a HIGH Court judge has ordered a full and urgent judicial review into a challenge by a heritage group that more than £1 million paid to Pendle Council in Government grants was unlawfully signed off.
But a senior council officer has said that the council will not be forced to pay any of the money back.
Mrs Justice Lang gave her ruling in London on Tuesday after hearing Save Britain’s Challenge claim that the grant - part of a £35.5 million package from the Government to 13 authorities - had been paid in direct contravention of promises to Parliament by then Housing Minister Grant Shapps and councils should now either be forced to repay the cash or allocate it to refurbishing homes previously targeted for demolition.
Government lawyers conceded at the High Court that Mr Shapps’s decision was unlawful as it flew in the face of stated government policy - but argued it was all water under the bridge as much of the public money had already been spent by councils who should never have received it.
Mr Richard Harwood, for SAVE, said the campaign group agreed with Mr Shapps’s condemnation of the previous government’s “Pathfinder” policy as a recipe for destroying neighbourhoods and leaving families marooned in streets of condemned housing.
However, Mr Harwood argued the public money paid out - totalling £70m when matched by councils - amounted to a continuation of Pathfinder by stealth.
He said the cash had been paid out before Mr Shapps realised that proposals put forward by the 13 authorities involved would result in demolition of over 5,000 homes.
Government barrister James Eadie said it would be “legally extremely problematic, if possible at all” to unravel the payments which had not been “ring-fenced”. Much of the money had already been spent or irrevocably committed.
Insisting it would serve “no useful purpose” for the case to go any further, he said the government was now engaged in “helpful and constructive” talks with the councils involved and it would be “little short of bizarre” to demand repayment of the money.
Mr Mungo Wenban-Smith, representing three of the local authorities involved, said Pendle and Blackburn with Darwen had already spent 100% of the money allocated to them and Burnley about 65%.
However, insisting the unlawful decision was “potentially catastrophic” and should be quashed, Mr Harwood said the wrongly allocated grants should either be recouped from the councils or a condition imposed that they be spent on refurbishing properties.
Ordering the urgent hearing, Mrs Justice Lang said: “I have given careful consideration to the evidence. The claimant has established an arguable case. While recognising the difficulty of elements of the case, a full judicial review is in the public interest”.
Mr Marcus Binney, SAVE’s President, said after the ruling: “SAVE has been at the forefront of the battle to stop the demolition of up to 400,000 traditional terrace houses in the north of England which in our view can be economically refurbished to provide pleasant and comfortable homes, many for families left for years on housing waiting lists.
“We were appalled that funds assigned by the government for refurbishment have been used for continuing demolition. The judgement potentially opens the door towards one of the most important and productive regeneration schemes in Britain, with renovation of thousands of empty homes and local landmark buildings”.
Pendle Council finance chief Mr Dean Langton said the money had been given to Pendle as an “unring-fenced grant” and the Secretaryof State was adamant that it would not be recalled.