War of words rumbles on as property boss hits back at council leader
The chairman of a developer involved in a long-running dispute with Northumberland County Council has continued on the offensive against the authority's leader.
Lugano has launched a Â£10million High Court claim against the council, leader Coun Peter Jackson, cabinet member for planning Coun John Riddle and chief executive Daljit Lally over how its Dissington Garden Village proposals, for up to 2,000 homes and other facilities near Ponteland, have been handled.
The scheme had been backed by the council’s previous Labour administration and received a minded-to-approve resolution, but it is now being reassessed in light of the withdrawal of the previous core strategy by the Conservative administration which won power at last May’s elections.
The council has repeatedly said that it has acted reasonably and lawfully, and that it continues to work with Lugano on its live planning application.
Last month, the chairman of Newcastle-based property company, Richard Robson, lambasted Coun Peter Jackson for ‘hypocrisy’ over comments he made at an event for the new North of Tyne Combined Authority around ‘communities of inspiring places, homes and spaces to support more sustainable, low-carbon futures where people want to live, work and visit’.
Reacting to that criticism, Coun Jackson said: “Richard Robson has a clear personal interest at play here, acting as the front man for a shady foreign-owned company with a current application to concrete over hundreds of acres of valued green-belt land with all kinds of implications for local people.”
But Mr Robson, who has a local-authority background and previously worked for Northumberland County Council, has hit back at these comments, which he says amount to a personal attack.
He also criticised Coun Jackson’s ‘misleading and inaccurate spin’ on the Dissington proposals, adding that he is putting taxpayers’ money at risk.
“Coun Jackson is demeaning his office by resorting to personal attacks, ill-founded comments about our company and untrue, emotive soundbites about this project, when all we ever requested was a meeting to discuss his opposition to Dissington Garden Village,” he said.
“He alleges that I have a personal interest in the project. I am merely a company employee, whereas he has significant land ownings, and therefore commercial interests, next door to this proposed development, so isn’t he the one with a personal interest?”
Included in the land section of Coun Jackson’s declarations of interest are East Coldcoats, Westcote Farm and Higham Dykes Farm, all in the Ponteland area.
Mr Robson added: “He has yet to back up the ‘shady’ comments he levelled against Lugano with any evidence. We deliver high-quality, sympathetic regeneration projects across the North East, redeveloping a historic property in Newcastle for our own HQ.
“We pay taxes to the UK, as do all our staff. We are part-owned by a Jewish cleric who, at the time of creating Lugano, lived in the Swiss city of the same name, this is the one and only reason we were registered overseas and we’ve never hidden that fact.
“Is Coun Jackson suspicious of every firm in Northumberland part-owned by someone not from this country? If not, why single us out?”
Coun Jackson was approached for a response to Mr Robson’s latest criticism, but no further comments have been received.
This row has been reported on again in the latest edition of satirical news magazine Private Eye, which raises questions about some of Coun Jackson’s personal business interests, citing Lugano’s demand to know if they are all registered for UK tax purposes and always have been.
The next steps for the High Court case are not known at this stage, after the particulars of claim were filed in August, followed by the council’s defence in October and Lugano’s response to the defence at the end of last month.
During this time, the council’s Conservative administration has criticised the Labour group over proposals while it was in power for a Â£75million loan to Lugano for the Dissington scheme. Labour described this as a ‘smear’ for implying ‘this had gone any further than a conversation between two chief executives’.
Mr Robson, a former chief executive of Tynedale District Council, worked at Northumberland County Council as executive director of place from the authority’s inception in April 2009 until the end of November 2010. His total payout for those 20 months of more than Â£500,000 was later criticised.
His total remuneration, including pension contributions, in 2009-10 was Â£164,417, including a salary of Â£135,746, while in 2010-11, he received a salary of Â£126,782 plus compensation for loss of office of Â£190,423 as part of total remuneration of Â£337,502.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service