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£15,500 investigation clears Labour councillors after 'predetermination' complaint

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Cllr Roger Sherlock &  Cllr Margaret Pattison
Cllr Roger Sherlock & Cllr Margaret Pattison
Author: 
Chris Satori


Seven Lancaster City councillors have been cleared by an independent investigation of breaching Council’s code of conduct.

The complaints arose from a 5 hour meeting of the Council’s Planning and Highways Regulatory Committee on March 6 2017, during which Cllr Roger Sherlock was alleged by the complainants to have fallen asleep. A further allegation was that Cllr Margaret Pattison also frequently nudged Cllr Sherlock and appeared to be helping him raise his hand to vote on individual items.

Pre-meeting

Cllr Margaret Pattison was later reported as saying: “We’ve got quite a lot of elderly councillors.  With Roger being ill he’s up and down at the moment.  “We have a pre-meeting and we all decide how we’re going to vote.  We look after each other. I wasn’t making him vote, I was nudging him to say it’s time to vote.  I was giving him water as well.”

The allegation was that Cllr Pattison’s comments suggested that members of the Labour group decided in advance how they would vote on planning applications.

Breech of conduct complaints

David Morris, MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, along with residents from Hest Bank and Carnforth and a Green Party Councillor, called for an investigation into the conduct of the Labour councillors at the meeting. 

Just checking

Cllr Eileen Blamire, leader of the Labour group, was reported as saying : “Prior to the monthly planning committee the group meets to discuss the items on the agenda. This is an informal session and allows group members to talk through the planning applications and the recommendations that have been made by planning officers. 

“One of the benefits this has is that we are able to discuss any questions and clarifications we may have in relation to individual applications. While we may discuss the nature of the applications and the way we are thinking the vote may go, this is very different to predetermining the applications in advance of the meeting. All members of the committee have received training and are acutely aware of the need to make decisions with an open mind, based on the facts on the table and discussion during the course of the meeting.”

Independent investigation

However, following an investigation carried out independently by CAP Business Solutions Ltd of Burnley, no evidence was found that the Council’s code of conduct had been breached. The extensive investigation involved the interviewing of 26 councillors and members of staff, in addition to reviewing practices and procedures involved in the planning process. It is estimated to have cost around £15,500.

Weary councillor was seriously ill

In relation to Cllr Sherlock (79), the investigation found that at the time of the meeting he was suffering from a serious illness, due to which he had been slipping in and out of consciousness.

The report, which has not yet been published, notes: “This was out of his control; he did not realise how ill he was and it is accepted there was nothing he could have done to avoid the situation. In these unique circumstances, the conclusion is that there was no breach of the code of conduct (by Cllr Sherlock).”

The investigation also found he had abstained from voting during the item which he was alleged to have fallen asleep and both the chair of the meeting and other councillors had behaved appropriately. Everyone was concerned about the health and wellbeing of a fellow Councillor and their actions did not compromise the integrity of the planning meeting.

Predetermined decisions?

The other allegations stemmed from alleged comments made by Cllr Pattison, suggesting the Labour group members of the committee decided in advance how they would vote on planning applications.

The investigation found no evidence that this was the case and that “In her eagerness to defend an ailing colleague, it is probable that (Cllr Pattison) did not express herself clearly and her words were taken out of context.”

While some consistency was found in the voting patterns of the Labour group, there was not sufficient evidence to demonstrate predetermination.

The report notes: “It is pertinent that most of the Labour group members are long standing members of the committee, are very experienced and that with the exception of one item.. [151] all decisions followed officer recommendation. Members also demonstrated that they were aware of the need to give sound planning reasons for their decisions.”

The report concludes that there were no breaches of the code of conduct.

Independent Overseer

The Council is required by law to appoint an Independent Person to oversee standards complaints. The position is currently held by Jackie Waring, who said: “This was a very thorough investigation with a clear outcome, which demonstrates the robustness of the procedures the Council has in place to deal with any allegations that the code of conduct has been breached.”

Susan Parsonage, chief executive of Lancaster City Council, added: “These were serious allegations and it was only right and proper that they were investigated independently.

“The independent report found that there were no breaches of the code of conduct and should restore confidence that the Council’s planning processes and procedures are sound and follow Government advice.”

Cllr Oscar Thynne, chairman of the Council’s Standards Committee, said: “The issue of predetermination is extremely serious and it is vitally important that the public has confidence in the planning system.

“By investigating the complaints independently and thoroughly, the Council has been able to demonstrate that its procedures are sound.

A breech could lead to judicial review

“However, this case should act as a salutary lesson to all councillors of the need to avoid any actions which may lead people to perceive the contrary.

“Even the merest hint of predetermination can have serious consequences and lead to planning decisions potentially being subject to judicial review, which would be an even more expensive process than the cost of this investigation.”

Cllr Sherlock has since stood down from his position on the planning committee.

 

 

 

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