Northumberland councillors speak of 'shock' and 'disgust' during debate over Dissington Garden Village controversy

Councillors referred to their ‘shock’, ‘disappointment’ and ‘disgust’ as they discussed the matter of the Dissington Garden Village application.

By Ben O'Connell
Thursday, 23rd January 2020, 4:50 pm
Updated Friday, 24th January 2020, 11:40 am

As previously revealed, a report to a meeting of Northumberland County Council’s audit committee set out ‘significant matters of concern which have been identified in relation to the discharge of specific aspects of the county council’s planning function’.

Back in March 2017, Newcastle-based developer Lugano’s proposals for the Dissington Garden Village (DGV) scheme – up to 2,000 new homes and other facilities near Ponteland – were handed a minded-to-approve resolution by the then Labour-run council.

However, the withdrawal of the previous core strategy by the new Conservative administration that summer meant the proposals had to be reassessed.

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An artist’s impression of the proposed Dissington Garden Village.

In May 2018, Lugano made serious allegations – which were strongly refuted – against the local authority as well as council leader Peter Jackson, chief executive Daljit Lally and cabinet member for planning John Riddle, with writs then issued in the High Court in August as part of a £10million claim.

In late January 2019, the DGV application was withdrawn just days before going in front of the council’s strategic planning committee again, where it was to be recommended for refusal, and two months later the legal claim was discontinued. Lugano Dissington Estate Ltd has since gone into administration.

At the meeting, Mrs Lally presented her report, which outlines ‘excessive hospitality’ provided to an ex-planning boss which went undeclared, as well as evidence of a ‘highly irregular’ loan to fund the development and efforts to secure ‘inappropriate advantages’ for the developer.

In relation to the hospitality, further to the report explaining that none of it was declared, Mrs Lally said that the former officer in question was asked on a separate occasion if he had ever accepted any hospitality, which he denied.

Chairman of the committee, Coun Georgina Hill, described the attempts to intimidate the chief executive and other staff during this period – with Mrs Lally saying that the ‘threat to personal safety’ could not be ‘underestimated’ – as ‘disgusting’.

On the report as a whole, Coun Gordon Castle said: “How on earth was this allowed to happen? How on earth can the public have its confidence restored?”

He later added: “Is this not obviously a matter for the police?”

Coun Ian Swithenbank, a long-serving member, said: “I have always thought the planning department of Northumberland County Council was one of its most effective. To read a report like this, well, disappointed is hardly the word.”

Coun Lynne Grimshaw said: “I feel sorry for the planning officers that remain, this puts everyone in a bad light. On planning committees, you put implicit trust in the officers who are very experienced in different matters.”

There was praise for the whistle-blower who first raised the issue and staff in the planning department who weren’t involved and who raised concerns.

Daljit Lally said that the vast majority of the staff in the planning department were ‘honest and willing’ to support the investigations and that these issues related to a ‘very small number of staff members and elected members’.

“Their number was small, but their influence was significant and this was not acceptable,” she added.

The authority is also keen to emphasise that the officers referred to in the report are no longer employed by the council.

There was also praise offered to the trio who were the subject of the High Court writ during what must have been a ‘disturbing time’. Coun Mark Swinburn added: “They deserve an apology.”

The report revealed that a total of £273,389 of legal costs were racked up by the council, the two councillors and the chief executive to fight the claim before it was dropped and given Lugano Dissington Estate Ltd is now in administration, ‘it is highly unlikely that the county council will be able to recoup any of the funds’

Mrs Lally said: “I would rather that money was spent on residents than defending spurious and speculative legal action in the High Court, but it was unavoidable.”

‘You deserve a bottle of red’

Some of the evidence behind the allegations in the report was made available to the committee members at the meeting, but it was not provided to the press and public.

However, Coun Nick Oliver, the cabinet member for corporate services, read out extracts from some of the emails in the bundle, specifically in relation to the report’s suggestion that the ‘applicant/advisers were invited/allowed by a very senior officer in the planning department to write and alter parts of the report to the strategic planning committee’ which recommended approval of the scheme.

He said that one email to the planning officer stated, ‘it’s an impressive piece of work, you deserve that bottle of red’, while another from the planning officer to the developer/their representatives referred to previous issues with ignoring advice from the conservation officer, adding that they ‘would rather put a positive spin on the balance if necessary’.

Coun Hill asked if this kind of practice could have taken place in relation to any other planning applications.

“I can give you some reassurance around that,” Mrs Lally said, explaining that when the new director of planning, Rob Murfin, came in last year, one of his tasks was to review previous applications.

“It was simple in some ways, because there were a small number of individuals to focus on. I would assure you and members of the public that it has been looked at.”

A spokeswoman for the Labour Group in Northumberland said: “The findings of this report expose a number of weaknesses in the system which have now been addressed.

“We welcome the frameworks that have now been put in place, including measures to provide support to whistle-blowers wishing to speak out.”

A spokeswoman for Northumbria Police said: “Northumberland County Council wrote to us in March last year raising a number of concerns.

“In June, we confirmed in writing that having considered this information, we could not find anything which would warrant a criminal investigation.”

Lugano has again been approached for comment.