A High Court challenge over the town council’s changes to market fees ended in failure last week as a judge ruled the council had no duty to consult traders, but did so anyway.
Campaigner Victoria Harvey now faces £20,000 costs after Judge Mark Dight CBE ruled she failed to declare her finances when making the legal challenge.
Miss Harvey, 50, who is on benefits, was originally granted a £4,000 cap. Leighton-Linslade Town Council launched a costs challenge which revealed an inheritance from her late father’s estate last year.
The town council is understood to have spent over £25,000 defending itself.
Describing it as a “David and Goliath battle”, Miss Harvey said: “It is a huge amount of money and will cause hardship, really changes my whole future.
“But I really love Leighton Buzzard and the market. Leighton Buzzard is a market town and the market is its heart for many people.
“It plays a huge role in my life as I am long-term sick and it provides good-quality affordable food and a wonderful meeting place for people in the town, it brings people into Leighton Buzzard which supports the high street and the local economy.”
Miss Harvey was highly critical of the market fees changes imposed by the town council and the discounts offered to traders with five, ten and 20 years of service.
She said: “I don’t know how a court can say that the town council was listening to the traders when 26 of them signed a petition to say the new rent system was unfair.
“The fruit and veg stall are saying that if they retired, a new stall would not be able to afford to work on Leighton Buzzard market... If you have been there for less than 20 years and want a larger stall, it is very expensive.”
During a day-long hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice last Wednesday, several of Miss Harvey’s arguments about the “unfairness” of the new fees were challenged by the judge, who stated the court was solely interested in the consultation process.
Judge Dight said: “The impact of that decision is not a matter for me, whereas the material they should have looked at in making that decision is.”
The town council issued its press release about changes to market pitch fees on February 28, 2018. Soon afterwards, market traders’ representative Dave Gibbons drafted an alternative proposal and submitted a petition against the plans.
Miss Harvey insisted that this draft proposal and petition were not appropriately considered. The council’s defence argued the petition showed traders were aware of what was happening.
A number of letters from market traders and other town centre businesses were produced by Miss Harvey to support her claim.
Defending Leighton-Linslade Town Council, barrister Jon Holbrook argued that there was no legal duty to consult but nevertheless, the council had done so anyway – both arguments of which were accepted by the judge.
He said: “There has to be something outrageously unfair in the authority’s conduct to enable any expectation challenge to be made.”
A Leighton-Linslade Town Council spokesman said : “The town council is satisfied with the High Court’s ruling in respect of the legal challenge brought by Miss Victoria Harvey.
“In reaching his decision, Judge Marc Dight confirmed that whilst the Town Council did not have a duty to consult, the consultation process it had undertaken with market traders on amendments to pitch fees, inclusive of the award of discounts for length of market service, was thorough, measured and appropriate.
“The judgement means that market traders with over five years of service on Leighton Buzzard market will continue to receive a discounted pitch fee which would otherwise have been removed should Miss Harvey’s challenge have been successful.
“At a time when traditional markets are facing stiff competition from online retailers and discount stores, the decision to continue to recognise and celebrate loyalty by way of reduced rents will undoubtedly be welcome news to our market traders.
“For those who have yet to receive long service discount, the rents offered by the Town Council remain highly competitive when compared to other markets of a similar size, character and stature.
“The cost capping order previously set by a High Court Judge at £4,000 was varied by Judge Dight meaning that Miss Harvey will be required to pay £20,000 (subject to any potential appeal).
“This money will be used to offset the Town Council’s costs in having to defend the challenge brought about by Miss Harvey.
“Whilst Miss Harvey was encouraged on several occasions to withdraw her challenge, she decided that she wished to continue with her action which was entirely at her own risk.
“For the parish, dismissing the application for judicial review brings closure to the market relaunch project.
“It is hoped that collective energies can now be focused in supporting and promoting the twice weekly market in the common interests of the parish and the market traders alike.”