Ashton Vale stadium plan: Back to square one
BRISTOL City Council has sensationally dropped its defence in a legal challenge over the future of Ashton Vale, where Bristol City FC wants to build its new stadium.
The shock decision means the council will now commission an independent inspector to hold another public inquiry over the future of the site.
In effect, the long-running saga is going back to square one.
Council leaders decided to end their defence of a judicial review after legal experts advised they were likely to lose the case, which was due to be heard next month.
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The council has therefore come to the conclusion that it is best to draw a line under the case and save taxpayers the mounting legal costs, which are already running into thousands of pounds.
If they had continued and lost, a High Court judge would have ordered them to carry out a review of their decision to give only part of the development site town green status.
The council is writing to the town green campaigners' Cambridge-based lawyers today, informing them of the decision to withdraw from the case.
Last June, councillors agreed at the city's public rights of way committee that the southern area of the 42-acre site should be registered as a town green, protecting it from development. But the northern part, including the landfill tip where the club wants to build its new stadium, was not given town green status, with the council going against the recommendation of an independent inspector that the whole site should stay undeveloped.
The councillors took into account a raft of new evidence which was gathered by the club after independent inspector's report had been published.
But a new pressure group, led by former Labour councillor Peter Crispin, called for a judicial review, which could have seen the council ordered to retake its decision. They argued that the additional evidence should have been tested under cross-examination at a public inquiry.
The council's lawyers have now concluded that a High Court judge would probably take the same view and it is better to bite the bullet now instead of spending more taxpayers' money on the legal case.
It is not yet clear whether the public inquiry will reconsider the whole site or just the northern part – this will be an issue for the lawyers of all parties to agree.
The council will want to revisit its decision on only the northern part but judging by comments of joint landowner and Bristol City majority shareholder Steve Lansdown a few weeks ago, then the landowners will be pushing for an inquiry to consider the whole site. Mr Lansdown called for town green status to be removed from all the land.
Neither the landowners or the club are making any comment about the council's latest move.
But crucially, it means the dispute now switches out of the council's hands and back to the landowners.
No doubt the landowners will be delighted to be in the driving seat again and be given a second chance to fight the town green application.
Unlike last time, the landowners can be expected to employ the country's top lawyers to go through every piece of the campaigners' evidence in microscopic detail, as well as put forward all their new material.
The council's decision to cut its losses also means there is likely to be less delay over the future of the site.
The window of opportunity to build a new stadium in time for the 2014/15 season has now gone.
But if the landowners eventually win their case to stop site being registered as a town green, then it is now possible that the new £92 million stadium could be ready for the following season.
A council spokesman said: "The council's decision today is to cease to contest the legal challenge, and therefore accept these outcomes should happen forthwith.
"The council has made this decision so as to avoid further delays and to avoid mounting legal fees."
Commenting on this decision, Tory Councillor Peter Abraham, who chairs the cross-party Public Rights of Way Committee, said: "I have been saddened and frustrated that the decision of my cross-party committee of elected councillors has been challenged in a seemingly never-ending series of legal challenges.
"This is all the more disappointing as our decision preserved indefinitely 20 acres of land for local people to use as recreational open space, whilst leaving the other half of the land (including the former tip) free for development.
"Although a High Court Judge in an earlier hearing urged compromise, it is very disappointing that those concerned have preferred instead to run up ever-growing lawyers' bills – many of which will ultimately be carried by the taxpayer. I support this pragmatic decision today, so as to begin to draw a line under this matter."