Council planning boss fights off bias accusation in courtBy Laura Herbert
November 30, 2012
The chairman of Wokingham Borough Council’s planning committee has fought off accusations of bias made against him by a Finchampstead farmer.
Slavey Slavchev, owner of EU Plants Ltd, claims campaigners in the area have been out to get him since he bought Manor Farm, in Lower Sandhurst Road, in July last year.
At the High Court on Thursday, November 8, Mr Slavchev, a leader in commercial fruit tree growing, accused Councillor Simon Weeks of being the ‘eminence grise’ behind a tree preservation order (TPO) the council imposed on a copse on his land in July.
On Thursday, Mr Justice Beatson dismissed Mr Slavchev’s challenge, along with his allegation that he had been denied ‘natural justice’ due to bias, or apparent bias, on the part of Mr Weeks.
Mr Slavchev, whose business is based in Abindgon, said he has ‘great respect for nature and mature trees’ and wouldn’t do anything to harm the copse.
He pointed out Mr Weeks’ home is in nearby Cricket Hill, but Mr Weeks insisted he can barely see the copse from his property 400 metres away as it is screened by intervening hedgerows.
Mr Slavchev claimed Mr Weeks ‘expressed sympathy’ for local campaigners determined to ‘destroy’ his development plans for the land and accused the councillor of issuing a ‘veiled threat’ to use a TPO to scotch any proposals he made.
Mr Weeks vehemently denied warning off Mr Slavchev and said that all he had done was to ‘robustly but fairly’ represent the views of more than 200 residents who objected to various planning applications.
Since his home was ‘not affected in any way whatsoever’ by the TPO, he saw no reason why he should have declared an interest at the crucial planning committee meeting on Wednesday, July 25.
Ruling against EU Plants and exonerating Mr Weeks, Mr Justice Beatson said: “I have concluded the submission that a reasonable observer in full knowledge of the facts would consider there was a real possibility of bias is unsustainable.”
The judge also dismissed arguments the TPO should be overturned because there was no rational basis for considering the trees were in fact under threat and that not enough account had been taken of arboricultural report casting doubt on their health.
Following the hearing Mr Weeks said: “I’m pleased the judge considered all the evidence and completely exonerated me of any bias in this matter.
“This important case confirms local elected representatives cannot be denied the opportunity to robustly represent the collective views of local residents.”
Mr Slavchev, who says he has already spent thousands of pounds fighting the case, is seeking advice from his solicitors on whether to appeal the judge’s decision about the TPO.