Tory leader in Watford calls for inquiry into council's dispute with Age UK Hertfordshire

By Sophie Hudson, Third Sector Online, 5 September 2011

Steve Johnson, leader of the Conservative group Conservative group on Watford Borough Council

Steve Johnson, leader of the Conservative group Conservative group on Watford Borough Council

Watford Borough Council threatened to sue the charity for £500,000 for wear and tear to buildings

The leader of the Conservative group on Watford Borough Council has called for an inquiry into a dispute between the council and Age UK Hertfordshire in which the council threatened to sue to the charity for £500,000.

The Liberal Democrat-controlled council threatened court action over wear and tear to two council-owned buildings that the charity had been using as day centres. The two sides settled the dispute for an undisclosed sum earlier this year.

Marion Birch, chief executive of Age UK Hertfordshire, said the charity received a letter from the council "out of nowhere" in October 2010, which threatened to sue it for £500,000 for wear and tear to the buildings.

The charity had been using the two buildings as day centres since 2006, when the charity took over running old people’s services in the area from another organisation, said Birch. It still rents one from the authority.

Birch declined to reveal the amount of the settlement, which was reached in February, but said it was less than £500,000.

Stephen Johnson, leader of the Conservative group at the council, said last week there should be an inquiry into what happened.

"If Age UK Hertfordshire had to pay £500,000 they probably would have gone down," he said. "To put Age UK through six months of difficult negotiations is wrong. We’ve got to learn from this."

He said the settlement was about the same as the amount the council had spent on legal fees during the dispute. Manny Lewis, managing director of the council, said Johnson’s figures were incorrect and incomplete.

"We could have gone to court, but we didn't think this was the right thing to do with a charity and we reached a settlement which Councillor Johnson himself supported," he said.

Neither Johnson nor Lewis would confirm how much the settlement was.

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