Published: 12:00, 13 December 2016 |
Updated: 15:16, 13 December 2016
A precious plot of open land on the Whitstable seafront was sold by Canterbury City Council at a small fraction of its true value, a judge was told today.
The space, known as the Oval Chalet, measures less than 0.2 acres but is now the subject of a titanic legal battle at London's High Court.
The Whitstable Society says the council acted secretly and went beyond its powers when it flogged the Oval for £165,000 in January last year.
Sea Street Developments Ltd should have had to pay many times that sum, claimed the society's barrister, Daniel Stedman Jones.
Now the society is asking top judge, Mr Justice Dove, to unravel the deal, but the the council is fighting the case tooth and nail.
James Goudie QC, for the council, says the society's complaints are groundless and that it got the best price "reasonably obtainable".
The Oval is behind the town's sea wall, directly opposite Whitstable beach, and was used as a dinghy park by Whitstable Yacht Club for over 50 years.
But the yacht club moved off the site two years ago and the council says the Oval has "long been earmarked for development".
The opening of the case was greeted by mutual mud-slinging as the council accused the society of delaying unreasonably in launching its challenge.
Mr Goudie said unwinding the deal now would be "grossly detrimental to good administration and prejudicial to the public interest".
But Mr Stedman Jones said it was "a bit rich" for the council to complain, given its own delay in disclosing critical documents.
"Crucial pieces of evidence were disclosed very late despite repeated requests", he told the judge.
The barrister said the Oval was acquired by the Whitstable Urban District Council in the 1940s and had been "open land" ever since.
Special rules apply to the sale of open land by public authorities, particularly relating to publicity and consultation.
But Mr Stedman Jones said the council had resolved to sell The Oval "in a closed private session" of its executive committee.
The decision was reached "without any prior consultation, publicity or notification", he claimed.
The £165,000 value put on The Oval was "woefully low", the barrister argued.
And the sale was "incompatible with The Oval being both held and used for the purposes of public recreation".
But the court heard the society and the council cannot even agree when the crucial committee decision was taken.
The society says it was in January last year, but the council insists it was in December 2014.
And the council points out that judicial review challenges must normally be brought within three months.
Mr Goudie denied that The Oval is open land or that the council was under any legal duty to advertise the proposed sale.
He insisted the society's complaints have "no merit" and that "no criticism can properly be made" of the procedure followed by the council.
The sale was agreed on the basis of expert valuation advice and the fact the society had since come up with a higher valuation was "simply irrelevant".
"The council did achieve the best consideration reasonably obtainable", he told the judge.
The QC added that the deal was now two years old and both the council and Sea Street had proceeded on the basis that it was valid.
"It would be grossly detrimental to good administration and prejudicial to the public interest for the decision to enter into the contract now to be quashed", he told the judge.
The High Court hearing continues.
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