Judge hits at council in clash over farm homes

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THE legal department of a Yorkshire council has been criticised by a judge following a bitter planning row over the building of chalet homes at a Yorkshire beauty spot.

Skipton-based Craven Council has come under fire for “inexcusable” delays in dealing with legal issues relating to the development of chalets by poultry farmers John and Frances Godson at Low Watson House Farm, Clapham, within the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in North Yorkshire.

The couple won planning permission in 2003 for chalets which the council intended as holiday lets. A blunder by a planning officer meant the consent did not state that restriction.

Now a judge has ruled in the couple’s favour, rejecting the council’s plea to quash the planning permission because it was granted in error. The judge also rejected the council’s request for a judicial review, ruling that the authority had taken too long.

The council is now facing a large legal bill to cover all legal costs and it is understood that the ruling now paves the way for the chalets to be sold as homes.

Judge Peter Langan QC, sitting at the High Court in Leeds, said in a written judgment that the council had initially made a “plain mistake”.

The council argued it was entitled to correct it in the public interest but the judge said the council’s “poor administration” did not help its case.

The judge outlined a serious of council delays and apparent inaction in dealing with the couple’s concerns.

In evidence Mr Godson said that he and his wife got a bank loan which now amounted to £500,000 but lost sales due to the uncertainty around occupancy restrictions.

The judgement quotes Mr Godson as saying: “No chalets have been sold, and interest on the bank loan is coming from money earned from our egg business, from our savings, sale of shares, cashing in pensions and selling items from our home.”

A council solicitor said all but one of the nine chalets had been marketed as holiday homes. He also said the financial difficulties were the result of the economic downturn.

Judge Langan accepted that sales had been lost because of the planning uncertainty.

“These are uncompensatable losses in respect of which Mr and Mrs Godson have no cause of action”, he added.

The judge said the original mistake by the planning officer was regrettable, but “anyone can make a mistake, and no one would seek to attach much blame to the officer”.

But he added: “Where, in my judgment, the council went seriously wrong was in its failure to attempt to correct the error as soon as it was pointed out.

From what I have seen (and I may not have seen everything) the fault appears to rest squarely with the legal department of the council.”

A council spokesman said the initial error had “inadvertently granted permission” without including a condition that use would be for holidays only.

“The council has taken the judge’s comments on board and measures have been put in place to address the issues raised.”