If a councillor on Wirral Council’s Planning Committee is lobbied and no form is submitted, does anyone know about it?
At the time of writing, there is an election underway. Once the results are know, twenty-three people will become councillors and asked to sign a declaration that they each accept the office of councillor. Regulation 2 of The Local Elections (Principal Areas) (Declaration of Acceptance of Office) Order 1990 specifies the form that a declaration should take. It is short so it is copied below.
DECLARATION OF ACCEPTANCE OF OFFICE
I, ……. having been elected to the office of councillor declare that I take that office upon myself, and will duly and faithfully fulfill the duties of it according to the best of my judgement and ability.
I undertake to be guided by the National Code of Local Government Conduct in the performance of my functions in that office.
Date ………. Signed ……..
This declaration was made and signed before me
*Proper officer of the council of the county, district or London Borough of ……
*If the declaration is made before any other person authorised by section 83(3) of the Local Government Act 1972, adapt accordingly.
So all the councillors on Wirral Council’s Planning Committee have each signed a clause in their acceptance of office which states they will “be guided” by the National Code of Local Government Conduct when undertaking their duties as councillor.
The National Code of Local Government Conduct, which the Secretary of State issues under s.31 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 states this on the subject of lobbying about planning applications.
LOCAL SUPPLEMENT TO CODE OF CONDUCT FOR MEMBERS
Contracts, Planning Applications etc: Canvassing
- If you are canvassed by any member of the public who requests, directly or indirectly, your aid in securing a business contract with the Council or in the determination of a planning or other application you shall, subject to the qualification contained in the following paragraph, report such canvassing to the Director of Corporate Services, who shall investigate and, where appropriate, report on such canvassing to the Council.
- Subject to paragraph 6 below in relation to contracts, a passing comment by a member of the public on a matter of public interest should not necessarily be construed as canvassing; in assessing whether an approach merits reporting the matter to the Director of Corporate Services, you should consider the circumstances of the approach and whether the approach appears to be made from a narrow vested interest or whether it can justly be described as being in the wider public interest.
Wirral Council has a Code of Conduct to guide both councillors and officers in how planning matters are dealt with. The sections of it that deal with lobbying and the National Code of Local Government Conduct are included below.
1.6 It is recognised that Members will, from time to time, be approached by developers and objectors in relation to planning proposals.
1.7 Part of this Code is intended to assist Members in dealing with and recording such approaches and is designed to ensure that the integrity of the decision making process is preserved.
2.1 To ensure that the integrity of the decision making process is not impaired, either in reality or in perception, through the lobbying of members who will make decisions, it is important that any approaches by lobbyists are recorded and that any representations made to members form part of the public information leading to any decision. If an approach is received by a member of the Planning Committee, from an applicant, agent or other interested party in relation to an existing or proposed planning application, then the member shall:
Inform such applicant, agent or interested party that, in order to avoid accusations of partiality, he/she is only able to offer procedural advice and that any such person should either write to officers of the Council or write or speak to a member(s) who is not on the Planning Committee. This should not however be taken to mean that members who are on the Planning Committee should not listen to the views that the lobbyist wishes to express.
Complete the standard form provided, and forward this to the Acting Director of Regeneration, Housing and Planning. This will enable a record to be kept of any such approach. This form of record keeping will assist individual members to counter any accusations that his or her decision has in some way been biased or partial.
Where a member of the Planning Committee receives written representations directly in relation to a planning application, (or proposed planning application) the member should pass a copy of the correspondence to the Acting Director of Regeneration, Housing and Planning in order that those representations can be included in the officer’s report to the Committee.
2.2 Members of the Planning Committee should avoid organising support for or opposition to a planning application and avoid lobbying other Members. Such actions can easily be misunderstood by parties to the application and by the general public. Members of the Planning Committee should also not put pressure on officers for a particular recommendation.
So to recap, both the National Code of Local Government Conduct (which councillors on the Planning Committee have signed a form to state that they’ll be guided by in their decision-making) and Wirral Council’s own Code of Conduct state that if a councillor on the Planning Committee is lobbied over a planning application, then the councillor should contact an employee of Wirral Council to report it. Wirral Council’s Code of Conduct makes it clear that this is to the Acting Director of Regeneration, Housing and Planning. The post of Acting Director of Regeneration, Housing and Planning no longer exists since the senior management restructure. However the equivalent officer now would either be the Director of Regeneration David Ball or the Strategic Director for Regeneration and Environment Kevin Adderley.
Last month I made a Freedom of Information Act request to Wirral Council for both a copy of the blank form that councillors are to use to record such lobbying approaches and a copy of any forms submitted over the past twelve months (March 2013 to March 2014).
Despite the 20 day legal time limit for responding to my request expiring five days ago, Wirral Council haven’t (yet) supplied a copy of a blank form. However Wirral Council have stated that covering the period March 2013 to March 2014 it has no records of any forms detailing lobbying approaches to councillors on the Planning Committee.
On the 20th February the Planning Committee decided to refuse planning application APP/13/01375. The Planning Committee’s decision to refuse has since been appealed to the Planning Inspectorate who will reach a decision at some point after 21st May.
Prior to the Planning Committee deciding to refuse the application, the Chair of the Planning Committee Councillor Bernie Mooney received a two-page letter. The letter was sent by Edward Landor Associates who were acting on behalf of the applicant and states “It is requested a copy of this letter is made available to all Committee Members”. The two page letter is below and you can click on each page for a higher definition and more readable image if you want to read it in full.
This two page letter is clearly lobbying of a councillor on the Planning Committee. If the letter was circulated to the whole Planning Committee it is a letter lobbying every councillor on the Planning Committee. Shouldn’t councillors on the Planning Committee who received the letter have filled out a form recording this lobbying? So why do Wirral Council in response to my FOI request state “Wirral Borough Council can confirm that no such forms have been submitted during the specified timeframe”?
At the start of the Planning Committee on 20th February that made the decision on the planning application referred to above, Councillor Bernie Mooney went through some of the provisions in Wirral Council’s Code of Conduct for planning matters and then said (you can watch a video of her saying this by following the link) “They’re the rules as they stand. So they’re the rules I hope everybody understands them, I don’t think I’ve missed anything out. My job is just to make sure everything runs smoothly and everything is complied with”.
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