The owners of a Warwickshire chicken farm who “deliberately and cynically exploited” the planning system for five years have been ordered to pay out almost a quarter of a million pounds by a judge who said it was “difficult to imagine a more serious case”.
The planning row revolved around slaughterhouse buildings illegally erected in the green belt by the Summers family at Cank Farm in Tanworth-in-Arden near Solihull.
John and Fay Summers, their three sons John, Adrian and Mark and their company Summers Holdings were in the dock at Warwickshire Crown Court in Leamington Spa having previously pleaded guilty at Leamington Magistrates Court of failing to comply with an enforcement notice contrary to the Planning Act 1990, a prosecution brought by Stratford-upon-Avon District Council.
As the five directors had made criminal benefit from their actions a confiscation order was made against them under the Proceeds of Crime Act totalling £129,206.85.
Fines were imposed totalling £27,000 – £6,500 for the company and the three brothers and £500 each for their parents. The defendants were also ordered to find the prosecution costs of £69,141.63. The family were warned they could be jailed if they do not pay up.
The Judge Mr Recorder Bright said: “I really think it is difficult to imagine a more serious case. This has been a serious and persistent breach of the necessary compliance with the enforcement notice over a sustained period of time – 302 days. The defendants deliberately chose to ignore the enforcement notice and deliberately and cynically exploited the planning process.”
He said fines had been reduced by a third due to early guilty pleas and John and Fay Summers were fined less as their involvement in the running of the business had been limited in recent years.
The case concerned two buildings – a lairage (an area for receiving and calming the chickens before slaughter) and a chiller – erected in 2007, which were part of a huge chicken slaughterhouse operation on the site processing 20,000 birds a day, the majority of which ended up in Birmingham restaurants, balti houses and shops. In 2012 the business turned over £13 million and made a profit of around £246,000.
The Summers family said the buildings were erected to ensure the business met with stringent food hygiene and animal welfare regulations – in 2006 the operation was fined £35,000 for breaching animal welfare regulations.
A lengthy and complex planning battle ensued with enforcement notices from 2009 onwards ordering the removal of the buildings repeatedly ignored.
Multiple planning applications were also subsequently submitted and two local public inquiries held.
Although he accepted it was motivated by a desire to comply with regulatory demands, Mr Recorder Bright said: “The abuse of planning process was deliberate, with the aim of retaining the structure for the maximum period possible.
“It was not and could not be outweighed by the need for the business to comply with food safety and animal welfare regulations. This in my opinion shows an over confident and unrealistic disregard of the planning process and enforcement notice and an intention to disregard those legal requirements for commercial purposes.”
The judge also disregarded claims the company would be forced to close if the buildings were removed and said it did have alternative options such as reducing production.
With regards to the protection of the green belt he added: “This development is exactly what green belt policy prohibits and there was no reasonable prospect of ever gaining consent. In my view this case significantly undermines public confidence in the planning process.”
The lairage was eventually removed in March 2011 and the chiller in January 2012 and were replaced by mobile structures.
Speaking after the four-day hearing Tanworth councillor Peter Oakley said: “I am sorry for all the people who have had to put up with so much for such an extended period. Yet we still have not got a resolution. The villagers were not looking for punishment for the Summers family. They just want normality to be restored and to enjoy their lives. But I fear this is far from over.”
Tim Watts, spokesman for Tanworth-in-Arden Residents Action Group, and multi-millionaire chairman of recruitment business Pertemps, said: “The Summers family have dragged this out interminably, snubbing the genuine concerns of villagers.
“Their actions have been disgraceful. The farm has grown from a rural slaughterhouse to a massive business which has no place in a small village like this. The owners have been sticking up two fingers to the law and to planning regulations. We get huge great lorries thundering along narrow country lanes and the smell from the slaughtered chickens is terrible.
“It never needed to come to this, but now it has, and it has cost the Summers approaching a year of profits. I hope this makes them think again.”