A council has been heavily criticised for a catalogue of errors which prevented a large Tweedmouth housing scheme from progressing.
An investigation by the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) discovered that more than a decade of inaction by the former Berwick Borough Council and more recently by Northumberland County Council meant a plot of land had to be bought for a “considerable sum” of money, when it should have been transferred free of charge.
Additionally, a community was left without a promised play area and a businessman, who depended on the council having possession of the plot of land, could not build a 248-home development.
Although not identified in the Ombudsman report, it is believed to refer to plans for the development of land in the Hiveacres and Ord Road areas of Tweedmouth.
During the LGO’s investigations, officers from the council provided “misleading statements” and did not carry out remedies which they had previously agreed with the LGO. And at one point, the LGO had to threaten legal action to gain updates and responses to formal enquiries.
The investigations started in 2009 when a developer complained that, despite being granted planning permission to build a large-scale housing development, Berwick Borough Council’s lack of progress in taking possession of a small triangle of access land meant he was unable to start work.
That piece of land was part of a planning agreement with another builder dating back to the 1990s. But the council never took possession of the land, and its owner was never told to create the temporary playground that was part of his planning agreement.
Following this first investigation, Berwick Borough Council agreed to seek legal advice from an independent barrister to acquire the land.
Two further investigations in 2010 and 2012 showed that the process to transfer the land had still not begun and that the council had still not acted on the advice of its barrister. This did not happen until as late as November 2012.
Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman said: “In this case there has been a failure to take corporate responsibility and control of the situation by Northumberland County Council.
“At a considerable cost to the public purse, the council has been forced to purchase a piece of land that should have been handed over free of charge.
“I am astounded that it has taken this long to come to a conclusion – this acquisition process should have been a straightforward ‘bread and butter’ exercise for a council but instead it has turned into a catalogue of errors and inertia.
“I hope that Northumberland County Council can take a good look at their responses to me and my investigators and make sure that this situation never arises again.”
To remedy the situation, the LGO has recommended that the council apologise to the businessman and write to confirm that his planning permission still exists. It should also pay him £1,500 for his time and trouble in pursuing the complaint.
The council should also contact local residents within the next three months to explain what has happened and consult them on possible upgrades of local play facilities.
Steve Stewart, chief executive of Northumberland County Council said: “We are extremely disappointed with the Ombudsman’s comments in this report.
“The issue is one which arose due to the failure of the former Berwick-upon-Tweed Borough Council to enforce a planning agreement, and it has now been resolved and the financial bill picked up by this council.
“This council has a good record in resolving complaints, and in fact this is the first Ombudsman investigation which has resulted in a finding of maladministration since the new council was formed.”