AN INVESTIGATION into the behaviour of officers and councillors involved in a legal battle between Wokingham Borough Council (WBC) and Wargrave garden centre Hare Hatch Sheeplands found suggestions of unprofessional conduct were “unfounded”.

WBC commissioned non-practising solicitor Richard Lingard to look into how councillors and officers conducted themselves in the run-up to court action which saw Sheeplands owner Rob Scott prosecuted over alleged unauthorised development at the site.

Judge Angela Morris said in 2018 WBC had “sought to gain advantage” of the situation by taking a “flawed” decision to prosecute Mr Scott after he withdrew his appeal to a council enforcement notice.

However, Mr Lingard’s verdict suggested judges drew “the wrong inference” after courts determined the authority was wrong to prosecute the centre’s owner as judges’ rulings were based on “supposition… rather than clear evidence”, but a group of residents have questioned the solicitor’s findings.

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Philip Meadowcroft told the News: “His attempt to be a new court of law, and his findings that the court of appeal and the crown court were wrong in coming to their conclusions, is appalling.

“The court of appeal has now ruled – that is the position and that is the fact!

“This re-run is wholly unacceptable.”

The report came to a number of conclusions after Mr Lingard interviewed officers and councillors involved in the seven-year legal tangle, as well as Mr Scott.

Mr Lingard has already been involved in the Hare Hatch saga, having been commissioned to provide support in relation to the disclosure of documents relevant to the Crown Court case in which Judge Morris dropped WBC’s prosecution.

According to Mr Lingard, councillors and officers did not persuade Mr Scott to withdraw an appeal against a planning enforcement notice knowing the owner’s alternative options were limited, despite Judge Morris ruling the council did induce him to do this shortly before prosecuting him in June 2018.

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Some councillors, however, did come in for criticism, as officers interviewed described their participation as making the job “more difficult” and as a “hindrance and not a help”, resulting in Mr Lingard ruling elected members should not have got involved in discussions with Mr Scott.

Councillor John Halsall, leader of the council and ward member for Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe and was interviewed by Mr Lingard because of the role he played in the saga, told the News: “I’m really sad that we weren’t able to find an accommodation for Hare Hatch without going through these issues.

“I’m relieved Richard Lingard didn’t find any evidence of maladministration.

“Richard Lingard is a very professional person who does this sort of work and he looked at what the courts said.

“The ward councillor’s job is to represent their constituents and one of my constituents is Hare Hatch.

“I would without hesitation try to help in any way I can the owners of Hare Hatch.”

The council “collectively sought to do its best through its members and officers to accommodate a local business”, according to Mr Lingard.

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But the report’s findings have come as unwelcome news for Mike Shattock, who has been supporting Mr Scott throughout the legal battle and told the News that the report, which contains hundreds of redactions, including eleven missing paragraphs, made him feel like he was “banging his head against a brick wall”.

Fellow supporter Frank Moore added: “We called for an investigation and they appointed Mr Lingard.

“We’ve seen Mr Lingard’s report now and there are huge gaps in the report where paragraphs have been taken out.

“Therefore I don’t think it’s a full review – I don’t think it’s the end of the case and I don’t think they’ve done a very good job.”

The authority was initially hesitant to hold an investigation into its representatives’ conduct after opposition leader Cllr Lindsay Ferris called on former planning boss Cllr Simon Weeks to push for either an external or internal review in February 2019.

Cllr Weeks said such reviews were “unlikely”, but Cllr Wayne Smith, WBC’s new executive member for planning and enforcement, said the authority commissioned an “independent investigation” because “we know some residents feel we have been heavy-handed at times.”

He added: “There have been legal ups and downs during this long-running dispute over Hare Hatch Sheeplands’ attempt at unauthorised development.

“But our overall objective has always been to protect the green belt, which we have now secured.”

“I’m delighted staff and councillors have been cleared of the serious allegations.

“There were some training needs identified and we’re already acting on them, but it’s clear from the report that the council acted in good faith to resolve these difficult issues in the best interests of the whole borough.”

Liberal Democrats councillor Clive Jones told the News: "I'm very surprised that he appears to have rubbished the courts decisions and I would really like to know why eleven paragraphs have been redacted - I don't see why it has been necessary to do so.

"It isn't an open investigation with that sort of thing happening."

In June, WBC was told it would have to pay Mr Scott and other businessman based at Sheeplands £68,000 in costs as a result of judges’ January ruling.