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Borough Council Refuses To Reimburse Campaign Group For Legal Advice

Published on: 8 Aug, 2014
Updated on: 11 Aug, 2014
Helen Jefferies, a leading organiser of Wisley Action Group.

Helen Jefferies, one of the leading organisers of Wisley Action Group.

The Wisley Action Group [WAG] has asked Guildford Borough Council (GBC) for reimbursement of fees incurred when seeking legal opinion to challenge the Draft Local Plan.

WAG which has been formed to oppose the development of a ‘new town’ on green belt land at Wisley says that the legal advice it obtained highlighted “fundamental errors”.

The opinion the group obtained from leading counsel Peter Village QC was that proposals for a settlement at Three Farms Meadows, the former Wisley airfield, were unsound because they embraced parcels of land which were neither owned by nor available to either the would-be developers or the council.

In a letter to Satish Mistry, executive head of governance at GBC, a member of  WAG wrote: ‘As a result of the written legal opinion from leading counsel Peter Village QC, supported by earlier written evidence from Bell Cornwell, the council’s papers presented at the council meeting were amended to reflect that professional opinion and remedy the council’s previous error.’

WAG feel that because the legal advice it obtained allowed the council to correct, possibly costly, errors in the draft plan that WAG should be reimbursed for the legal opinion it obtained. Typically, such advice can cost several thousands of pounds.

A spokeswoman for GBC has written to The Guildford Dragon NEWS: “We recently received an invoice from Wisley Action Group for professional fees incurred in taking legal opinion on the Draft Local Plan. We wrote to the group to confirm we have no liability to pay this fee. We will not pay out taxpayers’ money where we have no obligation to do so.”

Helen Jefferies, a member of the WAG campaign committee, says that the council appeared to be ignoring the facts: “It is quite clear that last-minute amendments to the draft Local Plan documents presented at the June 19 council meeting were made as a direct result of legal opinion received from our barrister which we’d made available to Guildford Borough Council in advance of that meeting.

“The council’s rejection of our invoice appears to be based on the premise that, having received its own legal advice, it had no obligation to reimburse local groups for an alternative legal opinion, even when the council subsequently acted upon that alternative advice to remedy its previous errors.   In the circumstances we feel wholly justified in looking to the council for reimbursement of the costs we have already incurred.”


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Responses to Borough Council Refuses To Reimburse Campaign Group For Legal Advice

  1. Tony Edwards Reply

    August 8, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Guildford Borough Council got it wrong.

    Written legal opinion from leading counsel, provided by WAG, pointed out the error.

    Campaign group WAG should, accordingly, be reimbursed by the council for its costs. A refusal would mean that the public not only has to pay the council’s own legal expenses through the rates system but also fund private legal advice to remedy fundamental council errors.

    Satish Mistry should apologise for the council’s mistakes rather than quibble over justified charges.

  2. Jules Cranwell Reply

    August 8, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    Quite right too. If GBC benefited from legal advice funded by WAG to amend their ‘dodgy dossier’ of a local plan, then they should cough up.

    However, this is but one example of the so-called evidence base being shot through with substantial errors, as for example the inclusion of out of date ONS [Office for National Statistics] population projections.

  3. ben paton Reply

    August 8, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    Guildford Borough Council (GBC) is condemned by its own evidence base.

    1) It included the [Wisley] site in the Issues and Options paper (at para 9.61) without any consideration of whether Guildford needs a new town.
    2) It then ‘promoted’ just one site for a new town – which was in the interest of the developer not in the public interest – a clear case of regulatory capture
    3) It stated in the Issues and Options paper that the site is 167 hectares in size.
    4) Pegasus consulting wrote in the Green Belt and Countryside Study:s22 of Volume V that
    a) the site is 114 ha in size
    b) 110 ha is required to accommodate a ‘sustainable’ new settlement
    c) ‘However on balance, the scale of land lost to the facility, combined with the fact that
    significant parts of the site cannot accommodate residential development, means that there is doubt
    as to whether the airfield site, as exists, would be able to deliver an appropriate sustainable new
    d) ‘In order for any development proposals to go ahead at Wisley Airfield suitable ecological mitigation and compensation measures would need to be provided for any loss of habitat within the SNCI [Site of Nature Conservation Interest].’

    e) In relation to the additional land required to achieve a sufficient size to be ‘sustainable’ Pegasus wrote:’It is not known whether the owners of this land would be willing to include it within potential development proposals and this would need to be explored by the council before any subsequent decisions on proposed allocations are made.’

    GBC not only made no inquiry of adjacent land owners – it ignored their representations. No examination of the ecological issues has been undertaken so far.

    Local residents were obliged to take legal opinion and present it to GBC. GBC then reduced the size of the site disclosed in the draft local plan to 69 hectares (nb below the size they themselves consider sufficient to be ‘sustainable’) – and it excluded the third party land which it had included in the draft only 24 hours earlier.

    Despite all of this and receiving Leading Counsel’s opinion, GBC decided to go ahead and include the site in the draft local plan.

    GBC seems to think it is above the rules: it can ignore the facts, prejudice landowners’ rights, ignore the advice in reports it has commissioned, and proceed without having done the necessary preliminary work to ascertain whether a site is suitable.

    It could not care less how much work it creates for other people, how much it inconveniences them, whether it gets its fact right, or whether it follows a transparent and fair process. It has lost site of the fact that the Local Plan is a means to an end and not an end in itself.

    Of course GBC has no contractual liability for other people’s legal bills. But it is responsible for the harm it causes them by its carelessness and if it obliges citizens to get legal opinion to demonstrate that it is not acting in accordance with the facts then it ought to pay their bills.

    This is what accountability means. A public authority should not act with impunity just because it is performing a public function. Nor should it be held to a lower standard of care than a private citizen. Transparent process and accurate facts matter.

  4. Jim Allen Reply

    August 9, 2014 at 8:26 am

    I feel that Mr Paton is guilty of a “technological inexactitude” in respect of the contents of the Draft Local Plan. There are, of course, very serious concerns over many supporting documents not least the Green Belt Assessment and the Issues and Options paper and the failure to indicate within these documents the amendments from the March public consultation.

    But I cannot agree that the council should pay for a campaign group’s expenses unless agreed prior to their action. This is clearly an unsustainable position on the part of the group.

    The drafting of the documents and the fact they lie far to the north of “balanced”, favouring developers rather than existing residents, is a major concern of us all.

    Perhaps the change of staff within the drafting department will bring much needed fresh eyes to the problem and over the next few months, the draft plan will undergo a hurricane of change making it more acceptable to many residents in the borough.

    I do so pray.

  5. Tony Edwards Reply

    August 10, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    Perhaps Jim Allen’s prayers will be answered and the decision-makers at Guildford will at least make some token effort to listen to comment and opinion from local residents instead of ignoring key facts and pressing on with an unsound Draft Local Plan.

  6. Adrian Atkinson Reply

    August 11, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    We all wish that a hurricane of change blows through the Draft Local Plan after the end of this “consultation”, however, it is my understanding from the “leadership” of GBC there will be only minor changes as the draft was voted as “fit” for public consultation.

    Seems to be that the forecast from the GBC met office is for a dead calm or light breezes at worst. Let’s pray they have gone to the the Michael Fish school of planning.

    The ironic thing about this comparison is that my great uncle in East Horsley lost many, many trees in the Great Storm of 1987 as did the whole area and large swathes of the UK. We now seem to be faced with a disaster again, but this is one we can prevent if the “leadership” and councillors truly listen to the public, their electorate, rather than knowing better and relying on their Michael Fish “experts”.

  7. Ben Paton Reply

    August 12, 2014 at 9:59 am

    If Jim Allen wishes to claim ‘technological inexactitude’ then he should cite precisely the inexactitude. Otherwise his comments are mere innuendo.

    I had the courtesy to reference and quote the relevant documents in the evidence base. If I have made a mistake I shall gladly correct it. Mr Allen has not demonstrated any mistakes at all. He should withdraw his innuendo or demonstrate the mistake.

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