costs incurred until the end of the public inquiry.

Mrs Chumas criticised the town council, which at the time was controlled by Henley Residents’ Group, for refusing to negotiate with the developer and the county council despite her pleas.

She said that if the council had agreed to her request, it would have avoided such a high cost to taxpayers.

Speaking at the council’s finance strategy and management meeting, Mrs Chumas said: “I took a close interest in this matter.

“I had no prior knowledge of the earlier ancient highway claims but, from my legal background, I could see that there was potential for a substantial liability to fall back on the county council.

“To avert this risk, I pleaded both in writing and in open meetings with the town council in this very room for representatives of this council to sit down with the county council and Chesterton and seek to negotiate a compromise solution acceptable to all parties.

“However, Councillor [Ian] Reissmann maintained that I was absolutely wrong.

“He was adamant that there was no risk whatsoever that any liability might fall on the public purse and he brushed aside completely my suggestion that it might be prudent to get a legal opinion.

“I cannot help thinking that this expenditure of public money might well have been avoided had Cllr Reissmann heeded my request to seek a negotiated and pragmatic compromise solution instead of making litigation inevitable.”

Mrs Chumas also criticised a letter published in the Henley Standard from Cllr Reissmann, fellow HRG councillor Stefan Gawrysiak and HRG member Dick Fletcher.

She said they claimed the result of the case was “a victory for the people of Henley” but in fact had cost Oxfordshire taxpayers £337,000.

Mrs Chumas added: “As a taxpayer, it give me no pleasure to point out how much public money has been spent but I think that this should be made a matter of public record in order to correct HRG’s misleading claim that all costs were insured.

“The fact that the liability has fallen on the county council, rather than the town council, to my mind makes no difference — it is still a waste of precious public funds which could have been put to a better use.

“So please, in future, please drop the grandstanding and instead adopt a less divisive, more collaborative and inclusive approach towards problem solving and I am sure you will reach optimal solutions far quicker.”

Cllr Reissmann said he was proud of what the town council had done.

He said: “This was a public asset. The county council made a mistake, had to correct their mistake and as a result had to pay.

“What we had to do was not assign blame but protect public assets in Henley.”

Cllr Gawrysiak added: “This was public land that should never have been taken over by a private developer and sold for profit.”

l The town council has been gifted a triangle of land on Bell Street by Chesterton as long as it agrees to maintain it. The committee agreed to budget for £1,000 for legal fees for the transfer.

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