Writs have now been served on Northumberland County Council and three of its representatives as part of a disgruntled property developer’s legal action.
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.
Allan Rankin, a Lugano director and shareholder, described it as ‘unfortunate that matters have come to this sorry state’ and said the serving of the writ was ‘a last resort’.
“I am happy for the matter to be resolved transparently by a High Court judge once all our evidence is laid before them,” he added.
But the county council has consistently maintained that it has acted ‘reasonably and lawfully’, while a senior councillor in the Conservative administration has dismissed the threats as ‘an offshore developer attempting to get its way on an unpopular planning application’.
The 47-page document which details the particulars of the claim sets 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 introduction to the particulars states: ‘Coun Jackson, Coun Riddle and Ms Lally have each acted in bad faith and caused serious financial loss and damage to the claimant by unlawfully and improperly abusing their powers and authority as public officers of the council through their outrageous and arbitrary conduct amounting to misfeasance in public office.
‘The council is vicariously liable for the said loss and damage caused by Coun Jackson, Coun Riddle and Ms Lally and each of them, as public officers of the council.’
The county council did not comment other than to reiterate its previous statement: “We are aware of further correspondence from the Lugano Group, and continue to take legal advice in this regard.
“As previously stated, we believe that the council has acted lawfully and reasonably throughout this process.
“We continue to work with Lugano on its live planning application for Dissington Garden Village.”
Defendants in civil cases have 14 days from the service of the claim form in which to respond and must file their defence within 28 days of that date.
Couns Jackson and Riddle and Ms Lally, for whom legal indemnities have been agreed by the council, are all being represented by Browne Jacobson LLP, described on its website as ‘specialists in legal solutions across the private and public sectors, providing a unique offering where they overlap’.
A spokesman for Northumberland Labour said: “The council is now facing a massive legal bill which will fall squarely on the shoulders of Northumberland taxpayers.
“This legal action was labelled defamatory and without merit by the council yet here we are, in court and facing £10million in direct damages and the council vicariously liable for the DGV project.
“We have called for an independent investigation and we note that Lugano and Northumbria Police are working together to identify whether criminal acts have occurred.
“Councillors have raised serious concerns to the authority only to have them ignored or subject to secret reports over a 14-month period.”
Labour repeated its call for the report on the independent investigation into anonymous letters alleging bullying, intimidation and corruption to be released to councillors, describing the administration’s claim of transparency as ‘a hollow joke’.
The council previously said this inquiry concluded that there was no case to answer with the allegations being ‘wholly unfounded’.
Lugano has referred its concerns and all of its supporting evidence to the police.
A Northumbria Police spokesman said: “We are aware of the concerns and are working with Lugano Group to establish if any criminal offences have taken place.”
The Labour opposition is also considering tabling a motion at October’s full council meeting calling for the reinstatement of the previous core strategy.
This was attempted before, but the council said that the rules of procedure limit the number of motions to three per meeting – taken by the date they arrive – and three had already been submitted prior to Labour leader Grant Davey’s being received.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service