Standards Committee Minutes

Date:
Wednesday, 12th August, 2015
Time:
7.30pm
Place:
Committee Room 1, Council Offices, Gernon Road, Letchworth Garden City
 
 

Attendance Details

Present:
District Councillor Mike Rice (Chairman), District Councillor Alan Millard (Vice-Chairman), District Councillor Bill Davidson, District Councillor Steve Hemingway, District Councillor Ian Mantle (substitute) and District Councillor M.R.M. Muir.
Parish Councillor Robert Logan (Co-opted non-voting Parish Council Representative)
Mr Nicolas Moss (Independent Person) - non-voting advisory role
In attendance:
Acting Corporate Legal Manager (Acting Monitoring Officer), Acting Senior Lawyer and Committee and Member Services Manager.
Item Description/Decision
PART I
1 APOLOGIES FOR ABSENCE
Apologies for absence were submitted on behalf of District Councillors Judi Billing, Bernard Lovewell and Frank Radcliffe and Mr Peter Chapman (Reserve Independent Person). Councillor Ian Mantle was substituting for Councillor Judi Billing
2 MINUTES
RESOLVED: That the Minutes of the meeting of the Committee held on 24 February 2015 be approved as a true record of the proceedings and signed by the Chairman.
3 NOTIFICATION OF OTHER BUSINESS
No other items were presented for consideration.
4 CHAIRMAN'S ANNOUNCEMENTS
The Chairman reminded Members that, in line with the Code of Conduct, any Declarations of Interest should be declared immediately prior to the item in question.
5 PUBLIC PARTICIPATION
There was no public participation.
6 PROPOSED NEW PLANNING CODE OF GOOD PRACTICE
The Acting Monitoring Officer presented a report in respect of a proposed new Planning Code of Good Practice. The following appendices were submitted with the report:

Appendix A - Proposed new Planning Code of Good Practice; and
Appendix B - Current Planning Code of Good Practice.

The Acting Monitoring Officer reminded the Committee that the existing Planning Code of Good Practice (as set out at Appendix B to the report) had been adopted by Full Council on 6 September 2012 and updated under the Leader’s Delegated Authority on 9 August 2013 to make it consistent with the Member Code of Conduct adopted on 18 July 2013.

The Acting Monitoring Officer advised that the national approach to planning codes/protocols for Members was outlined in the “Probity in Planning - LGA 2013” guide to Members and Officers, and most recently in the Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) Model Code/Protocol. The good practice guide had originally been prepared in response to a series of successful court challenges relating to Members’ conduct and/or conflicts of interest. The aim of the national guide and subsequent LLG Code/Protocol had therefore been to provide a consistent approach, and to replace individual and potentially haphazard methods that could lead to a legal challenge. In reviewing the national approach to best practice it was evident that the largest difference with the existing Council Code was around the approach to site visits.

The Acting Monitoring Officer explained that the approach taken was to use the LLG Model as the starting point, as it was felt that the structure and approach of the Code, using Do’s and Don’ts, was easy to follow. By basing the approach on a Model Code it also ensured that the proposed new Code would be consistent with national best practice. It had, however, been adapted to cover and include some specific NHDC requirements, namely in respect of:

• “multi-hatted” Members (i.e. those who were Parish/Town Councillors, District Councillors and/or County Councillors - or all three);
• pre-application advice; and
• planning enforcement.

In the case of “multi-hatted” Members, this reflected a reasonable approach and one previously favoured by NHDC Members in relation to planning issues.

The Acting Monitoring Officer re-iterated the point that where the proposed new Code differed from existing practice was largely around site visits. The LLG model (as with the previous Probity in Planning) did not encourage site visits by Members and it was recommended that NHDC now followed this national good practice approach. What officers had sought to distinguish was the difference between a “site visit” (i.e. a procedural planning term for entering onto the site) and visits from public vantage points (i.e. “location/drive by” visits). The former would be arranged by Planning Officers, where relevant, and Members may still undertake the latter.

The Acting Monitoring Officer advised that the best practice approach that Members were not advised to go on visits on their own was to avoid accusations that these were arbitrary, unfair or lobbying opportunities that would lead to accusations of bias. In lieu of this (as per LLG and previous Probity in Planning advice), site visits would be organised by Planning Officers where there was a clear and substantial benefit (i.e. if large/controversial). In all cases short presentations on the applications that go to Committee would be provided by Planning Officers, with pictures, site and location plans and design images, together with development plan/material planning considerations given in bullet form. This approach would ensure that all present had the same information, that Members were directed to key considerations, and that the public were made aware of what had been considered relevant in planning terms. The Planning Control Committee meetings in June and July 2015 had adopted this new approach to how the information was presented.

The Acting Monitoring Officer advised that, subsequent to the publication of the agenda, the Head of Development and Building Control had suggested a further amendment to the new Code. This amendment had been tabled at the meeting, and referred to Section 3 of the Code, second bullet point, as follows (changes in bold):

““• Don’t get involved in pre-application advice or negotiations. Planning Officers will deal with this, and applicants are made aware that this is not binding on the authority. Pre-application advice is available for all applications and encouraged for certain types of applications. and Ward Councillors (and other Councillors as thought appropriate) will be informed if pre-application advice has been provided for Major(1) applications. Active involvement of Committee Members in a proposal prior to determination is likely to lead to an appearance of bias and/or predetermination if the Committee becomes the decision making body.

1 footnote: As defined under Art 2, The Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order 2015”

The Committee supported the above amendment, and made a small number of minor textual changes. The Committee also requested the Acting Monitoring Officer to incorporate some additional wording into the document to clarify the position of Members in respect of pre-application presentations from applicants/developers; dealing with enquiries from constituents; and perceptions of bias/pre-determination.

During the debate, and in response to a question from the Parish Council representative, it was clarified that the Code applied only to District Council Members, and in particular to the role of Planning Control Committee Members as decision-makers.

During the debate, the Committee also queried whether planning application site notices would need to be amended to take account of the New Code. The Acting Monitoring Officer undertook to take up this matter with the Development and Conservation Manager.

RECOMMENDED TO COUNCIL: That the proposed new Planning Code of Good Practice, as attached at Appendix A to the report, as amended, be adopted, inclusive of additional wording from the Acting Monitoring Officer to clarify the following:

• Pre-application presentations from applicants/developers;
• Dealing with enquiries from constituents; and
• Perceptions of bias/pre-determination.

REASON FOR DECISION: To ensure good governance within the Council and that the Council’s Planning Code of Good Practice remains fit for purpose and is consistent with best practice.
7 STANDARDS MATTERS
The Acting Monitoring Officer presented a report in respect of standards issues generally. The following appendix was submitted with the report:

Appendix A - Executive Summary of Survey of public attitudes towards conduct in public life 2014.

Constitution Review

The Acting Monitoring Officer advised that the changes to the number of Standards Committee meetings and change from work programme to Standards Matters in the terms of reference of the Committee, agreed at the last meeting, were approved by Full Council and had been incorporated into the latest addition of the Constitution. Members noted that the Council’s Code of Conduct had been updated and now applied to Co-opted non-voting Members (as well as other Members of the Council).

Committee on Standards in Public Life Report (CSPL)

The Acting Monitoring Officer stated that the CSPL published, in March 2015, the findings of their survey of public attitudes towards conduct in public life. The Executive Summary was attached at Appendix A to the report.

Sanctions

The Acting Monitoring Officer advised that, as Members would be aware, there were limited sanctions under the current Standards regime. The Royal Borough of Kingston considered at its Council meeting on 14 July 2015 whether to introduce a ‘Councillor Recall’ system in certain circumstances linked to attendance at meetings, criminal conviction and residence (where those matters were not already covered by legislation). It would be a voluntary scheme, with a petition where if 33% of the electorate of the ward voted in favour “there would be an expectation that the Councillor concerned would resign, thereby triggering a by-election in which they could, of course, stand if they chose.” It would be interesting to see whether other Councils followed suit and whether such an approach was enforceable.

Complaints Update

The Acting Monitoring Officer reported that the complaint referred to at the February 2015 Committee meeting was still being investigated.

It was noted that the following complaints had been received since the February 205 meeting;

• A complaint about a District Councillor regarding a planning matter was rejected, following initial assessment/investigation, as there was no evidence of the matters alleged;
• A complaint about a District Councillor regarding remarks made at a meeting was withdrawn, as the complainant decided not to pursue the matter; and
• A complaint about a Parish Councillor regarding remarks made during a meeting was withdrawn, as the complainant decided not to pursue the matter.

Current Issues

The Acting Monitoring Officer stated that, as Members would be aware, they were required to complete a Register of Interests form. A number of Members had written “home address” on their forms, rather than specifying the address, which had led to forms being returned and delays in details being updated. On a positive note, all forms completed post the District/Parish Elections in May 2015 had been returned in a timely manner.

Forthcoming Policy Reviews

The Acting Monitoring Officer was currently reviewing the following policies:

• Organisational Conflicts of Interest; and
• Confidential Reporting Code (Whistleblowing).

The Acting Monitoring Officer commented that, where required by the Committee’s terms of reference, these would be submitted to a future meeting(s).

Parish Council Representative

The Acting Monitoring Officer advised that all Parish Councils were contacted on 6 July 2015 seeking nominations by the end of July 2015 to fill the vacancy on the Standards Committee. He was pleased to report that four nominations had been received and that he, together with the Independent Person and Reserve Independent Person would be interviewing the candidates over the coming months, with a view to making a recommendation to appoint the successful candidate to the November 2015 Council meeting.

The Committee suggested that if the standard of candidates was of good calibre, the Acting Monitoring Officer might consider earmarking a “reserve” candidate, in addition to the successful candidate.

First Localism Act Conviction

The Acting Monitoring Officer stated that, on 30 March 2015, Councillor Spencer Flower (of East Dorset District Council) had gained the dubious distinction of being the first Councillor convicted under the Localism Act 2011.

The Acting Monitoring Officer advised that Councillor Flower had been present at a meeting about the East Dorset Core Strategy and, despite having a Disclosable Pecuniary Interest in a matter that was considered at that meeting and, without reasonable excuse, he had participated in the vote taken at the meeting. At that time, he was a non-executive director of a housing charity, and he had listed that interest in pecuniary interest forms submitted to the District Council in 2012.

The Acting Monitoring Officer stated that Councillor Flower had pleaded not guilty to the charges. However, at the hearing the district judge concluded that before the meeting the defendant member should have taken time to consider his position. He could have obtained a dispensation from Section 31(4) of the Localism Act 2011 by virtue of Section 33 of the same Act. Secondly, it would have not been unreasonable for him to have consulted East Dorset District Council’s Monitoring Officer to obtain his advice on the issue. However, Councillor Flower had not sought a dispensation or obtained advice from the Monitoring Officer.

The Committee noted that the housing charity, for which the member was a non-executive director, had responded to the consultation about the Core Strategy, owned land that was being considered and was part of the details contained in the Core Strategy, and indeed Councillor Flower had previously attended a meeting of the charity at which its long-term use of the land was discussed.

The Acting Monitoring Officer advised that, although there had been no evidence before the court that Councillor Flower’s participation in the meeting had resulted in any direct benefit to him, the provisions of the Localism Act 2011 made it clear that he should not have taken part or voted at that meeting.

The Acting Monitoring Officer informed the Committee that Councillor Flower was convicted of participating in a vote at a Council meeting despite having a Disclosable Pecuniary Interest, contrary to Sections 31 and 34 of the Localism Act. The district judge had indicated that the defendant member had failed to satisfy the court that what he did had amounted to a reasonable excuse. He was sentenced to a six month conditional discharge and was ordered to pay £930 in costs. Councillor Flower remained both a District and County Councillor.

The Committee noted that there had been widespread publicity of the conviction and that it should serve as a timely reminder for Members of the importance of declaring Disclosable Pecuniary Interests and ensuring that they did not participate in meetings where those interests may be a matter for discussion.

The Acting Monitoring Officer explained that he was intending to highlight the findings of the East Dorset case to NHDC Members. He wished to stress the importance to Members of them seeking his advice on interests and possible dispensations, particularly in respect to their position in the forthcoming consideration of the North Hertfordshire Local Plan. The Acting Monitoring Officer also highlighted the differences in the facts of the case from the position of Members who had received advice at the November 2014 Council meeting in respect of the consultation on the Local Plan Preferred Options. It was confirmed that, as advised previously, the question of interests and declarations would be considered at each stage of the Local Plan process and the findings of the Flower case would be part of the considerations in formulating the advice.

RESOLVED: That the contents of the report be noted.

REASON FOR DECISION: To ensure good governance within the Council.
Published on Tuesday, 18th August, 2015
8.44pm