Revealed: Luton Borough Council blew £100k on Houghton Regis development battle

Luton Town Hall
Luton Town Hall

Luton Borough Council blew more than £100,000 of taxpayers’ cash on a “wholly unarguable” dispute, the Luton News can exclusively reveal.

LBC took neighbouring authority Central Beds Council to the High Court over plans for 5,150 homes north of Houghton Regis – a war that ended in defeat for Luton in December.

Outline sketches for the HRN1 development

Outline sketches for the HRN1 development

For the first time we can reveal that to date the case, which a judge branded as “lacking in legal merit”, has cost the taxpayer £109,922.

In response to a Freedom of Information request LBC has admitted that its solicitor’s fees ran up to £64,571, while counsel’s fees cost a further £33,375.

With disbursements and court fees the total comes in at slightly less than £110,000.

The figure comes to light just a month after LBC rejected a government grant to freeze council tax in favour of putting precepts up for the 16th time in 18 years – because the move would net £138,000 more for the council.

Conservative parliamentary candidate for Luton South, Katie Redmond, slammed the expenditure.

She told the Luton News: “This is not what residents want their council tax to be spent on - they want it to go towards frontline services.

“We are always hearing from the council about government cuts and yet they can easily find money down the back of the sofa for this.

“It is financial mismanagement.”

Lib Dem councillor David Franks added: “There is a history of animosity between Luton and Central Beds which gets in the way of sensible cooperation.

“In situations like this the lawyers are the only ones who win.”

The Freedom of Information response, which the Luton News received more than a month after its deadline, added that £120,000 had been set aside for the entire case.

LBC says its has been told by its solicitors that costs will not exceed this amount.

When LBC took Central Beds to court it claimed its neighbour failed in its duty to cooperate under the Localism Act.

It also complained that the Houghton Regis North scheme’s 10% affordable housing provision was too low.

High Court judge David Holgate dismissed all of LBC claims, adding: “It is most unfortunate that this project, which will deliver much needed development and nationally important infrastructure, has been delayed by a challenge lacking in legal merit.”

An LBC spokesperson said: “Luton potentially stands to gain access to hundreds of extra affordable homes if the judicial review was successful.

“Given the urgent need for affordable homes in the town this action is therefore about protecting Luton’s long term future.”

Last month our sister paper the Dunstable Gazette revealed that the case had also been an expensive one for taxpayers in Central Bedfordshire, as the authority ended up with external legal costs of £48,666.

Council officers were also involved in CBC’s defence, though the cost of this is unknown as it was “undertaken as part of the day to day operation”.

At the time CBC executive member Nigel Young said that the dispute was “very sad”.

He added: “We completely support Mr Justice Holgate’s judgement and feel that it fully endorses our decision to defend our position, which was necessary to protect a much-needed development that will deliver nationally important infrastructure.”