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Northumberland taxpayers could face legal bill over Lugano homes row

Northumberland County Council's leader Peter Jackson, chief executive Daljit Lally and Coun John Riddle.
Northumberland County Council's leader Peter Jackson, chief executive Daljit Lally and Coun John Riddle.

Taxpayers are being asked to foot the legal bills of Northumberland’s council leader and chief executive in the face of proposed action by a disgruntled developer.

In May, serious allegations were made by Lugano over the ‘unlawful’ way the county council handled its application for the Dissington Garden Village, a development of up to 2,000 homes near Ponteland.

These were refuted by the local authority which described the claims as ‘inappropriate, untrue and defamatory’.

The Newcastle-based company also alleged wrongdoing by several individuals before recently announcing that it had issued formal legal proceedings.

The local authority responded to this latest turn of events by saying that it believes ‘that the council has acted lawfully and reasonably throughout this process’.

A report adds that ‘the council has engaged external solicitors (Anthony Collins Solicitors) in respect of this claim which it believes is without merit on the evidence that has been provided to date by the claimants’.

Now, the council’s decision-making cabinet, made up of members of the Conservative administration, is being asked to approve legal indemnities for council leader Peter Jackson, chief executive Daljit Lally and cabinet member for planning John RIddle at its meeting next Tuesday (July 24).

These would be capped at £10,000 initially and would also not apply if ‘their actions were fraudulent, deliberately wrong or reckless or not authorised by the council’.

The recommendation is that an indemnity is provided to Couns Jackson and Riddle and Mrs Lally ‘for the purposes of obtaining independent legal advice and representation in respect of the action proposed by the developers of the Dissington Garden Village, and a similar indemnity is provided to Coun Jackson and Mrs Lally OBE in respect of action proposed by a former employee’.

The indemnity would be restricted to £10,000 at first, but could be extended in tranches of £15,000 ‘if it is reasonable’ for the council to do so.

However, the indemnity would not apply for any action committed ‘which is outside their authority from the council; where their actions were fraudulent, deliberately wrong or reckless or not authorised by the council; were outside the powers of the council; or where the matter exceeded their own powers and it was not reasonable for them to believe that their actions were within those powers’.

Plus, if a court finds that the trio ‘behaved improperly, illegally and outside their authority in relation to the developers, then the council is entitled to be refunded all costs paid out under the indemnity’.

Any costs recovered during the legal process would also have to be repaid to the county council.

Coun Grant Davey, leader of the Labour group, described it as ‘a perverse position’ for Northumberland’s taxpayers to be picking up the tab for serious allegations against wealthy Tory politicians and highly-paid officers.

He added: “This is a significant moment in the history of our county and it will be judged harshly when the facts, not spin, are tabled.

“This is why the MPs Ian Lavery and Ronnie Campbell and I are correct to demand an independent inquiry into the actions of this Tory-led administration and its failure to come clean when asked the simplest questions.”

By Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service