Northumberland County Council rapped over planning wrangle

Northumberland County Council has been heavily criticised by the Local Government Ombudsman in relation to a long-running saga which resulted in a failure to deliver a play area and a housing development at Berwick

Steve Stewart
Steve Stewart

A North council has been rapped by the local government watchdog for a “catalogue of errors” that cost taxpayers a "considerable sum" of money.

Northumberland County Council has been heavily criticised by the Local Government Ombudsman in relation to a long-running saga which resulted in a failure to deliver a play area and a housing development at Berwick.

The authority has also been ordered to apologise to a local businessman and pay him £1,500.

However, the council last night insisted it was “extremely disappointed” with the ombudsman’s findings and saying it was being financially burdened by the errors of a now defunct authority.

The saga dates to the 1990s when Berwick Borough Council gave planning approval for a housing scheme, subject to a planning agreement that the developer would provide and maintain a play area, with it given to the authority after five years.

However, the borough council failed to enforce the agreement, and the play area was never developed.

A different businessman - whose complaint sparked the investigation - was subsequently given planning permission for another housing development, with access to his site to be on the land which the other developer had been due to give to the council.

In 2009, the businessman complained to the ombudsman that the borough council’s failure to take possession of the land meant he was unable to start work. The borough council agreed to seek legal advice from a barrister to rectify its failure to ensure the acquisition of the land.

Since then, the borough has been phased out and its duties taken on by the county council.

Two further investigations showed that the process to secure the land had still not begun. This did not happen until 2012 when the land was acquired for a “considerable sum of money.”

Ombudsman Dr Jane Martin said: “In this case there has been a failure to take corporate responsibility and control of the situation by Northumberland County Council. At a considerable cost to the public purse, the council has been forced to purchase a piece of land that should have been handed over free of charge.

“I am astounded that it has taken this long to come to a conclusion – this acquisition process should have been a straightforward ‘bread and butter’ exercise for a council but instead it has turned into a catalogue of errors and inertia.”

Yet Steve Stewart, county chief executive, said: “We are extremely disappointed with the ombudsman’s comments. The issue is one which arose due to the failure of the former Berwick Borough Council to enforce a planning agreement, and it has now been resolved and the financial bill picked up by this council. This council has a good record in resolving complaints, and in fact this is the first ombudsman investigation which has resulted in a finding of maladministration since the new council was formed.”

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