Toxic claim ‘will hit council tax payers’

Author: By Ellen Branagh, Press Association

Corby Borough Council, responsible for the reclamation of a former steelworks
blamed for the defects, was found liable today at London’s High Court.

Bosses today said the council had run up “substantial legal costs” battling
the claim, and would most likely have to deal with the huge bill by
borrowing money – the only alternative being impossible 150% council tax
rises, or extreme cuts in services.

Chief executive Chris Mallender told a press conference the council has
already paid £1.9 million in legal costs, and now faces a claim from the
families’ solicitor Collins for an additional £4.7m.

Simon Aley, head of legal and democratic services, said the only way to pay
all of the costs in one go would require an impossible 150% rise in council
tax or cuts in services.

He said: “If we were to settle in one go then it would cost us about a 150%
rise in council tax, which is unacceptable, cuts of the level which is
extreme, or borrowing, which is more likely, leading to more manageable cuts
and some financing of interest charges.

“The good news is that Corby is a buoyant place.

“We believe the town can cope with the costs it faces and can continue to
thrive.

“It’s a huge impact and it’s a huge impact on the people of the town.

“This is not about Corby Borough Council, it’s about the people of Corby.”

He said today’s judgment had not dealt with the issue of compensation but said
it is possible more people may come forward to join the actions.

Mr Mallender said the council’s opposition to the claims was nothing to do
with the cash it might be forced to shell out.

He said: “All the evidence suggests it would have been cheaper to settle
earlier than to pursue and defend the case.

“We have run up substantial legal costs. We’ve run up legal costs so far of
£1.9 million – that is money we have already paid and budgeted for.

“The council general budget in Corby is just under £12 million and £10 million
is to pay for council employees, so you can understand what the impact on
Corby as a town might be.”

Mr Mallender said the claims dated back 12 to 24 years, and many mistakes made
at the time had been accepted.

But he said the council was not prepared to apologise until a causal link was
proved between the reclamation works carried out by the authority and the
defects suffered by the claimants.

He said: “We are not yet at the point of saying sorry because nobody yet is
responsible.

“We can’t go round apologising to people for things which we are not
necessarily responsible for.

“Our position has always been that there was no link between the reclamation
work that was carried out in Corby in past decades and these children’s
birth defects. That is still our position.”

He said the council needed time to reflect on the lengthy judgment before it
decided whether to appeal or not, adding: “From day one we have had a great
deal of sympathy for the families.

“We have done everything we could not to expose the families to undue stress.

“I think they are genuine and sincere in what they are trying to do and, as a
consequence, we have every sympathy for them. We are also parents,
grandparents and members of this community,

“In the circumstances, we would want to try to search out the truth and if
someone was responsible we would want them to be held responsible.

“We have also said if that was proved to be the case then we would do the
right thing. But we believe it would be irresponsible and improper of the
council to settle if we did not have the evidence.

“We continue to sympathise with their circumstances. We regret that they have
had to pursue this case over so many years and we, like they, would hope we
can now draw this to a conclusion and everybody can move on.”

He said any decision on whether to appeal against the High Court judgment will
be taken by the full council in open session – not by officers.

Council leader Pat Fawcett said the authority accepted mistakes were made at
the time of the reclamation works, but the council had changed since then.

She and Mr Mallender told the press conference Corby was voted the fifth
fastest-growing town in the country for the past three years.

Ms Fawcett said: “There were mistakes at that time and we can understand why
mistakes were made.

“British Steel closed and there were God knows how many unemployed in Corby,
and it was trying to get industry into the town and things were done quickly
– maybe more quickly than they should have been done.

“But I think people were acting in the best interests of the town at the time.”

Mr Mallender said the town was continuing to grow, and expansion work,
including a recently opened new swimming pool and new theatre under
construction, had already been budgeted for and would be seen through to
their conclusion.

He said: “This is something that happened between 12 and 24 years ago.

“This was a big clean-up which was completed in 1996. The town is already
revitalised.

“Overall it is one of the greenest, cleanest, best places to live in the
country.”

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