by Stephen Pullinger
Saturday, August 4, 2012
An escalating, bitter dispute over a village hall is being blamed for a flurry of houses going on the market in a picturesque Broadland community.
In recent weeks more than 30 homes have been up for sale in Hickling near Stalham, which for the past six months has been at the centre of an extraordinary legal battle between the parish council and the trustees of the new hall, Hickling Barn.
First the trustees sued the council for £110,000 which they say it agreed to pay towards the project at a time when most of the trustees were also parish councillors.
Now the council - which no longer has any trustees on it - has decided not only to resist that claim, but to up the stakes by counter-suing for the return of more than £200,000 paid out in previous contributions.
Barristers have become involved and both sides concede that the legal bills will run into thousands of pounds.
The feud, which has divided the community, initially only centred on a disputed sum of £22,000 in professional fees but the council’s latest stance seems to question whether it should pay any of the £330,000 agreed by its predecessors.
Shirley Watt, 80, of Ouse Lane, said she had lived in the village for 25 years but had been trying to sell her detached home and move “anywhere out of Hickling”.
She said: “A lot of people are moving because of the upset this has caused; someone told me she had lost all her friends. There are also fears about how much the parish precept may rise because of these legal bills.”
Blaming the previous parish council, she said they had never needed the new hall in the first place; the existing one could have been refurbished.
She said: “When the upset started, my daughter Susan said, ‘draw up the drawbridge’. The hall is only over the road but we have never even been to see it.”
Martin Lovell and his elderly mother Dorothy, who live next to the hall in Mallard Way, have put their home on the market too.
Mrs Lovell said Hickling had been a lovely community when they moved into the village in 1980.
“Now it is a bitter place. The village is finished,” she said.
Parish council chairman Sandra Clarke said: “I feel for people, especially if they are leaving because of what is happening. However, it is not really of our doing. The charity has decided to sue the parish council rather than tell villagers what is going on.”
Mrs Clarke said the council had a duty to protect public money but the dispute could have been sorted out if the trustees had opened their books to show the village how much money they had and what they had done with it.
Local county councillor Paul Rice, who led unsuccessful peace talks earlier this year, said: “I am saddened by what is going on and people need to get round the table.
“However, the parish council has a legal obligation and all this could have been nipped in the bud if the trustees had opened their books.
“It is my view that we now need a forensic audit by an independent body, looking at both the trustees’ and parish council’s dealings.”
However, trustee Chris Watkins insisted they had agreed to the parish council’s request to produce its accounts and constitution and had also offered further mediation that had been turned down.
He said: “They are using this as a stalling mechanism. It’s in the hands of the lawyers because we have no alternative but to go down that path to pay the builder all the money he is owed.”
He highlighted the fact the hall is “a fantastic facility used by hundreds of people every month”.
Paul Lambert, manager at Aldreds in Stalham, acknowledged a higher than normal number of Hickling homes on the market but said there were many different reasons for people moving and houses were still selling very well.