Wokingham planning committee chief cleared over 'bias' claims

The chairman of Wokingham Borough Council's planning committee has fought off High Court accusations of bias made against him by a local businessman who claimed he was the victim of a whispering campaign.

Slavey Slavchev, owner of commercial fruit tree grower EU Plants Ltd, claimed local campaigners had been out to get him ever since he bought Manor Farm, Lower Sandhurst Road, Finchampstead, in July last year.
 
At London's High Court, Slavchev, whose business is based in Abindgon, Oxon, accused Simon Weeks of being behind a tree preservation order (TPO) issued by the council on a copse of willows, oaks and other trees on his land in July this year.
 
However, his challenge to the TPO was today dismissed by Mr Justice Beatson, along with his allegations that he had been denied "natural justice" due to bias, or apparent bias, on the part of Weeks.
 
Slavchev, who said he had "great respect for nature and mature trees" and would never do anything to harm the copse, pointed out that Weeks' home, 'The Willows', Cricket Hill, is only a few hundred yards from Manor Farm.
 
He claimed Weeks had "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.
 
However, Weeks insisted that he can barely see the copse from his home 400 metres away as it is screened by intervening hedgerows.  

He vehemently denied warning off Slavchev and insisted that all he had done was to "robustly but fairly" represent the views of more than 200 residents who had 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 a crucial planning committee meeting on 25 July.
 
Ruling against EU Plants and exonerating Weeks, Mr Justice Beatson said: "I have concluded that the submission that a reasonable observer in full knowledge of the facts would consider that there was a real possibility of bias is unsustainable".

The judge also dismissed arguments that the TPO should be overturned because there was no rational basis for considering that the trees were in fact under threat and that not enough account had been taken of arboricultural report casting doubt on their health.


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