Leaked legal documents show Ben Houchen development corporation sued port operator despite "not disputing" access rights

Leaked documents show a development corporation chaired by Ben Houchen sued a neighbouring port company over access rights, despite “not disputing” the rights they held across two of the routes.

PD Ports operates Teesport between Middlesbrough and Redcar, one of the UK’s busiest ports, which is surrounded by former steelworks land undergoing regeneration now known as the Teesworks site. This week a High Court judge ruled the port company had rights on three routes across Teesworks to its own landholdings.

However, legal advice in a document leaked to The Yorkshire Post shows South Tees Development Corporation (STDC) “did not dispute” PD Ports had prescriptive rights on two of the three routes they would later ask the High Court to decide upon.

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Barrister Richard Matthews KC wrote to South Tees Development Corporation (STDC) in February 2021 to provide legal advice concerning access rights across the former Redcar steelworks site, which was undergoing a compulsory purchase process at the time.

The main entrance to the Teesworks site.The main entrance to the Teesworks site.
The main entrance to the Teesworks site.

Litigation brought by Conservative mayor Lord Houchen’s STDC in March 2021 against PD Ports sought to determine whether there was any legal basis to the access the port company had enjoyed across land the public body was acquiring.

Judge Mr Justice Rajah ruled this week that PD Ports had successfully defended their rights of access to the South Gare breakwater, to the Redcar Bulk Terminal jetty, and along the recently-developed South Bank area.

The legal advice from Mr Matthews, written before the litigation was brought by STDC, states “the Corporation does not dispute that, based on PD Ports’ use (and that of the previous owner) a prescriptive right exists,” in relation to the access routes to the South Gare and to Redcar Bulk Terminal.

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It also states PD Ports wrote to STDC in January 2020 asking them to formally agree to the rights which were eventually granted by the judge this week after years of costly litigation.

It’s understood PD Ports wanted STDC to confirm those rights in 2020 in exchange for a tiny sliver of land it had provided for free on Smiths Dock Road for the development corporation to build a roundabout which was completed in August 2019.

Asked why they pursued legal action despite privately not contesting the rights, a spokesperson for STDC said: “The purpose of the litigation was to seek a declaration as to whether or not PD Ports had any rights of access over the site and the legal basis of those rights. It was not to deny PD its rights.

“STDC did not dispute the possibility that PD had rights. However, following the CPO process, it became apparent that PD was unable to provide sufficient evidence to support its claims. Subsequent legal advice was they either did not exist or there was not sufficient evidence that they exist.

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“The legal case has provided the clarity both parties required to enable development to move forward.”

This week’s legal ruling confirmed construction of the footpath surrounding the roundabout trespassed onto PD Ports’ land, but that the margins between surveys and technical drawings were too fine to determine whether or not the roundabout itself constituted trespass.

A pre-trial hearing last summer confirmed the taxpayer could potentially be liable to pay up to £4.9m in legal costs if STDC was unsuccessful in its arguments.

PD Ports said in a statement: “The legal action implemented by STDC in March 2021 sought a declaration that we had no right to enter, use or cross its land, meaning no rights to access whatsoever to and from South Gare, Redcar Bulk Terminal and through South Bank to and from Tees Dock.

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“The Court decision confirmed our rights to and from all 3 areas, various other rights in our favour, and that the Development Corporation has trespassed on our land. The position on any alternative arguments is not material to the outcome.”

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