A court battle between the South Tees Development Corporation (STDC) and Teesport operator PD Ports over access rights to land on the south bank of the River Tees has cost the former more than £3m in legal fees.

Papers for the board of the development corporation, which is tasked with the economic regeneration of the Teesworks industrial site near Redcar, describe legal fees being spent to date as amounting to £3.1m.

It and Teesworks Limited, the private company steering the development of the former Redcar steelworks, had sought to establish whether rights of access to its land holdings claimed by PD Ports existed in order to clear a path for planned developments.

High Court judge Mr Justice Rajah found PD Ports had established six of its claims over three routes, meaning ongoing rights of access to the South Gare peninsula, the Redcar Bulk Terminal and from Tees Dock across south bank.

However four further claims went in STDC’s favour and a further eight were said to have been dropped before the case came to trial.

Speaking at a meeting, Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, who chairs the STDC board, said the outcome had been “pretty stark” and resulted in there being no impact on future developments.

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen pictured at the former Redcar steelworks site, now called Teesworks

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen pictured at the former Redcar steelworks site, now called Teesworks

Mr Houchen, who produced a large map in an attempt to demonstrate the latest access picture, said several ongoing projects would not have been possible had all of the claims made by PD Ports been successful.

He said: “You have the SeAH [wind turbine] site, if they [PD Ports] had those rights, it would not be allowed to be built, we would not be able to develop the rest of the South Bank area as well.

“You would not be able to deliver NZT [Net Zero Teesside, a carbon capture and storage scheme] and the BP Hydrogen project, for example.

“That’s what they were saying, they never provided any evidence as such, which is why we went to the court to ask for clarity over rights they actually have.

“PD Ports were in effect trying to stop any development on this site going forward because they would have legal rights over pretty much every piece of land, which would mean no jobs or investment.

“The judge has said the rights of access they have don’t impact on any developments at the site from an STDC point of view.”

Redcar and Cleveland Council leader Alec Brown said: “Both sides are claiming victory Ben.”

Mr Houchen replied: “It’s not about victory, or winning or losing, we needed clarity because you could not develop any of the site on the rights that PD Ports were asserting.”

STDC chief executive Julie Gilhespie said the outcome had been “extremely positive” from its point of view.

Mrs Gilhespie referred to the “complexity” of the land holdings acquired by STDC and said some access rights were not documented and only based on anecdotal evidence.

After the court ruling last year, Jerry Hopkinson, executive chairman at PD Ports, said it was a “vindication of our defence of our long-held rights”.

Jerry Hopkinson, executive chairman of PD Ports

Jerry Hopkinson, executive chairman of PD Ports

He said:  “Despite PD Ports’ desire to resolve the matter outside the courtroom, South Tees Development Corporation and Teesworks persisted with legal action that has resulted in no net gain for either side, at a cost of several million pounds for all parties, including the taxpayer, as well as considerable damage to our region’s reputation.”

Frans Calje, PD Ports’ chief executive officer, added: “From the outset PD Ports has tried to assist the South Tees Development Corporation’s aims for development over its land while protecting our historically held rights at no cost to South Tees Development Corporation.

“This is consistent with PD Ports’ role as the Statutory Harbour Authority for the River Tees.

“We are firmly committed to continue working with partners and stakeholders across the region in the present day to drive investment, create high-quality jobs and support efforts to improve social mobility and the welfare of our communities.”

A statement on behalf of Teesworks Limited previously said: “We welcome the judgement and are pleased that after a lengthy process a ruling has now been made by the High Court which confirms that no rights exist preventing the development of the Teesworks site.

“South Tees Development Corporation and Teesworks Limited advanced legal proceedings as PD Ports were claiming that rights existed across vast areas of land on the Teesworks estate, yet no documentation was ever provided. 

“These claims were impacting redevelopment proposals and created uncertainty for companies looking to invest hundreds of millions of pounds on development projects.

“During proceedings PD Ports withdrew a large number of their claims, many of which were on roadways which either no longer existed or are currently being demolished as part of the site redevelopment works.

“Teesworks Limited can now move forward and continue to develop the site at pace, remediating large parcels of land ready for construction, which is seeing hundreds of millions being invested and generating thousands of jobs for the people of Teesside.”

A further consequential matters hearing at the High Court in London is pending to deal with the form of court order to be made, costs and applications for any permissions to appeal.

Members of the STDC board received further information on “future litigation costs” at the meeting, although the item in question was declared exempt, meaning the information was considered in closed session.

A spokesman for STDC said: “Since legal proceedings started, money has been set aside using an estimate of the potential costs.

“This has been sourced from South Tees Development Corporation operating costs, as outlined in the budget, and all costs and risks sit within the STDC and will not impact the Tees Valley Combined Authority nor local councils.”