Friday, 15 February 2019

Garden centre owner wins ‘unfair’ prosecution case

Garden centre owner wins ‘unfair’ prosecution case

A GARDEN centre owner should not have been prosecuted by a council in a long-running planning dispute, the Appeal Court has ruled.

Lady Justice Hallett upheld a decision by Reading Crown Court that Wokingham Borough Council acted unfairly against Rob Scott, of Hare Hatch Sheeplands, near
Wargrave.

After a two-day hearing last week, she dismissed the council’s request to appeal the lower court’s decision, saying that it was “without fault and totally acceptable”.

Mr Scott and the owners of seven other businesses formerly based at the garden centre off Bath Road were formally acquitted.

The others were Alistair Mills, of Petstop, Paul Wheston, of Fish Glorious Fish, Nigel Timms, of Bell Antiques, Martin Sando, of Granite Transformation, Derek Chamberlain, of Quality Garden Buildings, Paul Woodhead, of Deep End Pools, and Gordon Parry, of Garden Trends.

All the accused were due to face trial after pleading not guilty to charges of breaching enforcement notices in May.

But in June, a judge at the crown court ruled that the council had “induced” Mr Scott to withdraw his appeal against enforcement action and then decided to prosecute him. Judge Angela Morris said the action was based on misleading information provided to Mr Scott when he withdrew his appeal in 2014.

The ruling followed a five-year dispute over unlawful development at the site, which came to a head in July 2017 when Mr Scott received a two-month suspended prison sentence and was ordered to pay thousands of pounds for contempt of court.

The trial had been due to take place in March last year but was postponed when the businesses appealed on the grounds of abuse of process, claiming the council’s prosecution was either unfair or unjustified.

Mr Scott and the businesses argued the council was guilty of an abuse of process when it charged them with a criminal offence of being in breach of an enforcement notice as they had in fact complied with it.

Mr Scott claimed that he had withdrawn his appeal against the enforcement notice in 2014 following negotiations with the council as both sides wanted to avoid a costly public inquiry and to come to a mutually beneficial agreement, including the issuing of a certificate of lawful use for the site.

But then the council decided to prosecute him and sent him “misleading” emails.

The council argued that Mr Scott knew that withdrawing his appeal would be “very bad” for his position.

Lady Justice Hallett said the council’s decision to prosecute the businesses was “flawed”.

After the hearing, Mr Scott thanked both judges for their “comprehensive and exonerating judgements”.

He said: “I am delighted that the threat of criminal prosecution is finally over for myself and all the other business owners and it has been made clear that the council’s actions were unfair and unjust.

“I am looking forward to engaging with the borough council to understand what proposals they would support to ensure that the nursery becomes sustainable for the longer term and to understand how that fits with their vision for the site in the emerging local plan.

“We would hope to create a community focused business to meet the expectations of all our loyal customers and residents of the local area.”

The original planning 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 the other seven 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 and the removal of utilities connections. This led to Mr Scott’s conviction.

Councillor Simon Weeks, executive member for planning at the council, said: “The council has been fighting for many years to successfully preserve the integrity of the green belt at Hare Hatch.

“That has not changed and the Appeal Court made it clear that the injunction protecting the land remains in place.

“While it is disappointing to have lost this case, the fact remains that there was unlawful development on green belt and we put a stop to it.”

• Lady Justice Hallett also refused an application by the council for reporting restrictions on the case.

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