How the Dartford warbler could cost Portsmouth City Council £400,000

COSTLY A Dartford warbler
COSTLY A Dartford warbler
From left, Southampton City Council leader Simon Letts, Portsmouth City Council leader Donna Jones, and Isle of Wight Council leader Jonathan Bacon sign the formal application for a Solent Combined Authority in 2016

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A DISPUTE over a Dartford warbler could end up costing Portsmouth City Council as much as £400,000.

The authority is set to receive a huge bill in legal costs after refusing to let defence giant QinetiQ use a stretch of land near Fort Cumberland, in Eastney, as a road.

In a bid to block a controversial development, which would have seen 131 flats built overlooking the nudist beach, in 2009 it seized on a study which showed the legally protected Dartford warbler could be nesting nearby.

The council was supported by local people, including naturists, who feared access to the beach could be restricted.

But the High Court ruled that further efforts to find the rare bird were not necessary.

Now although QinetiQ has withdrawn its planning application, the High Court has ruled that costs must be awarded to the firm because the council should not have delayed the development.

Leader of the council’s Conservative opposition, Cllr Simon Bosher, said the fault lay with the Lib Dem cabinet for ignoring the advice of their lawyers.

He said: ‘This was nothing to do with either the Conservative or Labour groups, it was an administration decision. They received legal advice telling them not to do this and they ignored it.

‘Now, at a time when the council is having to cut back on services across the board, we have this huge bill to pay.

‘This was entirely avoidable and should not have happened.’

Deputy council leader and finance chief Cllr Hugh Mason said at the time the council had been urged by the RSPB to investigate the warbler sighting.

‘At the time we were caught between a rock and a hard place,’ he said. ‘Our lawyers are still in negotiations with them around the total.’

QinetiQ is claiming it is entitled to £400,000 to cover its legal costs, but lawyers are still arguing over the final sum.

A spokesman for QinetiQ said: ‘Portsmouth City Council has paid £50,000 as an interim payment, with the full cost award to be determined by the courts cost assessor, if the council does not reach a settlement.

‘We continue to work with a developer on plans for redeveloping the site. The beach is open to the public for lawful pastimes, but not designated for any specific user type or group.’

He added: ‘The judge commented upon the irrationality of Portsmouth City Council members at key stages in the decision making process.

‘We wish to present the possible future options for the site to the local community later this year.’

History of planning dispute that lasted seven years

THE beach at Eastney was originally handed over to the Ministry of Defence by the people of Portsmouth so defences could be built to protect the Solent during the Second World War.

After the war, the beach remained property of the MoD and passed to QinetiQ when it developed as a private company.

It has never been officially designated a nudist beach, although it has been used by naturists dating back more than 40 years.

In 2005 QinetiQ submitted plans to build three blocks of luxury flats at Fort Cumberland and council planners granted outline permission, subject to conditions including access and environmental surveys.

Naturists launched a campaign to stop the development amid fears that it would prevent them using the beach.

QinetiQ repeatedly asked the city council for permission to widen the access road, but councillors refused amid concerns over public access.

The firm launched three judicial reviews against the council in 2008 and the council finally agreed the road could be widened.

But in 2009 the cabinet again voted against giving it permission.

So in March 2010 QinetiQ barred the public from accessing the beach and put up ‘keep out’ signs.

Qinetiq also won two of the judicial reviews and the first resulted in a bill of £200,000.

The second concerns the Dartford warbler where costs have yet to be settled.