COUNCILLORS have refused to agree a scheme which would allow solicitors at a local authority in Yorkshire to chase individual homeowners for massive debts which should have been paid by developers who built their homes.
As revealed in Monday's Yorkshire Post, lawyers at Sheffield Council asked members of a city planning committee to give permission for them to chase bills which had gone unpaid under so-called section 106 agreements, drawn up by councils nationwide when planning consents are given and which are designed to make developers pay for environmental and other community projects.
But Sheffield Council has struggled to get some builders to meet their obligations, and a scheme was drawn up which could see property purchasers pursued for cash under agreements worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The policy was presented to members of the city's west and north planning committee yesterday for approval, but several members spoke of their concern about "going after" private purchasers. People who have bought homes on developments where section 106 monies have not been paid could be unaware of the problem because they believe the agreement is between the council and the builder.
Council solicitor Peter Harrow told yesterday's meeting that under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, the "obligation" lies with whoever owns the land, and could leave innocent homeowners facing a shock bill.
Mr Harrow said that in some cases there may have been a land charge registered against an individual house which should have been picked up by a solicitor but admitted individual owner occupiers "may be blameless".
The lawyer said the problem had occurred in other areas of the country, particularly the South- East, where developers had disappeared or gone bankrupt and councils nationwide were struggling with how to recoup cash.
Council officers told yesterday's committee that agreeing to the policy to chase section 106 cash should lead to more developers being caught before the buck passes to unsuspecting homebuyers.
But Coun Peter Rippon said: "I am not happy with this report because I don't think we should be chasing people for something they didn't know about when they signed. I want to know exactly what legal grounds we have got."
His views were endorsed by several members, including Coun Arthur Dunworth, who said: "We don't want to be reading that the council is chasing someone who lives in a 150,000 house for 50,000, we have got to show a human face."
Planning officers have listed six developments in Sheffield which had reached "trigger points" for payment. They said other cases "are likely to follow" but said the six were the "most pressing".
The highest unpaid bill is for an 81-flat block on Mowbray Street where developers have failed to pay a 90,030.35 contribution which was meant to be used for public open space and to improve the sound insulation of neighbouring properties.
If the bill remains unpaid by developer Brewery Wharf Ltd the owners of each property could be left with a bill of around 1,100.
Developers behind the 22-storey Velocity Tower at St Mary's Gate owe 43,750 for public art. Builders of seven homes in Denmark Road, Heeley, owe 8,255.45 and those of eight flats on Filey Lane, Broomhall, need to pay 3,749.20.
A decision on enforcing the policy was deferred.