Revealed: Planning appeals lost by Harrogate council have cost taxpayers almost £225,000

Planning appeals lost by Harrogate Borough Council have cost taxpayers almost a quarter of a million pounds in legal fees over the last nine years, it has been revealed.

Thursday, 9th September 2021, 10:24 am
Updated Thursday, 9th September 2021, 11:02 am
£225,176 - that is the cost to Harrogate taxpayers of lost planning appeals over the last nine years.

Figures obtained by the Local Democracy Reporting Service show the council has spent £209,411 on lawyers and £15,765 on covering developers' costs when being found guilty of "unreasonable behaviour" in unsuccessful legal battles over where new homes and businesses should be built.

The findings have forced the Conservative-run council on the defensive and also prompted questions over how willing it is to take on developers and why third-party lawyers are sometimes used over in-house legal teams.

It also comes at a time when the authority is waiting to hear how much it will have to pay developers behind plans for a Starbucks drive-thru on Wetherby Road which was approved by the government's planning inspectorate at an appeal in June.

Councillor Pat Marsh, leader of the Liberal Democrats and a long-serving member of the council's planning committee, previously expressed her disappointment over a decision by council officers not to contest the Starbucks appeal and instead leave it to residents.

She has now said: "The council should be prepared to defend the decisions using staff at an appeal, after all they are the qualified staff with local knowledge, what could be better.

"Every time they employ outside help it also adds to the cost.

"And even when they refuse to defend members' decisions, as they did with the Starbucks application, they still had costs awarded against them so it would have been better for them to at least defend the council's decision."

Councillor Marsh also took aim at the "unfair" planning system which allows appeals to be lodged by developers, but not councils or residents.

She added: "Why should developers have the upper hand? Why not a more level playing field? You never see a poor developer but you can see poor, underfunded councils.

"The planning system is very unfair and the balance is on the side of the large developers, in particular, those with the biggest purse.

"Appeals are costly and councillors are aware that it is council tax payers money that is at risk so would only proceed if they truly felt they were making the right decision for their community.

"There have been successes and also failures, but that is the cost of decision- making."

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Legal costs are only made against the council if it is found to have acted "unreasonably" when making planning decisions.

These costs are also made regardless of whether the council has won or lost an appeal, meaning successful appeals can also prove costly.

Last year, the council was successful in an appeal against rejected plans for 2,750 homes at the former Flaxby Park golf course, but spent £57,360 on external legal teams and paid £17,000 to cover a proportion of the developer's costs.

These figures are not included in the total £225,176 spent over the last nine years as this sum only focuses on lost appeals.

Defending its record, the council said the majority of appeals made against it are unsuccessful, with 80% of applications referred to the planning inspectorate over the last two years resulting in defeat for the developers.

A council spokesperson said: "This is positive as, by and large, the inspectorate has noted that our recommendations and decisions align with national and local policies.

"Costs would only be awarded to the council if it had deemed the actions of the applicant to be unreasonable, had made an application to the planning inspectorate and this had been successful.

"This only occurs in a very small number of cases.

"It is inevitably disappointing for the actions of the council to be judged as unreasonable. We work hard to ensure such occurrences do not occur, and to learn from the rare examples where a costs award is made."

When has the council paid legal costs to developers at lost appeals?

£600 paid to developers over plans for a Pizza Hut takeaway on Knaresborough Road, Harrogate in 2013.

£1,837 paid to developers over plans for a Pizza Hut takeaway on Kings Road, Harrogate in 2013.

£4,200 paid to developers over plans for five homes on Lark Hill Crescent, Ripon in 2014.

£4,200 paid to a resident over plans for garage conversions on Church Lane, Harrogate in 2014.

£2,400 paid to developers over plans to convert offices on Victoria Avenue, Harrogate into flats in 2014.

£1,374 paid to a resident over plans to convert a farm building on Bedlam Lane, Staveley into a home in 2015.

£957 paid to a resident over plans to build two homes on Fishergreen, Ripon in 2017.

£195 paid to a resident over plans to convert a farm building on Bedlam Lane, Staveley into two homes in 2017.

And how much has been paid to external legal teams?

2012/2013 £27,503

2013/2014 £5,575

2014/2015 £37,218

2015/2016 £4,358

2016/2017 £24,345

2017/2018 £40,297

2018/2019 £0

2019/2020 £22,971

2020/2021 £47,141

By Jacob Webster, Local Democracy Reporter