Council accused of ‘wasting’ £1m after building returned to owner following seven-year compulsory purchase battle
- Credit: Terry Jermy
A council has been accused of “wasting” £1m of tax payers’ money after a building purchased by them seven years ago and given a costly revamp was given back to its previous owner - along with compensation.
At a Norfolk County Council cabinet meeting, on Monday, October 2, it was revealed that the freehold for the former Cozy Carpets building, in Minstergate, Thetford, has been given back to its previous owner, Nolan Guthrie, as part of a settlement deal.
This comes after Norfolk County Council used a compulsory purchase order (CPO) to acquire the building back in 2013, which was appealed by Mr Guthrie. The CPO was made as part of the project to build the Thetford Bus Interchange.
At the meeting, Susan Dowling, a Breckland Councillor for Thetford Priory, raised the question of the site’s status after “rumours locally” suggested the ownership of the building had been returned to Mr Guthrie.
In response, councillor Greg Peck, Norfolk County Council’s cabinet member for commercial services and asset management, said: “We have reached a settlement with the previous owners, as part of which we have transferred the freehold of the former Cozy Carpets site to them, a settlement we feel is fair for all sides.
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“There were strong arguments on both sides and we also need to bear in mind the cost of going to Upper Tribunal, with us, as the acquiring authority expected to pay all parties’ costs.”
The full cost of the saga was revealed after Terry Jermy, county councillor for Thetford West, submitted a Freedom of Information request which showed that the council had spent £697,511,93 as part of works to make the building structurally sound and watertight. The figure also included legal, planning and design fees.
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But, Mr Jermy insisted the total figure spent would top £1m when compensation to Mr Guthrie and further legal fees were taken into account.
“The council will have spent more than £1m and now we don’t even have the building to use for the benefit of Thetford,” Mr Jermy said.
“It’s a disgrace. They have wasted tax payer’s money at a time of austerity and services being cut and I really think they need to be looking into what went wrong so nothing like this happens again.
“We have done up a building and given it back to the owner. It doesn’t leave you with much confidence in the council procedures.”
Responding to Mr Jermy’s claims after the meeting, Mr Peck said the council had to give the building back to Mr Guthrie in compliance with the laws related to CPOs.
A CPO can be challenged by the building or land owner, and go to public inquiry, or the High Court.
Mr Guthrie’s case was settled out of court and Mr Peck said, on balance, this was the best option for the council.
“The councillor may not understand or agree with them [the laws], but they are the framework that apply across the country,” Mr Peck said.
“This decision was reached following specialist legal and property advice, after an extended period of negotiation. Simply put, I am not prepared to play Russian roulette with public money,” he said.
A spokesman for Norfolk County Council added: “The process for acquiring land under compulsory purchase is prescriptive and whilst it has taken some time to conclude this case, we believe that the result is in the best interest of the taxpayer.”
Mr Guthrie, who owns Mr G’s Bowling, in Brandon, said despite feeling happy with the resolution, he feels the CPO is a “weapon” used by councils.
The 75-year-old said: “It’s a system being abused by the government and local authorities.
“There is meant to be compensation and they set the rate at half a percent less than the bank rate, so there is no incentive at all for anybody to settle, until they are enforced to - hence the reason it has taken seven years.
“But they decided to give it back to me. I am more than happy with what I have received, as well as compensation on top of that. I got a good deal.” With the building back in his possession, Mr Guthrie says he has no immediate plans while the pandemic is ongoing, but said he is considering leisure.
He added: “Before all of this, I was going to bring 22 bedrooms to a town which would have regenerated the town centre. It was going to be a motel accommodation. We had plenty of space to put in a restaurant and bar. But we are still looking at the leisure side.”