The first three days of the Inquiry steadily improved as we found our feet and got better at highlighting the key points in the evidence of each of our witnesses. However, it all came juddering to a halt on Day Four.
We arrived at 9.50am on Thursday to find that Mr Ground was in the loo at the back of the Christchurch North Room. He had fallen prey to some kind of bug (norovirus from an oyster, perhaps?) and was forced to miss work for the first time in 16 years.
We all agreed with the Inspector that the best plan would be to assume the Mr Ground would also be out of action on the Friday, and to restart the Inquiry on the next available date. Matching up the diaries for Mr Ground, Canterbury City Council’s representative, Kent County Council’s representatives, the Inspector, and Ros and myself gave us the earliest possible date of Monday 12th March (!) to resume the Inquiry – North Room, Christchurch again.
All of the evidence given so far, and all the work done in the Inquiry so far, is all fine and safe – we don’t have to start again from the very beginning (phew!). The second phase of the Inquiry will probably take most of the week starting 12th March – we’ll be starting with a couple of days of our witnesses, then Canterbury’s witnesses (all employees), then a site visit, and finishing with legal submissions.
The delay means that the issue remains unresolved for longer, but it does give both sides more time for preparation. To be honest though, I don’t see how Canterbury can be any more thoroughly prepared than they already are: most of their witnesses were there for most of the time through the first three days. (Why? Mr Ground and Janet Taylor, Deputy Head of Legal @ CCC, were present throughout and taking notes, so would have been able to tell their witnesses what had happened each day.)
I was surprised that Janet Taylor didn’t step up the mark to fill the breach left by Mr Ground: she has been our point of contact in CCC from the very start of the application over two years ago; she is (presumably) the one who has been given Mr Ground his instructions; she was there all day every day; she (and the CCC witnesses) were in briefing meetings with Mr Ground before each day started, and at every coffee and lunch break. With her legal qualifications and experience (over 25 years in CCC) and familiarity with the case, I would have thought she would be ideally placed to step in for Mr Ground for a couple of days. After all, that bit was simply asking questions, rather than writing the legal opinions. It would have saved time and money.
VG status will protect and preserve the Downs, regardless of who’s running the Council. The Council will still be able to do the day to day maintenance, and the longer term coast defence work – just as they do now. In the Inquiry they were saying that they had legal advice that VG status “might” make coastal defence work harder to organise. Our research shows this is a red herring, so we asked to see their legal advice – they suddenly became very shy and fell silent.
The application doesn’t involve any tax payers money – it’s only the objection that starts running up the bills. CCC are of course entitled to object, but I do wish they would come clean about their true reasons for objecting. In the CCC Executive 13th Oct, they pointed out that without VG status they would be free to “lease the land, offer a concession, charge for use, and build on it” – I think this closer to the real reason that they’re opposing the VG application.