Hubbard’s Hills Trust ‘considers legal action’ over council funding row

The chairman of the Hubbards Hills Trust has said he is considering legal action against Louth Town Council, following a heated debate on the financial contributions provided to the Hills in next year’s budget.

Hubbard's Hills (stock image)

The town council’s governance and finance committee met via Zoom on December 15, and this included a discussion over whether the council should continue to provide £45,000 to the Hubbards Hills Trust in next year’s budget, as they have done for the last few years.

However, it was decided that a reduced figure of £35,000 - which was the original annual figure provided to the Trust when it was formed 12 years ago - would be recommended instead. This recommendation is subject to approval by the town council in the coming weeks, when the budget will be finalised.

Andrew Leonard, who chairs the Trust and also sits as a town and district councillor, has claimed that the decision to reduce the contribution was based on “misleading facts” provided by some councillors, which he referred to as the “anti-Hubbards Hills brigade”.

Louth Town Council’s Governance and Finance committee met via Zoom on December 15.

Mr Leonard was not permitted to speak while this agenda item was discussed, due to the potential conflict of interest.

Following the meeting, Mr Leonard said the council could be accused of “breaching its own contractual and financial obligations” to the Trust, if the recommendation for the reduced figure of £35,000 is formally approved in the coming weeks.

Mr Leonard claimed: “The management agreement between the two parties clearly states that the council must ‘reimburse the trust for all expenses and costs incurred in relation to the discharge of its management responsibilities and related expenditure’.

“So, the (town) council has a contractual obligation to pay all the maintenance expenses for Hubbard’s Hills, despite the Trust only asking for £45,000.”

Mr Leonard claims that the Trust spent around £68,000 on the maintenance of the Hills last year, and had to use money from the Trust’s reserves to make up the difference. He said a similar spending figure is projected for the year ending April 2021.

Mr Leonard claimed that, contractually, “there is nothing to stop us asking for the shortfall retrospectively as we have the audited accounts to back it up. So, for the financial period up to April 2021, given the current allocation of £35,000, we could retrospectively ask for the potential of a £33,000 shortfall for this current period and another £23,000 which is evidenced shortfall from last year’s figures.

“This would mean another £56,000 would need to be paid for the financial year ending 2020/2021 to meet the actual terms of the contract if we request it.

“If our request of £45,000 is ignored or overturned for this year, then we would implement the breach of contract proceedings.”

Mr Leonard added that legal action may also be taken against some councillors who he believes to have provided ‘fabricated information’ at the recent committee meeting.

During the meeting, Coun Jeremy Baskett said he supports the work of the Trust, but added that he had some concerns and added there ought to be a town council representative on the Trust, in their capacity as a town councillor, representing “us (the council) and the public.”

The Town Clerk said that if councillors wanted to see this change being made, the council would have to seek legal advice due to the nature of the existing agreement with the Trust.

Coun Baskett continued, stating there were items in the public accounts for the Trust such as ‘land acquisition’ which the town council had not been made aware of, and said a ‘dose of transparency’ was needed.

Coun Darren Hobson said that, according to his recollection, the chairman of the Trust had frequently offered to explain what work was going on at Hubbard’s Hills, but said that such questions have rarely been asked when councillors were given the opportunity.

After the meeting, Mr Leonard told the Leader: “The land acquisition budget was for a possible purchase which is now not taking place.”

Later in the meeting, Coun Jason Garrett said: “I can not support £45,000 to keep going to the Trust. £30,000 to 35,000 yes, that covers their yearly expenditure. That’s what this maintenance fund is for - yearly expenditure for repairs and maintenance, nothing more.”

As stated previously, Mr Leonard disputes these figures and says the council’s contribution does not cover all the relevant costs.

Coun Jill Makinson-Sanders, who is part of the Trust, but had dispensation to speak at the meeting, said: “We have exceeded the £45,000 maintenance costs this year and we are using our reserves to support the overspend.”

As the item drew to a close, Coun George Horton said he had “no question about (the Trust’s) integrity” adding: “I’m sure what they are doing is sustainable and justified”. He proposed giving the £45,000 sum to the Trust as requested.

The proposal was seconded by Coun Fran Treanor, but it was rejected by the committee by a margin of 9 votes to 4 votes.

Another suggestion to give £40,000, proposed by Coun Sue Locking and seconded by Coun Sue Crew, was also defeated.

Coun Garrett proposed giving £35,000, seconded by Coun Baskett, and this was supported by 14 votes to 1 vote.

The discussion will formally return to the full town council in the coming weeks, when Mr Leonard is likely to be invited to speak in his role as the chairman of the Trust, and councillors will then decide whether or not to implement the governance and finance committee’s recommendation.

• Following the Hubbard’s Hills discussion and other considerations, the committee agreed to recommend to the town council that its precept for 2021/22 should be reduced by 12.69 per cent, which will equate to an annual cost per ‘Band D’ property of £53.54 (which is a weekly cost of £1.03), subject to approval by the full council in the coming weeks.

• The Town Clerk was approached for comment on behalf of council regarding the potential legal action, but she was not able to comment on the matter at this stage.