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Old River Lane ramps up risk of costly legal challenge for East Herts Council





The threat of a judicial review over Old River Lane (ORL) has prompted East Herts Council to ramp up its risk register.

At an audit and governance committee meeting, officers told members the threat of a legal challenge to a major project by the authority was now probable and could cost between £400,000 and £1m, with knock-on effects for council services.

The council's flagship ORL project to build a £15.5m cinema-led arts centre as part of a wider development of 225 homes, offices and retail space in Bishop's Stortford's Causeway was one of three, along with Hertford Theatre and Hartham Leisure Centre in Hertford, highlighted in a report.

Site plan for Old River Lane
Site plan for Old River Lane

The risk level has increased from marginal, with a price tag of £100,000-£400,000 a year, to significant because "any judicial review at this stage of development is likely to have far more wide-reaching impact on the organisation than prior to construction".

The ORL scheme in particular has proved controversial, with fierce community opposition to the plans in their current form - specifically proposals to demolish the United Reformed Church Hall in Water Lane and Charringtons House office block.

Steven Linnett, East Herts' head of strategic finance and property, told the committee he did not believe any judicial reviews or major legal challenges would succeed, but like the court action taken by Yew Tree Place residents to challenge planning permission for the multi-storey car park at Northgate End, litigation could cause significant delays.

United in opposition to Old River Lane (63601886)
United in opposition to Old River Lane (63601886)

In December 2019, a High Court judge finally ruled in favour of the council, enabling construction to begin – almost 18 months after the application was first approved. The green light followed not one but two court challenges led by Yew Tree Place resident Clive Risby.

Mr Linnett told the committee: "You cannot discount the fact that someone who has a lot of money decides to do it just to be annoying."

In response to Conservative Cllr Alexander Curtis' concerns that the financial implications of such challenges had been underestimated and could be greater than £1m, he said that both sides had to be ready to cover all costs and "£500,000 each on a judicial review would be extraordinary".

While Cllr Curtis was concerned there could be substantial knock-on costs, Mr Linnett said any delays in building would actually cut council spending during the pause.

Outgoing East Herts Council leader Cllr Linda Haysey on the Old River Lane site. Pic: Vikki Lince
Outgoing East Herts Council leader Cllr Linda Haysey on the Old River Lane site. Pic: Vikki Lince

He said East Herts had not yet signed a development contract with Cityheart, the company partnering with the council on Old River Lane.

At the meeting, councillors were also told the risk levels related to the performance, resilience and security of the council's IT systems and staffing shortages, particularly in the planning and legal departments, had also increased.



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