HOURS after Thurrock Council received the threat of a writ its members have overturned a controversial ruling by their planning committee.

They were also responding to a threat of action by Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation who had warned they would take legal action, including a judicial review, against the council unless it overruled its own councillors.

At an emotion-charged extraordinary meeting of Thurrock Council on Wednesday evening planning and legal officers were slammed by councillors, but in the end councillors cut adrift four members of their planning committee and reversed a decision to grant planning permission for a Grays town centre development.

Now the Gazette understands the Council may face punitive action in the High Court by developers who say they have been misled by flawed judgements.

It is also possible that a criminal investigation could take place against councillors Steve Veryard, Anne Cheale, Stuart St. Clair-Haslam and Barry Palmer who voted for the development. They could also be liable for personal financial penalty.

The controversy centres on the derelict former Dominoes gymnasium and snooker centre close to Grays railway station.

Its owners wanted to develop the site into bars, restaurants and flats and found allies in the Council's own planning committee who, by a majority decision, flew in the face of advice from their own officers and a barrister and said the development could go ahead.

However, it turns out that Thurrock Council does not have the right to make the decision. That responsibility lies with Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation who, having had a £700,000 bid to buy the site turned down, have vetoed the site owners' plans.

A long and complicated progression through planning meeting culminated in Wednesday's meeting, which produced mockery, indignation and emotive rhetoric in equal measure.

The meeting began with a long succession of councillors declaring interest' in the issue and that led to several members, including council leader Terry Hipsey, planning chair councillor Veryard and veteran councillors Cheale and Palmer being forced to leave the debate.

That alone prompted condemnation of legislation which many councillors believe flies in the real meaning of local democracy.

Councillor Cheale, who declared she had 'an unbiased and clear mind' was clearly upset to have to leave, as was councillor Palmer who had previously spoken in emotional terms of how this issue has taxed his patience and belief in democracy to its very core.

Councillor Veryard was allowed to make a statement on behalf of the planning committee and he chose to use the platform to launch a vitriolic attack on planning officer and the council's legal officer, Michele Sacks.

He ran through the sequence of events that led to the extraordinary meeting, slamming both Thurrock Council's own officers and the Development Corporation. The DC, he said: "had no regard for Thurrock Council" and its officers had their own agenda.

He added: "The DC offered £700,000 for this site and when that was turned down they just wanted to get their hands on this application for their own gain."

He then turned on Thurrock Council's own officers, slating the legal advice received from Michelle Sacks and slamming planning officers.

He said: "Had the officers been more diligent, we would not have been in this position. We were undermined. The planning committee felt harassed and bullied like small schoolchildren.

"We on the planning committee made an open-minded decision. We are being tried for the incompetence of others."

After councillor Veryard made his point he too was forced to leave the meeting but councillors took up the baton of criticising officers, calling for more information.

Eventually it was agreed that documents, including written legal advice that had been given to the legal officer, be given to councillors, though Michelle Sacks protested to the meeting that it was not "normal practice" for her to be subject to such scrutiny.

Council chief executive Angie Ridgwell spoke up in defence of her officers saying it was not their intention to bully councillors. "Your monitoring officer (Michelle Sacks) is not a decision-maker.

"I have spoken with Stephen Veryard who spoke of being threatened and bullied and I have apologised for that. That was not the officers' intention, their intention was for matters to be clear."

The meeting was adjourned for more than 30 minutes while the paperwork was produced and on resumption, the meeting went through a ridiculous charade of what councillors had been up to in the intervening period, when they might have been accused of being lobbied by the public.

"I had a discussion about home made marmalade," said councillor Gordon Gambier - referring to a conversation he had had with a church warden - while councillor Ian Harrison admitted he had spoken up on the merits of Rose's lime marmalade.

When the meeting resumed, an immediate motion was proposed to eject members of the press and public but before it was carried, councillor Michael Revell spoke up to defend the press, and the Thurrock Gazette in particular.

Referring to an item on the agenda which told how the legal officer had written to the Gazette over its exclusive revelations about this issue, which included publishing 'leaked' documentation, councillor Revell said: "I don't think the Council should advise the editor of the Thurrock Gazette about what to write.

"The pillar of a democracy is that we have a free press. I don't always agree with the Gazette about what they write but we should not be telling them what to write."

After the press and public were excluded members debated the issue and announced at the end of their meeting that they had agreed that Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation were the legal body to determine the controversial planning application, that they had revoked the decision of the planning application relating to 76, High Street, Grays, and that they had noted that the decision by the planning committee to grant approval was now void.

During the exempt part of the meeting councillors were told that transcripts of the original council meeting had 'gone missing', as had some of the details of the original planning application.

Outside the meeting the Gazette was told the Council had today received notice of intention to issue a writ from the planned developers of the site, whose representative said they would be seeking financial compensation and a possible judicial review of the Council's performance.

This information was not put before councillors in open session. And, according to legal advice received by the Gazette, the fact that the issue was debated, even partially, after legal proceedings were active could lead to further legal repercussions.

Members of the Audit Commission and the Council's legal advisors were present at last night's meeting, but councillors were not advised of who they were until the question was posed by councillor Tunde Ojetola shortly after the resumption following the adjournment.

Outside the meeting, members of the planning committee who had been forced to leave, told the Gazette they felt isolated and abandoned by colleagues and mistreated and ridiculed by officers.

Councillor Palmer, a distinguished and longstanding member of the council, said he felt 'ashamed, embarrassed, distressed and humiliated' by what had happened and questioned the whole sanctity of local government by local councillors.

Thurrock Council issued a brief statement on Thursday morning saying: "Thurrock Council received two letters in relation to the 76 High Street, Grays, planning application on Wednesday, 20 January. "Neither of these letters were a formal writ although both mentioned the possibility of legal action in the future."