Angry Hickling meeting told of massive legal bill in hall row

Angry residents rounded on Hickling Parish Council last night as the escalating cost of its legal fight with the village hall charity was disclosed.

Hall trustee Nick Baker told the charity's annual meeting that the legal bill for both sides had probably already reached �40,000 with costs likely to double if the case reaches court.

He accused the parish council elected in May last year of using every excuse not to pay contributions to the project agreed by the previous administration.

And he said the trustees had no choice but to launch legal action to recoup the �110,000 owed because they were personally liable and the builder had threatened to sue them unless they pursued the council for his outstanding money.

Urging residents to write to the parish council to demand it pays up, he said: 'We believe the parish council is holding the village to ransom.'

His comments provoked an angry outburst from one villager who described the expense as 'an utter waste of money on legal fees that could have been spent for the benefit of the community.'

Calling the parish council 'bloody disgraceful', he was greeted by spontaneous applause around the hall.

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Another resident accused the council, which is counter-suing the trustees for the return of about �200,000 already paid over to the project, of 'only causing trouble' and said the dispute might end up with the village losing its hall, which would be 'an absolute tragedy'.

One villager called for both sides to stop the legal battle and start talking through a professional mediator, saying: 'This is a very expensive way of doing something we ought to be able to do ourselves. Whoever wins, the costs will come back to the village.'

Mr Baker, who last year resigned from the parish council as the dispute escalated, said they had offered mediation on several occasions and were still leaving the door open to it.

However, parish council chairman Sandra Clarke responded by saying it was the trustees who had refused meetings without conditions.

Fellow parish councillor Peter Berrie said the community had become beset by tribalism and that sort of behaviour would stop any resolution.

Earlier in the meeting, trustee Harry Parnell reported that the hall had been delivered on time to budget at a cost of �835,000.

He said they had ended the financial year with a debt of �110,996 which corresponded to the amount owed by the council. There was no reserve because of legal fees.

He said since opening, the hall - called Hickling Barn - had run to budget. The solar panels were yielding a much greater saving than had been budgeted and the hall was receiving fantastic voluntary support.

Trustee Maggie Prettyman said the Barn had been a fantastic success. 'We delivered on our promise to build it and the people of Hickling delivered on their promise to use it,' she said.

User numbers had shot up from 760 in January to about 1,400 in June and as well as a growing list of activities, the hall had been used for all manner of parties from ruby weddings to christenings.

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