A25 Hedge

For more than 10 years the owner of Darkhill Farm failed to maintain the hedge on the pavement of the A25 Sevenoaks Rd/Borough Green Rd.This is a narrow pavement with high volumes of speeding cars and HGVs.  There is also a constant problem with the build-up of road dirt so the level ground adjacent to the pavement has slowly built up into a bank, and the root system of the hedge and other plants has reinforced this, and trapped even more dirt. TMBC are responsible for "siding", clearing this dirt of the pavement, but with the current height of the bank of road dirt, it quickly spreads back across the footway.

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The matter has been reported to KCC Highways on multiple occasions over the years have issued 28 Day Enforcement Notices requiring the landowner to cut the hedge.

 

Borough Green Parish Council has arranged on many occasions for its own contractors, or groups of volunteers and councillors to cut back the overgrowth because of Duty of Care for the safety of residents. As KCC finances became scarce, BGPC took over many of their Highway roles including PROWs, Hedging and Gritting, and were authorised on multiple occasions as a KCC Contractor.

The Parish Council began a Village Enhancement program siting "Village Gateways" on the village approaches. 

KCC had recently installed new 30mph signs at this point, but sightlines were rapidly obscured by this hedge. When the PC held several volunteer days to clear the overgrowth it quickly became apparent that the old hedge had died under the weight of ivy, and there was a large space to the rear filled with rubbish, and the field boundary fence had rotted away and collapsed. It was decided to use our approved fencing contractor to install a new length of stock fence, and the dead hedge, collapsed fence, and weeds were cleared. A digger was hired to cut back the road dirt bank, and quotes obtained for a replacement run of indigenous whip hedging.

 

The Council received a "Cease & Desist" email on 23rd July 2020 from the Landowner, and sent this response. At the same time we sought legal advice from KALC, the Kent Association of Local Councils.

The Clerk and Chairman met the Claimant and her solicitor on site in July 2020, and after some initial hostility decided on four actions to resolve the matter as noted in this letter from BDB Pitmans, on behalf of the Claimant 29th July:

1. BGPC to formally apologise (agreed)

2. Install stock fencing along a line 300mm from the pavement (agreed)

3.To clear debris from hedging and fencing. (agreed, but cleared by Claimant's contractors)

4. To obtain quotes for hedging by October (agreed)

The only point of disagreement was the Claimant wanting a 2m high mature hedge installed, rather than a whip hedge.

A Parish Council has to abide by very strict regulations. The first is that once someone commences legal action we are required to employ solicitors, and from that moment all matters become Confidential until a resolution is reached. So from that moment on all discussions were taken under Part 2 Rules .

At this point the dispute could have been resolved for at most £10k, including the cost of fencing and hedging which we had already agreed to pay, and a contribution towards the hedge

Warners Solicitors have handled our legal needs for many years and so they were appointed and responded to the Claimant in October. It was reported by Michael McNally of Warners that the Claimant's attitude had shifted from compromise to confrontation, despite the Parish Council agreeing a contribution towards a mature hedge. An emergency Confidential meeting was called for 2nd December, with Mr McNally, Cllr Harry Rayner and KMOTT tree expert  invited. The minutes of this meeting recommended that whilst the PC was not at fault and could possibly win the case in Court, the risk to public finance of £100k-£150k if we lost was too high, so it was agreed to settle out of Court for an estimated maximum of £50-70k including all our own legal costs. It was also agreed that this was a matter for the PC as a body, and not any single individual.

on 1st February 2021 the Claimant then issued this formal Court Claim document naming both the Parish Council and the Chair separately 

As the legal process continued, Mr McNally reported to the Clerk & Chair that the Claimant seemed to be acting on "inside information", and the Clerk then set up an "integrity cell" that would manage negotiations on behalf of the Parish Council, and preventing the leak of information about our discussions and strategy.

The Parish Council issued this Court Defence document in April 2021, and in June Warners drew up this Cost Estimate

If the PC fought and lost it would cost £137,000 to £182,000, buf if we settled out of Court, £59,850.

The Parish Council do admit one mistake in this matter, and that was failing to issue a 14 Day Notice of Works. This was an error of omission, in that we presumed that the Highway Verge outside the field stock fence was Highway Land. the Claimant produced the Land Registry map showing the ownership extended past the fence up to the tarmac of the pavement. This fact played a major role in our decision not to contest the claim.

The outcome was reported back to the Parish Council in July 2021 in order to approve the £19,000 offer, and to establish who had passed information to the Claimant or her solicitors. Chairman asked Members if anyone would come forward. a Councillor admitted it was him, whereupon the Clerk stopped him speaking further, because as a criminal investigation was likely, the councillor should not incriminate himself without first seeking legal representation. 

At the August Part 2 Meeting it was revealed that 10 Parish Councillors and the Clerk had lodged Standards Complaints against that Councillor. Chairman called a Vote of No Confidence that councillr which was carried. That Councillor then verbally attacked members, 4 of whom left the meeting. A further 6 complaints of bullying were then made against him. Chairman noted that Cllr he had accused him personally of criminal behaviour, and felt it was proper to allow members to move a Vote of No Confidence in the Chairman - there was no second and the motion failed.

Chairman advised him that if he had information of illegal behaviour about the Chairman, it was his duty under the Standards Code and the Law of the Land to report it to the appropriate authority.

At the September meeting Part 2, it was reported a Member of the Public had asked the Council to review past decisions, but this was refused, as there were no changes in circumstances.

At the October Meeting Part 2 the Clerk reported that the legal case had been completed, but confidentiality rules had to remain in place whilst the associated Standards Complaints were proceeding through investigation and Hearing, which was repeated as an update in Part 2 6th December Meeting.

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There was a long period whilst the TMBC Monitoring Officer investigated, appointed Independent Investigators C&HI Associates, who interviewed the Clerk, Chairman and the offending councillor and prepared reports to the Monitoring Officer who advised there would be full Standards Hearing convened for 18th November 2022. At that hearing the Councillor was found guilty on all eleven complaints of breaching Section 3 (h) of the Standards Code, in that he had clearly intended to disadvantage Cllr Taylor financially, politically and personally. The Hearing Committee recommended that Borough Green Parish Council table a Motion of Censure, and that be made public with a Press Release

 (Standards Code 3. General obligations (h) use or attempt to use your position as a Member improperly to confer on or secure for yourself or any other person, an advantage or disadvantage).

During this time a Member of the Public had made repeated requests to the Clerk for details of the "A25 Hedge" matter which had to be refused because even acknowledgement of the issues would be a breach of Part 2 regulations. Finally the MOP lodged a complaint with the Information Commissioner. The Clerk convened an Internal Review to ensure he had been fully compliant with the rules, reported the Review to the Information Commissioner, who dismissed the complaint, Everything will be released as soon as the Standards Hearing is concluded, and this page was drafted on 10th November 2022 to ensure Public Disclosure could happen without any delay. We apologise for the huge amount of redaction in what should be Publicly Accessible documents, but whilst these cases are live, we are caught between Freedom of Information, and the strange restrictions of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations)

C&HI ASSOCIATES INVESTIGATION REPORT   CHAIRMAN