The owner of a garden centre has vowed to fight on after a planning appeal was rejected at a judicial review on Tuesday morning.
Hare Hatch Sheeplands has been appealing against Wokingham Borough Council’s decision not to grant them a certificate of lawful use over its land.
But today, in the first of three days set aside for the review, Bridget Campbell, the Government appointed planning inspector, dismissed the appeal saying that as an enforcement notice was in place she could not grant a certificate of lawful use even if she felt it was merited.
Planning consultant Matthew Green, representing Sheeplands, said that it was “in the public interest” for the inspector to hear the evidence. He made the point that even if she could not grant a certificate she could express her opinion on the merits of the case.
He added that this would be in the public interest because it would indicate to both parties involved, and to any further legal or planning hearings, the professional opinion of a planning expert.
Despite this, Ms Campbell said that proceeding with the hearing would be “a waste of time and expense” and the hearing was ended before lunch, rather than going on for three days.
Afterwards Mr Green said: “Wokingham Borough Council has the power to withdraw the enforcement notice at any point and then reimpose it.”
He felt that “most reasonable people would have expected the council to withdraw the notice” to allow the hearing to go ahead and then impose it again if the inspector found in their favour.
“Their decision not to do so is one I do not understand.”
But despite this setback to the garden centre’s plans – which include opening a rare tropical plant nursery – Mr Scott pledged to carry on and sought to reassure his customers, thousands of whom have signed a petition in favour of the business. A large crowd of supporters also came to the hearing.
He said: “My message to my loyal staff and customers is that it’s business as usual. Hare Hatch Sheeplands is open and trading and so are all our concessionaires.
“The fight goes on.”
Cllr Mark Ashwell, executive member for Planning and Regeneration, said that the garden centre’s owner had been “poorly advised” and that the Council will be pursuing them for the costs involved in this review.
Speaking to The Wokingham Paper, he said: “It’s a victory for common sense. They could not win this particular action for all the reasons the actions described.
“We will be looking to reclaim the council’s costs. By the looks of it, it’s costed a lot.”
He added that the council had tried to work with Mr Scott and his team to achieve a resolution to the dispute that works for all.
“I’ve said that if we can somehow collaborate we can get through this, but their advice has taken them down a cul-de-sac which is costing money and then they have been beating us up about spending taxpayers’ money.
“We have to get the costs back or it will cost the taxpayers money.”
Although Sheeplands has lost this judicial review, the company’s battle with the council is not over yet.
A High Court hearing will take place next month and a petition signed by the centre’s supporters and customers will soon be presented to the council. It has enough signatures on it to force a debate on the matter, which is thought could be heard in November.
How Sheeplands saga unfolded
The problems started in 2003 when Petstop moved over the Sheeplands into a temporary shipping container after being evicted from the Wyevale site on the other side of the Bath Road while applying for planning permission, which was subsequently turned down.
Over the next several years planning permission for various concessions, including the coffee shop and farm shop, were turned down, appealed and approved with strict conditions, with concerns raised by Wokingham Borough Council that too much Green Belt land was being used for business purposes.
In 2010, the centre began working closely with the council to submit a master plan for the future of the site, costing the company tens of thousands of pounds in legal fees, only for the plan to be refused in 2011.
In 2013, the council offered to negotiate a resolution with Sheeplands, commissioning an independent report to review the company’s business plan, which confirms that Sheeplands is not viable without the retail sales from the garden centre and concessions. Sheeplands submitted a detailed plan for the future of the site, which included developing the play facility, expanding the farm shop to include fresh fish, a bakery and deli counter, and to bring the concession businesses into the main shop building, as well as an action plan for the transition into compliance with the council’s regulations.
However, in March 2015 the application was turned down, and an enforcement to stop selling plants and gardening products, as well as the closure of various concessions including the play area, began.