Monday, 27 February 2012

Hackney Council claims Charedi witnesses lied in planning inquiry

A planning inquiry into an unauthorised synagogue in Stamford Hill ended with the council accusing ultra orthodox Jewish witnesses of lying.

The council also questioned why the limited company which owned the building did not produce paperwork to support claims about when building work had taken place. The company, Satmar Limited is registered at 10 Fairholt Close while the Charity is at 29 Fairholt Road and it is  believed to own dozens of properties in Stamford Hill.

The case was heard over two days in Hackney town hall about a synagogue operating at 57 Bethune Road which the council wants to shut down.

The hearing was an appeal by the owners and operators of the building against a council enforcement notice demanding that they should stop their "unlawful use" of the building as a synagogue and reverse or repair the "unlawful development" of the site.

The synagogue - operating out of a property registered as a family home - appeared to have enlarged a garage and then attached it to the house at 57 Bethune Road.

One key claim made by the appellants was that the building had been finished for more than four years. If the work had been completed more than four years before the council opened its case against the synagogue, the building would be immune from council powers.

Both sides agreed that the crucial date was July 2007 because the council issued its enforcement notice in July 2011.

The council produced a planning control report made at the same address, written by Hackney Council officers, with an entry in August 2008 which described the works taking place as "demolish and rebuild existing garage" and in October 2008 said: "Discussed proposal to build an extension that will connect the garage to the main house".

According to the council this, and other parts of the building control report, suggested that the works had not been completed by October 2008 while witnesses were claiming that the works had been completed by Passover 2007 (April).

In her summing up of the case, the council's barrister, Rebecca Clutten, said: "There seems to be little doubt that the extension has not been in place for four years and that the evidence of Mr Freed, Mr Friedrich and Mr Grunhut,  which was in any event inconsistent, was either based on misrecollection or contrived for the purposes of the appeal."

She went on to say: "I'm not in the habit of suggesting that witnesses are lying but that was the only credible explanation in this case."

In her summing up she also called into question the defendants' reliance on witnesses rather than invoices.

"In circumstances where builders are said to have been engaged it is notable that no invoices have been provided attesting to the time of construction, and/or that there are no receipts for construction materials. This is particularly so given that the owner of the property is a limited company, who might be thought more likely to keep records than an ordinary householder."

Eli Pick representing the three parties  (Mr Grossberger, Satmar Ltd and Wiseheights Ltd) told the hearing that the building control notice did not contradict the evidence provided by the witnesses. His argument appeared to be that the building control notice did not make clear the extent of the works completed when it was written.

His argument was that the demolition had not been complete and as such the building work and its attachment to the existing building was refurbishment, not building work.

The planning inspector, Jean Russell, considered several other arguments made by the appellants including one that the previous occupier of the property was a priest who had held services in the building. If the property had been used as a place of worship for 10 years then the it would also be immune from council efforts to prevent this continuing.

The inspector is due to make a decision at the beginning of April.

The council has asked the planning inspector to consider making the appellants to pay the council's costs saying that some of their claims were unreasonable and resulted in unnecessary costs. The council's barrister said: "It is frankly incredible that the appellant that would have paid for the building works didn't know when those building works had taken place. The only conclusion that can be drawn from that is that the appeal has been pursued on the basis that it would have a go anyway and hope that information did not come out."

Mr Pick reiterated his claims that the evidence produced by the council did not contradict the statements made by witnesses.

(An interesting discussion of the religious angle here)

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