Thursday, 05 August 2021

Councillor claims she was gagged in garden centre debate

A COUNCILLOR claims she was prevented from speaking in support of a Wargrave garden centre involved in a planning dispute with her council.

Emma Hobbs, who represents Charvil on Wokingham Borough Council, had prepared a speech for a council meeting in November, which discussed the issue of Hare Hatch Sheeplands.

But she says she was told by the council’s legal department not to deliver it.

The council has denied her claim.

The garden centre has been facing enforcement action for four years for using green belt land without permission. Owner Rob Scott claims the action threatens the future of the business and has taken his appeal to the High Court while his supporters have been running a campaign of support.

In a report to residents, Cllr Hobbs said: “I have received complaints that I did not speak up for Hare Hatch at the meeting... my hands were tied by the legal department.

“I would like it to be known that I have and always will support Hare Hatch. I can assure you all I was not happy that I was not allowed to speak out.

“My colleagues and I will still be working behind the scenes to get this issue sorted so at least there can be some positive issues on both sides. Unless we are given the green light we cannot publicly come out with our simple, rational thoughts.”

The council debate was sparked by a petition launched by Mr Scott which called for an end to the dispute on the grounds that it was costing him and council taxpayers “ridiculous” sums of money. It was signed by more than 4,800 people.

The meeting heard that the council had already spent more than £45,000 on the dispute and would be seeking costs from Mr Scott, who could also be prosecuted for not complying with the enforcement notice.

Dozens of members of the public attended the meeting and more than 30 questions were submitted. Councillors said the business only had planning permission to operate as a plant nursery, café and farm shop, not a garden centre, and that Mr Scott couldn’t prove the unauthorised operations had been running for 10 years or more.

A borough council spokesman said: “Cllr Hobbs was not advised by our legal department that she could not speak in favour of Hare Hatch Sheeplands at the debate.”

l Last week, borough councillor Gary Cowan resigned from the ruling Conservative party, branding the council “an autocratic, secret regime with a blatant distrust of its residents”.

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