The High Court has recently held that a County Council had been negligent when it incorrectly stated, in response to a local search, that land did not form part of a public highway.
It was held that the Council had a duty of care at common law to answer the enquiries in its local search accurately. They could not rely on the fact that their highway map was not up to date to discharge liability.
Chesterton Commercial (Oxon) Ltd v Oxfordshire County Council  EWHC 2020 (ch)
Summary of the facts
A property development company ("the Claimants") acquired three properties in the same road. The land included parking spaces. The results of the local search showed that the parking spaces did not form part of a public highway. This was important because there was a shortage of parking in town and the inclusion of the parking spaces increased the price paid for the properties. The Claimants had planned to sell the parking spaces for private parking. After the purchases completed, it emerged that the local search was incorrect. The land containing the parking spaces had been under investigation for some time and the Council eventually concluded that it was part of the highway. The Council argued that the claim should be dismissed because the results of the search were accurate at the time of the request.
This was rejected by the Court. The Council should not have stated unequivocally that the land was not part of the public highway when the reality was that the matter was under investigation. The local search would have shown this if the Council had complied with their obligation under section 36(6) Highways Act 1980 to keep a "corrected and up to date" list of the publically maintained streets in their area.
This case demonstrates the importance for local authorities and their Highways Records team of keeping a correct and updated list of streets within its area and those which are under consideration. Failure to do so puts the authority at risk of providing inaccurate information in response to local search request. This came at a significant cost to the defendants in the above case (£550,000).
It remains to be seen whether local authorities will now seek to qualify their replies to searches to avoid this situation in the future.