An investigation into the behaviour of councillors involved in a legal battle between Wokingham Borough Council and Hare Hatch Sheeplands found suggestions of unprofessional conduct were “unfounded”.
The council commissioned non-practising solicitor Richard Lingard to look into how councillors and officers conducted themselves in the run-up to court action. It saw Sheeplands owner Rob Scott prosecuted over unauthorised development at the site.
Judge Angela Morris said Wokingham Borough Council had “sought to gain advantage” of the situation by taking a “flawed” decision to prosecute Mr Scott. This was after he withdrew his appeal to a council enforcement notice.
Mr Lingard’s verdict suggested judges drew “the wrong inference” after courts determined the authority was wrong.
A local resident said: “His attempt to be a new court of law, and his findings that the court of appeal and the crown court were wrong in coming to their conclusions, is appalling.
“The court of appeal has now ruled – that is the position and that is the fact!
“This re-run is wholly unacceptable.”
The report came to some conclusions after Mr Lingard interviewed councillors involved. He also interviewed Mr Scott.
Mr Lingard has already been involved in the Hare Hatch saga. HJe was asked to provide support in relation to the disclosure of documents relevant to the Crown Court case.
According to Mr Lingard, councillors and officers did not persuade Mr Scott to withdraw an appeal.
Some councillors did come in for criticism. Officers interviewed described their participation as making the job “more difficult” and as a “hindrance”. This resulted in Mr Lingard ruling elected members shouldn’t have got involved in discussions with Mr Scott.
Wokingham Council’s Leader “sad”
Councillor John Halsall, leader of the council said: “I’m sad that we weren’t able to find an accommodation for Hare Hatch.
“I’m relieved Richard Lingard didn’t find any evidence of maladministration within Wokingham Borough Council.
“Mr Lingard is a very professional person who does this sort of work and he looked at what the courts said.
“The ward councillor’s job is to represent their constituents. One of my constituents is Hare Hatch.
“I would without hesitation try to help in any way I can the owners of Hare Hatch.”
Fellow supporter Frank Moore added: “We called for an investigation.
“We’ve seen Mr Lingard’s report now and there are huge gaps in the report where paragraphs are missing.
“I don’t think it’s a full review – I don’t think it’s the end of the case and I don’t think they’ve done a very good job.”
Liberal Democrats councillor Clive Jones said: “I’m very surprised. He appears to have rubbished the courts decisions. I would like to know why eleven paragraphs have been redacted – I don’t see why it has been necessary to do so.
“It isn’t an open investigation with that sort of thing happening.”