Council drove man to despair

A RESPECTED community leader took his own life after being “driven to despair” by council threats to sell the family farm from under him, an inquest has heard.

A RESPECTED community leader took his own life after being “driven to despair” by council threats to sell the family farm from under him, an inquest has heard.

Richard Saul had worked 150 acres of arable land at Toft Monks, near Beccles, for more than two decades after taking over the tenancy from his father.

But his world was turned upside down after Norfolk County Council informed him the farm was to be sold - just weeks after he lost his wife to cancer.

The council later backed down and admitted mishandling the affair. But by then the damage was done and he suffered extreme distress over the future of the business and family home.

David White, the council's chief executive, apologised for causing Mr Saul stress.

In July last year, Mr Saul's daughter found him slumped in an armchair surrounded by painkiller sachets. The 57-year-old father-of-four left a brief note reading: “Sorry kids, love you. Don't blame yourselves. Bury me with mum.”

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A coroner's inquest at Norwich's Assembly House heard that Mr Saul had been a confident and strong man. He sat on Toft Monks Parish Council and had spells as chairman. He had also served as a school governor and was well respected “within the farming community and local community as a whole”.

But in March 2006 his wife, Paula, was diagnosed with cancer. She died seven months later. Mr Saul was devastated but remained determined to carry on.

However, five weeks later council officials called at his door.

Vicky Chamberlain, who found her father dead, said: “They said, 'We are sorry for your loss', and in the same sentence added, 'We've come to tell you that you have got a new landlord'.

“He felt he was being kicked when he was down. It came so soon after the death of my mother and he was still reeling from that.”

Mr Saul was concerned about his relationship with the prospective owner and the long-term future of the farm. The sale was only ever a proposal but officials presented it to him as a final decision, she said.

She added that after he complained the council said it would not sell the farm and admitted maladministration in the way the matter was dealt with. Mr Saul was offered £500 compensation but he refused this because of the conditions attached.

The day before his death he received a letter from the council refusing to tell him the valuation of the land, said Mrs Chamberlain.

After the hearing, Mr Saul's family said they believed the letter was the final straw.

Reliving the ordeal, a tearful Mrs Chamberlain said: “I had been at the Lowestoft airshow and arrived at the farm at about 4.30pm. I saw the empty sachets in the kitchen but at first just thought 'what's all this mess?'

“I saw the note and it was when I saw the word 'bury' that I realised he had done something stupid.

“I found him in the chair and there was no sign of life, he wasn't breathing. I called the ambulance but they could not attempt to revive him as he had been gone for some time.

“It was so unnecessary and he was undoubtedly kicked while he was down. This could have been prevented.”

Recording a verdict of suicide, coroner William Armstrong said it was not his role to attribute blame. But he added: “Not long after his wife's death, Mr Saul received a visit and with no prior notice he was told the county council was selling his farm.

“It is very clear the Mr Saul had been a greatly loved father, brother and husband. He was also a fine farmer who was very well respected. This was a great tragedy and he was driven to despair by events regarding his farm.”

After the inquest the family said they were still considering legal action against the council.

In a statement, council chief executive Mr White said: “There is nothing that Norfolk County Council can say that will be of any consolation to Mr Saul's family. His death was tragic and totally unexpected, and came at a time when a complicated set of events and difficulties appeared to be close to the point of resolution.

“We accept that, following the death of his wife in 2006, Mr Saul should not have had to bear the further stress that was caused by a proposed sale of his farm to a new landlord, and we are very sorry that this happened.

“We now acknowledge that it would have been better not to have considered selling the farm at that time, even though transfer to a new landlord would not have affected Mr Saul's tenancy. In fact, the farm was withdrawn from sale in June 2007.

“Like everybody else we were deeply shocked and distressed to hear of his death.”