Hickling hall row poised for legal action

A Norfolk county councillor has called for high-level mediation to settle a dispute between Hickling Parish Council and the trustees of the new village hall which threatens to hit the pockets of every resident.

Following unsuccessful mediation talks last week led by North Norfolk District Council chief executive Philip Burton, the trustees have now delivered the parish council an ultimatum - pay �97,000 of the money you owe us by Tuesday (January 31) or we will take legal action.

At an emergency meeting before Christmas the council prepared for the possibility of incurring legal costs by voting through a 278pc rise in the parish precept which will mean the bill for a band D home increasing from �18 to �70.

Hopes that rise could be rescinded by reaching an agreement by January 31 - the deadline for informing North Norfolk council of the precept level - are fading fast.

The parish council would have to call a special meeting to make any new financial decisions and to give the obligatory three days notice - excluding the weekend - a meeting on Tuesday would have to be announced by tomorrow.

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Local county councillor Paul Rice, who led the first attempts at mediation, said: 'I am at the end of my tether. I can't see how either party is going to back down.

'There needs to be higher-level mediation from someone outside. Perhaps Norfolk County Council or the MP Norman Lamb could become involved?'

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The row centres on a disputed sum of �22,000 which the trustees say the council owes the charity as part of its �330,000-plus donation to the project - agreed at a time when 10 of the 11 councillors were also trustees.

The present-day council insists that sum covers professional fees which it paid out on behalf of the trustees to avoid them paying VAT, but never agreed to meet - it therefore deducted the �22,000 from one of its donation payments.

With the row escalating, the council has also withheld its final donation of �89,000 until the trustees disclose their accounts and publish the charity's constitution.

The trustees of the hall, Hickling Barn, have posted details of their 'final offer' on their website.

The statement reads: 'Under the final offer, one part of the sum owed, �89,000, would be paid immediately. About �8,000 of the remaining �22,000 would also be paid up front - with the remainder being paid in instalments with interest by the end of April next year.

'The trustees have personal liability for the outstanding construction bills and if the above offer is not accepted we will have no option but to instruct solicitors to recover the legally required sums from the parish council, with the likely significant additional costs this will bring our community.'

Parish council chairman Sandra Clarke, who took the helm after last May's parish elections which saw several trustees displaced from the council, said she was currently taking advice and refused to confirm if the next council meeting would be brought forward from February 7.

The hall project has divided the community from the outset with critics condemning the financial burden on the village.

An independent inquiry criticised the trustees for making financial decisions on the project as councillors without declaring interests.

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