By Ian Onions, Political Editor / firstname.lastname@example.org
A legal challenge over the future of Ashton Vale, where a 30,000- seat stadium is planned, is being bankrolled by taxpayers, the Evening Post can reveal.
Long Ashton parish councillors have agreed to make up to £20,000 of council funds available towards the legal costs of a judicial review of the handling of a bid for the site to be given town green status.
The revelation means that taxpayers’ money will be used to pay lawyers in both sides of the dispute – while the outcome will decide whether the privately-funded £92 million stadium can go ahead.
The parish councillors made their decision to give their financial backing just 11 days after Bristol City Council agreed in June to register only part of
the 42-acre site as a town green, which effectively allowed the stadium to go ahead. The money comes from the parish council’s precept – an annual levy paid by villagers on top of their council tax.
This levy brings in about £130,000 a year and the parish council’s annual accounts show a surplus of more than £200,000.
Parish councillors can use this money for what they believe is in the interests of the area and which will benefit residents.
Parish council chairman Nigel Moorcroft told the Evening Post the decision to earmark the money to fight the city council’s town green decision was taken in response to concerns by residents.
He said: “As far as we are concerned, the green belt has been used by residents in Long Ashton and Ashton Vale for many years and we feel the green belt between the village of Long Ashton and Bristol should be maintained.”
He said a Bon Jovi concert at Ashton Gate during the summer had led to gridlock in the village, which had concerned residents.
“We don’t want a repeat of that every time that City are playing at home,” he said.
The club has worked up a residents’ parking scheme, which it was obliged to do as part of planning permission from North Somerset Council.
But Mr Moorcroft said residents were not convinced the parking scheme would be enforced.
He said: “A lot of these things are promised but rarely fulfilled.”
He said the parish council had been supporting residents in Ashton Vale who had been fighting for the site to be registered as a town green for about a year.
But Mr Moorcroft said their support had become “more active” more recently.
He said it was not just the stadium development which concerned residents but the threat of 9,000 homes being built within the vicinity of the village.
This threat receded when the Coalition Government scrapped a regional planning blueprint called the Regional Spatial Strategy.
But Mr Moorcroft said developers who had invested many thousands of pounds would not just walk away.
Mr Moorcroft stressed: “We are not anti-Bristol City football club. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“We support the club but we just don’t think they should move away from their existing ground.”
The parish council has decided to financially back the legal challenge against the city council’s town green decision, despite the fact that both the city council and North Somerset have given planning permission for the new stadium. The councils said they accepted there were special circumstances why the green belt could be used. Planning ministers from both the previous Labour Government and current Coalition have both agreed with these decisions because they have not asked for them to be reviewed.
The parish council agreed to make the money available after a recommendation from its Finance and General Purposes sub committee, which met just four days after the city council’s town green decision. The powers to set aside money “for the benefit of the community” are laid down in the Local Government Act of 1972.
It has emerged during the past few days that a newly-formed pressure group called SAVE – Save Ashton Vale’s Environment – has been set up by former Labour city councillor Peter Crispin to fight the city council’s town green decision.
But the group could not instruct solicitors to apply for a judicial review without financial backing.
The legal challenge means a judge will have to decide whether to give permission for a full review to go ahead.
If the judge does, then the legal wrangle could take months. A judicial review can only examine the process by which the city council’s decision was made – not the decision itself.
The city council has stressed it will vigorously defend its decision to part-register Ashton Vale as a town green, which overruled a recommendation made by an
independent inspector, following a public inquiry, to make the entire stadium site a town green. The council said at the time it had been given significant new evidence not available to the inspector.
The decision meant the northern part of the site, where the landfill tip was sited and where the stadium would be built, is not registered, therefore allowing construction work to go ahead.
The parish council’s official records show the resolutions refer to money being available to fight “the stadium application”, whereas the judicial review can only challenge the council decision to part-register the Ashton Vale site as a town green.