Northumberland County Council and three of its senior representatives have filed their defence against legal action by a property developer.
Newcastle-based Lugano has made a High Court claim against council leader Peter Jackson, cabinet member for planning John Riddle and chief executive Daljit Lally, as well as the local authority itself.
The company’s case is that the trio have acted improperly and unlawfully in relation to its planning application for the Dissington Garden Village (DGV) – up to 2,000 homes and other facilities near Ponteland.
It says their actions, amounting to misfeasance in public office, have caused Lugano a serious financial loss and the developer is seeking damages amounting to almost £10million.
As previously reported, the particulars of the claim set out the alleged chain of events through which those involved sought to thwart the DGV.
It is claimed this was done by seeking the reversal of the previous minded-to-approve resolution for the DGV through the withdrawal of the core strategy – without providing councillors all of the relevant information – and subsequent pressure on the council’s planning department, culminating in the former head planner, Mark Ketley, leaving his post.
The defence for the individuals as well as the council has now been lodged with the court.
The response on behalf of the three individuals says that ‘the allegations of bad faith made against them are vexatious and without foundation’.
In the summary, it points out that there is no way of establishing how the decision to withdraw the core strategy, which was the result of a democratic vote, may have been different even if inaccurate statements were made at the meeting last July.
The statement adds that it is Lugano’s own case that the withdrawal of the core strategy ‘has no impact on the planning considerations material to its own application in any event’.
The bullying of Mr Ketley is denied, but even if it were established, the document outlines, he did not change any of his reports or opinions at the behest of the defendants, he has since been replaced and there is no suggestion that his replacement ‘has acted in any way improperly’.
It also says that the particulars of claim ‘constitute an abuse of process’ by including the three individuals when they could and should have been brought against the council alone.
Elsewhere in the defence, there are claims of ‘serious irregularities in the production of the reports’ for the planning committee meeting in March 2017, following alleged correspondence between the claimant and its advisors and Mr Ketley on his personal email account.
It later says that prior to his leaving the council, there were ‘concerns related to his management of the planning department in general, the lack of urgency with which the new core strategy was being developed and concerns about undeclared corporate hospitality’, but that he left the council of his own volition.
The statement further says that anonymous allegations of bullying were fully investigated in January and February this year and Mr Ketley himself ‘denied that any improper influence or pressure had been exerted upon him in an attempt to circumvent due process or bring about a particular planning outcome’.
The council’s defence highlights that no allegation has been made that the council itself ‘has committed any act which is unlawful and actionable’, just that it is vicariously liable for the actions of the trio of named defendants.
Nonetheless, it says that the claim against the council ‘is one that is bound to fail at any event’, pointing out that the DGV has not yet been finally determined, that the criteria for granting the permission under the minded-to-approve resolution have yet to be met by Lugano and that, in any event, the resolution does not bind the local authority and may be reconsidered at any time.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service