Hickling villagers warned of massive precept rise

A Norfolk council is to consider raising its precept by more than 300pc to cover the risk of it being sued in an escalating row over a new village hall.

A packed Hickling Parish Council meeting last night heard the decision would be made at a special meeting next Tuesday.

Council chairman Sandra Clarke revealed negotiations with the charity trustees steering the �770,000 project to build a community hall had completely broken down.

She said the council had pulled out of last ditch peace talks last month when it became clear there was a 'serious possibility' the charity would sue the village over a sum of �21,000 it claims the council owes it.

The council deducted the sum from the second of its three agreed payments to the charity, totalling �330,000, insisting the money had already been paid out in professional fees on behalf of the trustees.

In addition to that dispute, Mrs Clarke said the council was demanding answers from the trustees regarding a payment of �10,000 made by the council to the charity in February 2010 which does not appear on the charity's accounts to March 31 2010.

She told the meeting: 'I have no satisfactory explanation what the �10,000 was spent on and you need to know.'

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Mrs Clarke called on the trustees to show the council their accounts so the village could monitor the financial situation and challenged them to do so at next week's special meeting.

She said: 'We are not persuaded, in the absence of any accounts, that the charity really needs these funds. If it does, we do not understand why it cannot raise them from other sources.'

Councillors unanimously agreed to put off making their final payment of �89,000 to the project until next week's meeting.

During the public speaking session which followed, retired Norwich Union executive Eric Lindo, who carried out an independent inquiry into the project when it first became mired in controversy, supported the council's 'impeccable handling' of the situation and endorsed the call for financial clarity.

He said: 'When I did my audit, the charity's figures changed almost weekly. To start with there was a surplus of �102,000 over building costs; at the end of two months they were showing a deficit of �9,000.

'I did not know what to believe then and I don't know now.'

The hall project has divided opinion in the village from the outset and the row boiled over at the time of the May parish elections when it became known that 10 of the 11 councillors were also hall charity trustees.

Mr Lindo's inquiry subsequently criticised them for making crucial decisions on the scheme without declaring interests at council meetings.

The last four remaining trustees on the council have resigned in recent weeks amid accusations of a personal campaign against them.

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