Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Council refuses inquiry into botched prosecution

Council refuses inquiry into botched prosecution

AN investigation will not be held into Wokingham Borough Council’s botched prosecution of the owner of a garden centre near Wargrave.

The council has rejected a call for an inquiry and says it will not apologise for protecting the green belt in its long-running planning dispute with Rob Scott, owner of Hare Hatch Sheeplands.

Last month, the Court of Appeal upheld a decision by Reading Crown Court that the council acted unfairly in prosecuting Mr Scott.

Lady Justice Hallett dismissed the council’s request to appeal the lower court’s decision, saying that it was “without fault and totally acceptable”.

The call for an independent inquiry was made by Lindsay Ferris, leader of the opposition on the council, who claimed the cost of the case to taxpayers could be more than £1million.

He said: “I think we have a reputational issue here. I have not got a problem with the council pursuing people who have abused the planning process but when high court judges have indicated that there was ‘abuse of process’ and no reason to appeal, this does hit the reputation of the planning department.

“We are also concerned about the significant costs that have been incurred and the potential future costs on the council.” Councillor Simon Weeks, executive member for planning and enforcement, said that while the council’s legal case had been unsuccessful, it had succeeded in removing unauthorised developments from the Sheeplands site and set a precedent for other planning disputes.

He said: “The council pursued this case in line with both internal and external legal advice and for the sound reason that the operator of Hare Hatch Sheeplands had repeatedly flouted planning law for a significant period.

“We will not apologise for being vigilant in protecting the integrity of planning policies and, in particular, those applying to the green belt.

“It is worth pointing out that, due to the council’s perseverance, all the illegal developments were eventually removed from the site and a High Court injunction remains in place to ensure they are not rebuilt.

“We have successfully adopted this approach in other cases elsewhere in the borough involving blatant, persistent breaches of planning and criminal convictions resulted.

“The court has ruled differently in this particular case so we will always review future cases such as this but are satisfied that an independent external enquiry is not required on this occasion.” Cllr Ferris responded: “Will you do an internal inquiry involving people and officers who were not involved in this area because it is of grave concern that we could have significant costs in six, potentially seven, figures?”

Cllr Weeks said he would be happy to meet with Cllr Ferris but added: “My current position remains that if we faced a similar situation where there was repeated and blatant abuse of planning I would be very keen that we pursue that as we have done successfully in a number of other cases.

“We believe that this recent court decision was inconsistent with previous decisions that have supported our course of action.

“It has significant repercussions for local authorities because it could reduce the ways they have of controlling inappropriate planning.”

Mr Scott and the owners of seven other businesses formerly based at the garden centre off Bath Road had been 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 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. They have all now been acquitted.

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, which led to Mr Scott’s conviction.

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