Michelle O’Brien writes:
Pop fans have got themselves an annual festival on Blackheath starting in 2012 and Blackheath Society has got itself a hefty legal costs bill totalling £79,800 after its mammoth bid to stop the planned event was thrown out by court order.
“We are obviously pleased,” said a delighted NIMBY Events Ltd. director Tom Wates after Bromley Magistrates on Friday (July 22) ruled against the Society following the country’s reported longest ever running appeal hearing under licensing procedure. The appeal hearings started March 3.
“We are looking forward to the two-day OnBlackheath festival going ahead in September next year,” Mr. Wates said. “We have no hard feelings about Blackheath Society. We will continue to work with them and other community groups.”
The Society’s Chairman, Mr. Howard Shields, told reporters after the court ruling was announced: “Obviously we are disappointed – and surprised – at the Magistrates’ decision.”
Asked about reports that younger people living in the area mostly support the planned festival and see the Society as speaking only for Blackheath’s older and wealthier residents, Mr. Shields said: “We do agree that we must try harder to get our message over. We have got a communications challenge.”
The Society’s appeal was against a ruling by Lewisham Council’s licensing sub-committee giving the go-ahead for NIMBY to stage the OnBlackheath festival starting this year and continuing in perpetuity, with sale of alcohol.
But Mr. Wates and his co-directors had to cancel this year’s festival plans because of the time the overall appeal hearing has taken. The organisers aim to attract audiences of 25,000 on each of the festival’s two days, charging £45 per ticket per day.
The ruling by the two Magistrates (Mr. Roger Mills and Dr. Patrick Davies)hearing the appeal was scathing about Lewisham Council’s failure to publicise widely enough the original application to stage OnBlackheath.
“It should be the goal of any local authority to conduct its affairs in an open and transparent manner,” the ruling said. “In the weeks leading up to the original hearing by … Lewisham’s licensing sub-committee, in October 2010, there seems little evidence of this.
“This is evidenced by the large number of local residents (from both Greenwich and Lewisham) who were totally unaware of the (NIMBY) application until it was too late to make representations.
“The scale of the proposed event, coupled with the possible impact on the local community, both negative and positive, should, in our view, have caused Lewisham to widely publicise the application.”
The Magistrates’ ruling was equally scathing over the Council’s failure to notify Greenwich Council of the festival application.
“No formal notification was given to the London Borough of Greenwich. This we find astonishing, because a major event, attracting up to 50,000 people over two days, was being planned on a site just meters away from the mutual boundary of Greenwich and Lewisham.
“The chairman of … Greenwich’s licensing committee and their officers only became aware of the proceedings at a late stage. They too were denied the opportunity to make representations…
“In short, we feel that Lewisham, through its Licensing sub-committee, has not acted in an appropriate manner and has not had the interests of some of its residents at heart.”
But the Magistrates said that despite their criticisms of Lewisham Council “we do not find that the decision of the licensing sub-committee was wrong and in fact we consider that it was correct and therefore the (Society’s) appeal is dismissed.”
The Magistrates said although it would be impossible to eliminate all noise from the festival to surrounding areas they were confident it could be managed so as not to undermine the licensing objectives.
The resolution to launch the appeal was the unanimous but sole decision of the Society’s 13-member management committee. The committee did not
consult the Society’s membership comprising some 980 households before launching the legal appeal.
The Society, which bills itself “the Guardians of the Heath”, has asked its rank-and-file members to dig into their pockets and purses over and above the £15 average they pay in annual membership fees to help fund the cost of the appeal.
NIMBY’s barrister, Mr. Simon Taylor, told the court: “This appeal from day one had little or no merit.” He said it had achieved nothing from the point of view of Blackheath residents.
“There is not one single argument that the appellant has raised that you (the Magistrates) have not rejected,” he said. He accused the Society of intransigence and “of wasting everybody’s time and costs.”
He said the society was very well funded with assets of £400,000 while
Mr. Wates and his fellow NIMBY directors were “three family men who have had to dip into savings to fund this appeal.”
Mr. Taylor condemned the Society’s “foolishness” in doggedly ploughing on “regardless to the end” with its appeal instead of dropping it. “It’s my submission that the Blackheath Society from day one did not act logically in lodging this appeal,” he told the court.
Lewisham Council’s barrister, Mr. Edmund Walters, told the court: “It was not clear how many members of the Society were actually behind the appeal.” “On every legal point the Society has lost,” he added.
The Society’s barrister, Ms. Sarah LeFevre, agreed “the appeal was dismissed in every aspect” by the Magistrates. But she told the court: “It’s not fair to categorise this Society as a dog in the manger … We do say we had reasonable grounds for appeal.” Blackheath Society had done little to protract the proceedings, she said.
The appeal has occupied a total of seven days of hearings since the court proceedings started March 3. The appeal hearing was originally expected to last only two days. It has heard evidence from 16 witnesses called by the Society, two called by NIMBY and four called by Lewisham Cuncil
“Yes, it’s not a poor Society,” Ms. LeFevre told the court. But she said most of the registered charity’s £400,000 was in the form of property bequests.
Ordering costs against Blackheath Society, the Magistrates awarded £41,000 to NIMBY and £10,800 to Lewisham Council. With the Society’s own legal costs amounting to £28,000 this brings the total the Society has to pay in costs resulting from its appeal to £79,800.
“OUCH?” asked a reporter of Mr. John Hine, one of the Society’s management committee, who was in court.
“OUCH!” he agreed, adding: “We need younger members.”
Blackheath Society in a statement to its members after Friday’s court ruling acknowledged: “The total costs, including our own costs, that will have to be met (by the Society) is a very substantial sum, some £80,000.” It would be funded from Society reserves, the statement said.
NIMBY’s legal team had asked the Magistrates to order the Society to pay the full £140,000 costs incurred by NIMBY and Lewisham Council during the appeal. But the Magistrates declined to do this, saying the Society’s appeal had been “properly brought” and that Parliament had intended residents to have a say in the licensing process.
“This was reflected in their (the Magistrates’) order that the Society should pay less than 50% of the costs that NIMBY and Lewisham had claimed,” the Society’s statement said.