Newcastle-based developer Lugano Group today issued formal legal proceedings against Northumberland County Council over its handling of the controversial Dissington Garden Village project.
At the same time, the company has also issued formal legal proceedings against council leader Peter Jackson, Coun John Riddle and chief executive Daljit Lally.
Lugano has previously raised concerns with the Crown Prosecution Service and these matters have now been formally referred to the Police for further assessment over the council’s handling of the project which would see up to 2,000 houses built at Dissington, near Ponteland.
The company is claiming misfeasance by the council in relation to the planning process and the handling of the planning application.
Richard Robson, Lugano Group chairman said: “These matters are of the utmost seriousness but unfortunately we have had no assurances from the council our concerns have been properly addressed.
“While Northumberland County Council has referred to an investigation into some aspects of our case, we consider that investigation to have been neither independent nor comprehensive, and despite the council relying on it, thus far they have refused to release details to support their position.
“Our offers to meet and discuss our concerns on a ‘without prejudice’ basis have also been declined.
“Accordingly and with regret, we have no option but to commence formal legal proceedings against the authority and individuals concerned.
“We have engaged a leading international law firm, Pinsent Masons, along with a specialist QC and have now served a formal ‘letter before claim’.”
Alan Rankin, Lugano director added: “Developers, businesses and indeed the public should expect local authority officers and councillors to conduct themselves in a fair, proper and open manner.
“We have comprehensive evidence that a few individuals have sought to undermine not only our project, Dissington Garden Village, (that itself was developed in partnership with the county council), but also the integrity of the wider due planning processes.
“We have openly stated that our wish is simply to continue working in partnership with Northumberland County Council as we were previously, however the conduct of certain persons has made this impossible currently.
“We sincerely hope that we are able to return to that position for the benefit of all parties in due course; however in the interim we will pursue all actions necessary to ensure our interests are protected and that we and the people of Northumberland can again have confidence in the proper due planning processes in the county.
“This is not a decision we have taken lightly.
“We have only ever wanted to continue working with Northumberland County Council in partnership as we were previously.
“The formal legal proceedings now initiated raise issues of very serious misconduct in public office by various individuals and who are fully aware that their actions were wholly improper.
“The lack of any form of substantive response to those matters by the county council has made these actions inevitable and we will robustly pursue our case. ”
The Dissington Garden Village project, which wasn’t included in the Government’s list of 14 garden villages planned to create tens of thousands of new homes in England, has been controversial from the start.
The plans, which have now gone back to the council’s strategic planning committee, faced strenuous opposition from community groups and councillors, who claimed the village could not cope with the massive increase in population the new homes would bring.
Environmental groups like the Campaign for Rural England objected to what they saw as unwarranted building on the Green Belt.
Newcastle Airport and Newcastle City Council also objected over the pressure it would put on the junction at the A696 that crosses the A1.
Lugano argued that the estate would not only bring thousands of new homes to the region but also create thousands of jobs.
The scheme is currently going through the planning process again with the application having been referred back in the wake of the Conservative council’s withdrawal of the draft Northumberland Local Plan Core Strategy.
The application currently has a ‘minded to approve’ recommendation but the developers fear the project will be ditched when it comes back before the council.
It is believed Lugano will seek multi-million-pound compensation as part of the legal proceedings instituted today.
A Northumberland County Council spokesperson said: “We have received further correspondence from the Lugano Group and are taking legal advice in this regard.
“As previously advised, we believe that the council has acted lawfully and reasonably throughout this process.
“We continue to work with Lugano on their live planning application for Dissington Garden Village.”
Graeme Anderson, Local Democracy Reporting Service