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Labour call-in over legal costs decision

Northumberland County Council's Coun Peter Jackson, chief executive Daljit Lally and Coun John Riddle.
Northumberland County Council's Coun Peter Jackson, chief executive Daljit Lally and Coun John Riddle.

A call has been made to look again at the decision for Northumberland taxpayers to foot the legal bills of two senior councillors and the chief executive in a row with a property developer.

At last week’s meeting of the county council’s cabinet, members unanimously approved legal indemnities for leader Peter Jackson, chief executive Daljit Lally and cabinet member for planning John Riddle.

They would be capped at £10,000 initially and would also not apply if ‘their actions were fraudulent, deliberately wrong or reckless or not authorised by the council’, among other restrictions.

But now, opposition Labour councillors have submitted an official call-in over the decision made by the Conservative administration.

The indemnities relate to serious allegations made by Lugano over the ‘unlawful’ way the Conservative-led council has handled its application for the Dissington Garden Village, a development of up to 2,000 homes near Ponteland.

The Newcastle-based company also alleged wrongdoing by the three individuals mentioned before recently announcing that it had issued formal legal proceedings.

It is the council’s position that no action has been launched yet – although a lawyer’s letter has expressed that intention – and that the claim ‘is without merit on the evidence provided to date’.

But Coun Grant Davey, leader of the Labour group, said: “It’s clear that this decision to indemnify by a Conservative cabinet raises serious questions that only a call-in will allay.

“There has been no risk assessment and it’s unclear how the taxpayer will be protected against all potential outcomes.

“It is also clear that this legal action poses a significant risk to the council’s financial stability and it is wholly brought about by the actions in removing the core strategy last year.”

At last week’s meeting, Coun Nick Oliver, cabinet member for corporate services, said that providing this support to councillors and employees of the local authority was a very important principle.

“Otherwise you would have a situation where anyone who could afford an expensive London lawyer, who didn’t agree with a policy or project, could threaten legal action, and officers and members, who don’t always have deep pockets, could feel cowed.

“If we want good quality officers to work in the authority, we need to provide them protection to do their jobs properly.”

The call-in has been made over concerns about proportionality, due and appropriate consultation and the taking of professional advice from officers, a presumption in favour of openness, and clarity of aims and desired outcomes.

It has been signed by Coun Davey, the group’s deputy leader, Coun Dave Ledger, plus Couns Allan Hepple, Susan Dungworth and Mark Purvis.

The process would see the call-in considered by one of the council’s scrutiny committees, which could then recommend the cabinet reconsider the decision.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service