Parish council saved from bankruptcy after racking up �20,000 legal bill

A FAILED attempt to buy 'vandalised' land lumbered a parish council with a �20,000 legal bill, leaving it on the brink of bankruptcy.

But this week Hopton Parish Council was bailed out by the borough council, as it resolved to loan them the amount interest free - funded by the taxpayer.

The legal bill was accrued when Hopton tried to buy land in Hall Road by Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) six years ago.

Parish chairman Lennie Gent claims the land, next to St Margaret's Church, had attracted anti-social behaviour and intervention was necessary. But CPO efforts were opposed by the landowner, a government inspector ruled in his favour and the council was left with legal fees of both sides in 2010.

Borough council leader Trevor Wainwright said there was no way he would watch a parish council 'fail' and intervened, but critics say the parish council should 'man up' and deal with the problem itself.

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The �20,000 - taken from taxpayers across the borough - is to be repaid over 10 years, with a �6,000 lump sum this year and �1,555.55 for the subsequent nine years.

If the parish reserves rise above �10,000, it will pay the difference above that to the borough.

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Mr Wainwright said: 'Had we not assisted they would probably have gone bankrupt.'

He added he was sure officers have advised the parish council to be wary of such 'risky' endeavours in future.

The loan was formalised at a meeting of the parish council on Monday. But parish councillor Steve Ames voted against it, stating taxpayers' cash could be better spent when the borough is seeking �10m of savings.

He told the Mercury: 'We should man up. Why should all the residents of the borough be forced to contribute to the costs incurred by the parish council in Hopton?'

Parish chairman Lennie Gent defended attempts to buy the land, and in a written statement wrote: 'The parish council has on two previous occasions sought a Compulsory Purchase Order to acquire the land, which is in an unkept condition, despite numerous requests to maintain it. The land was vandalised, used by children for drinking and glue sniffing, set fire to and had become a general hazard. The police were called out many times. On the previous occasions the landowner promised to tidy up the area, and provide a lease. Neither of these can to fruition.'

Borough council solicitors represented the parish council, and Mr Gent says they estimated costs were not likely to exceed �8,000.

Mr Gent's statement added: 'We would like to reiterate the decision to proceed with the CPO in 2006 was made after due and careful consideration by the parish council. There were various votes to continue with the proceedings in subsequent years. If HPC had won the case, we would now have a lovely nature walk for the community, a well maintained open space.

'As it is, we have a bill to pay which is more than four times the amount expected and the land is still in a dilapidated condition.'

And he stressed the council would happily facilitate an open public meeting to answer any questions from Hopton residents.

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