Legal bills for council trio facing High Court action start to rack up

From left, Coun Peter Jackson, Daljit Lally and Coun John Riddle.
From left, Coun Peter Jackson, Daljit Lally and Coun John Riddle.

Northumberland councillors have agreed an extra £45,000 to cover the legal costs of two senior colleagues and the chief executive for their defence in a property developer’s High Court action.

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

They relate to the legal claim 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 indemnities for the three individuals named in the action alongside the authority itself would not apply if ‘their actions were fraudulent, deliberately wrong or reckless or not authorised by the council’.

Plus, if a court finds that the trio ‘behaved improperly, illegally and outside their authority in relation to the developers, then the council is entitled to be refunded all costs paid out under the indemnity’.

The indemnities were restricted to £10,000 each at first, but it was agreed that they could be extended in tranches of £15,000.

And at yesterday's meeting, the cabinet unanimously agreed to do just that, subject to receipt of counsel’s opinion that it is reasonable to do so.

This was brought to the meeting as an item of urgent business as ‘following the filing of the defences last week by all of the defendants to the claim, late notice of the need for further advances in respect of this matter has been received from the three individuals’ solicitors’.

Introducing the report, Coun Nick Oliver, the cabinet member for corporate resources, said that the ‘principle is as it was when we first discussed this’.

“If we didn’t do it, it would totally undermine the democratic process.”

But a Northumberland Labour spokesman said: “We have serious concerns about the way taxpayers’ money is being used to fund a defence that is not transparent.

“We think the original decision to grant the indemnity for the three defendants was ill-advised at the least and we would urge the authority to refer this decision to EY, the council’s external auditor.

“The decision taken today to gobble up another £15,000 per defendant of taxpayers’ cash is riddled with potential conflicts of interests and these are not being considered.”

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service