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Waverley Borough Council Committee System - Committee Document

Meeting of the Standards Committee held on 19/07/2006
ANNEXE 4 - LOCAL INVESTIGATION - SBE REFERENCE 14178.06




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Annexe 4



Local Investigation - SBE Reference 14178.06




FINAL REPORT OF AN INVESTIGATION CARRIED OUT BY MRS SUE PETZOLD, INVESTIGATING OFFICER, IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE LOCAL AUTHORITY (CODE OF CONDUCT) (LOCAL DETERMINATION) REGULATIONS 2003, AS AMENDED BY THE LOCAL AUTHORITY (CODE OF CONDUCT) (LOCAL DETERMINATION) (AMENDMENTS) REGULATIONS 2004 INTO ALLEGATIONS CONCERNING COUNCILLOR ANNE MANSELL, MEMBER OF FARNHAM TOWN COUNCIL































13 July 2006


Contents


Part 1 – Relevant Background information

q Legislation

q Authority

q Summary of allegations

q Relevant paragraphs of the Code of Conduct

q Interviews carried out during the course of the investigation


Part 2 – Findings of fact and evidence gathered by the Investigating Officer


q Farnham Town Council’s arrangements for the consideration of planning applications received by Waverley Borough Council.

q Procedure for making declarations of interest at meetings of the Plans Panel.

q Consideration of application WA2005/1561 by Farnham Town Council.

q Declarations of interest at the Plan Panel Meeting on 18 August 2005.

q Other relevant information – Mr Bower’s reasons for making a complaint to the Standards Board for England.



Part 3 – Provisional reasoning of the Investigating Officer as to whether there has been a failure to comply with the Code of Conduct








PART 1 – Relevant Background Information

1. Legislation under which the investigation has been carried out

1.1 This investigation has been carried out in accordance with the Local Authority (Code of Conduct) (Local Determination) Regulations 2003, as amended by the Local Authority (Code of Conduct) (Local Determination) (Amendment) Regulations 2004, which set out the framework for referring allegations of misconduct to local authorities.

Authority

Farnham Town Council.

Summary of the allegations

1.2 Mr John Bower (the Complainant), has alleged that Councillor Mrs Anne Mansell (the Councillor), in her capacity as a Farnham Town Council:

Relevant paragraphs of the Code of Conduct

1.3 The allegations relate to paragraphs 7 and 9(1) of the Farnham Town Council Code of Conduct.

1.4 Paragraph 7 states that “a member must regard himself as having a personal interest in any matter if that matter relates to an interest in respect of which notification must be given under paragraphs 12 and 13 below, or if a decision upon it might be regarded as affecting to a greater extent than other council taxpayers, ratepayers or inhabitants of the authority’s area, the well-being or financial position of himself, a relative or friend.

1.5 Paragraph 9(1) states that “a member with a personal interest in a matter also has a prejudicial interest in that matter if the interest is one which a member of the public with knowledge of the relevant facts, would reasonably regard this as so significant that it is likely to prejudice the member’s judgement of the public interest”.


Interviews carried out during the course of the investigation

1.6 Interviews were carried out with the following individuals:

Councillor Anne Mansell (the Councillor)
Mr John Bower (the Complainant)
Mr Nick Goddard (Assistant Town Clerk).

1.7 The notes of these interviews conducted on 23 May 2006, are attached as Annexe 4.1. These notes have been signed by the interviewees as a correct record of the discussions.

1.8 The Investigating Officer also had a brief discussion over the telephone with the Committee Administrator, Wendy Coulter, about the conduct of the meeting of the Plans Panel meeting on 18 August 2005, and in particular whether she remembered Councillor Mrs Mansell raising the issue of whether she should declare an interest in application WA2005/1561. A note of this conversation is attached as Annexe 4.2.

PART 2 – Findings of fact and evidence gathered by the Investigating Officer

(a) Farnham Town Council’s arrangements for the consideration of planning applications received by Waverley Borough Council

2.1 In common with other town and parish councils, Farnham Town Council is given the opportunity to comment on all planning applications received by Waverley Borough Council which relate to proposed development within its area. Planning applications are considered by the Plans Panel which meets on a fortnightly basis.

2.2 Originally there were two Plans Panels ensuring that a member from each ward was on one of the Panels. However, it was difficult to get a quorum at each meeting, and it was therefore agreed that there should be just one Plans Panel. At first there were 9 Members on the Panel, but one dual-hatted Member (Councillor Penny Marriott) resigned and there are now eight Members, most of whom are single-hatted. The Assistant Town Clerk has confirmed that difficulties are still being experienced with regard to reaching a quorum, and that a decision has recently been taken to reduce the quorum from five to three Members plus an officer in attendance.

2.3 The meetings are not held in public, but this is a matter that is currently under review by the current Town Clerk.

2.4 Prior to a meeting of the Plans Panel, the Assistant Town Clerk and Committee Administrator will look at all the applications referred to the Town Council by Waverley, and will mark up those for consideration by the Councillors at the meeting. This process entails using an agreed set of criteria to distinguish those applications which may be regarded as being potentially significant from those which are of a more routine nature.

2.5 A list of the criteria currently used to distinguish potentially significant applications was circulated to all Members of the Plans Panel, and to other Members of the Town Council for information, under cover of a letter dated 2 June 2005 from the Assistant Town Clerk (copy attached as Annexe 4.3). Councillors may also ask for an item to be specifically considered if they believe it to be significant. This process was introduced because of the volume of applications being considered.

2.6 Generally there is no objection to those applications that are not considered in any detail by the Plans Panel, but if Members wish to make a specific comment, then the plans are available so that these can be formally considered by the Plans Panel if necessary.

2.7 Formal minutes of the Plans Panel meetings are taken by the Committee Administrator, but these do not set out in detail the comments made during the discussion of each application, the aim being to capture the consensus view reached by the whole Panel rather than the views of individual Members. The minutes are then submitted to the full Town Council for the decisions of the Panel to be noted as delegated decisions.

2.8 During his interview with the Investigating Officer, the Assistant Town Clerk confirmed that discussion at the Plans Panel is quite informal, but is conducted in a ‘gentlemanly fashion’. While there may be differences of opinion, Members generally respect each other’s views.

2.9 The Plans Panel usually starts at 6.00pm prior to the commencement of another meeting, and so time is limited.

(b) Procedure for making declarations of interest at meetings of the Plans Panel

2.10 There is a standard text on the agenda for each Plans Panel meeting reminding Members to register their interests (see copy of note sent to Members of the Plans Panel on 12 August 2005 attached as Annexe 4.4). There is also an electronic form that is sent out prior to each meeting by the Committee Administrator. In addition, Farnham Town Council Members receive a weekly despatch of post which goes out each Friday, and which includes a hard copy of the Declaration of Interest form (copy attached as Annexe 4.5). Councillors can also declare an interest verbally at the start of, or during, a meeting.

2.11 The Assistant Town Clerk confirmed during his interview with the Investigating Officer, that all Members of Farnham Town Council have received written advice on the declaration of interests. However, nothing is said formally at the beginning or during meetings to remind Members of the need to consider whether they should declare an interest in any particular item for discussion.

2.12 The Assistant Town Clerk also stated that he was unsure as to how many Members submit declarations of interest electronically, but that many Members bring paper copies of their declarations to the meeting or complete these at the start of the meeting. He also confirmed that Members rarely ask officers for advice on this issue, but that when asked he will always say that the matter is up to the individual member, suggesting that for the avoidance of doubt they should always err on the side of caution. If they are asking the question, then there is almost certainly a slight doubt in their mind.

(c) Consideration of Application WA2005/1561 by Farnham Town Council

2.13 On 3 August 2005, a planning application was submitted by D&M partnerships on behalf of the owners of numbers 5, 7, 9 and 11 Old Compton Lane for the erection of 9 dwellings and associated works on land the rear of these properties. Access to the proposed development would be from Lynch Road. A map showing the location of the proposed development and Councillor Mrs Mansell’s property is attached as Annexe 4.6. One of these properties, number 5, is owned by the Complainant, Mr Bower.

2.14 In his interview with the Investigating Officer, Mr Bower stated that he believed that the land was likely to be redeveloped at some stage, and that he felt that the proposed scheme would be an attractive development.

2.15 Farnham Town Council was asked to comment on the application, and it was included on the list of potentially significant applications to be considered by the Plans Panel on 18 August 2005. A copy of this list is attached as Annexe 4.7. The meeting was attended by eight Members, including Councillor Mrs Mansell.

2.16 Neither the Assistant Town Clerk nor the Committee Administrator are able to recall in any detail the discussion at the meeting, but the Assistant Town Clerk has confirmed that application WA2005/1561 concerned the type of development that would normally raise some comment since Members of the Town Council are generally of the view that back land development changes the nature of the residential areas of Farnham. However, there was clearly some discussion about the application, and as recorded in the minutes attached as Annexe 4.8, the Plans Panel concluded that the Town Council should strongly object to the development, which was considered to be gross over development. It was also considered that the proposed development would detract from the amenities for people using a long access. In addition the area was subject to flooding. Members of the Panel also stated their belief that all new development should comply with the Eco Homes ‘Very Good’ standard as a minimum, and that new developments should make a contribution to the local area by means of a Section 106 agreement.

2.17 The minutes of the Plans Panel meeting on 18 August 2005 were subsequently considered by the Town Council at its meeting on 27 October 2005, when the observations made by the Plans Panel and dealt with in accordance with delegated authority, were noted. The relevant extract from the minutes of the Town Council’s meeting is attached as Annexe 4.9.

(d) Declarations of interest at the Plans Panel Meeting on 18 August 2005

2.18 The Assistant Town Clerk has confirmed that there were just two declarations of interest made at the meeting of the Plans Panel on 18 August 2005, both of which were made by Councillor Mrs Scrivens. A copy of the form used by Mrs Scrivens to declare her interest in the applications is attached as Annexe 4.10.

2.19 During the interview with Councillor Mrs Mansell, the Investigating Officer explored in some depth Mrs Mansell’s relationship with the owners of 5 to 11 Old Compton Lane, and her understanding of the circumstances in which she should declare an interest.

2.20 With regard to the first of these issues, Councillor Mrs Mansell confirmed to the Investigating Officer that she had lived in Old Compton Lane for over thirty years and knew a number of the long-standing residents, including the owners of numbers 3, 7, 15, 4 and 4A. Mrs Mansell stated that she was on good terms with the owner of number 7 but that this was a professional friendship rather than a personal one as he had been her doctor for many years. She also confirmed that she knew Mrs Bower (the wife of the Complainant) in her capacity as a Winterwatch Volunteer, although most of her contact with Mrs Bower had been over the telephone. She had not discussed the application with any of the four property owners concerned, although she was aware that it was a matter of local concern and had received a number of letters from local residents objecting to the proposal, plus one letter from the Complainant, Mr Bower, in support of the application.

2.21 On the question of whether she should have declared a personal interest in application WA2005/1561, Councillor Mrs Mansell stated that her understanding was that she needed to consider whether the application would have an affect on where she lived. Mrs Mansell acknowledged that this was a difficult issue, but in this instance she saw the application site as being in Lynch Road rather than Old Compton Lane, given that the access to the site would be from Lynch Road. She also felt that this view was supported by the fact that most of those notified about the application lived in Lynch Road.

2.22 Councillor Mrs Mansell stated that she had declared an interest in other applications for development in Old Compton Lane, but in those cases she had been able to drive past and see the site, whereas the site for the proposed development in the gardens of numbers 7 to 11 Old Compton Lane could not be seen from that road. This view had been supported by a statement in the subsequent appeal decision notice to the effect that the site could not be seen from the road because of the slope of the gardens.

2.23 Although neither the Assistant Town Clerk or the Committee Administrator can recall whether Councillor Mrs Mansell sought advice on whether she should declare an interest at the meeting of the Plans Panel on 18 August 2005, Mrs Mansell has confirmed to the Investigating Officer that she did comment that she did not feel that the application was in Old Compton Lane but in Lynch Road and therefore she did not have to declare an interest. As far as the declarations of interest made by Mrs Scrivens were concerned, Mrs Mansell commented to the Investigating Officer that Mrs Scrivens always declared an interest in applications for development in Crooksbury Road, even if these were a long way from her own property, as she had once been reported to the Standards Board, although on an entirely different matter.

2.24 When asked by the Investigating Officer whether she had ever thought that she should declare a personal interest in the application, Mrs Mansell commented that with the benefit of hindsight, probably she should have declared an interest, but at the time she certainly felt that it was not an issue.

2.25 Mrs Mansell stated that if she had been on close terms with any of the applicants or residents then she would have declared an interest. Similarly if anything had affected the street scene then she would also have declared an interest. She had made a judgment and had tried to make the right judgment. Mrs Mansell also stated that she had listened to everything that had been said by the Monitoring Officer (on the declaration of interests) and was aware that there had been problems at Farnham Town Council in this respect. However, she really thought that she had made a rational decision.

(e) Other relevant information

Mr Bower’s reasons for making a complaint to the Standards Board

2.26 During the course of his interview with the Investigating Officer, the Complainant Mr Bower explained the background to his complaint.

2.27 Mr Bower had first become aware of the comments of the Plans Panel when he looked at the minutes of the meeting on 18 August 2005 to see what was meant by gross over development. Mr Bower accepted that he was unused to the processes of local government, but had been surprised to learn that the comments had come from a committee made up of only eight Members, and not from the Town Council in full conclave. He therefore considered Farnham Town Council’s response to be inadequate.

2.28 Mr Bower also commented that he had remembered reading an article in the local press about conflict of interest and the previous Scrivens case. He had noted that Councillor Mrs Scrivens had declared an interest in another application on the agenda of the Plans Panel for the meeting on 18 August 2005 which concerned a site in her road, and was curious as to why Councillor Mrs Mansell had not declared an interest in what appeared to be similar circumstances. Mr Bower stated that he was unsure as to what interests should be declared, but felt that the ‘picture was strange’ and understood that the only way to clear up the matter was to make an allegation.

2.29 Mr Bower confirmed that he did not know Councillor Mrs Mansell, but understood that she did a lot for the local community. Nevertheless he was keen to get to the truth of what he considered to be an anomaly. Mr Bower also felt that there had been a vitriolic campaign of resistance to the application, and that when compared with other applications in the area, it was not gross over development. He felt therefore that the comment was the result of a highly orchestrated campaign.

2.30 Mr Bower stated that he believed that Mrs Mansell would have received a number of letters and that this could have swayed her decision. He had therefore also written to Mrs Mansell to put forward the case for the ‘other side’.

2.31 When asked by the Investigating Officer what he would consider to be a good outcome of his complaint, Mr Bower stated that he would like to see a criticism of the procedure in terms of the standard of comments submitted during the planning process. It appeared to him that in making observations on application WA2005/1561, Farnham Town Council had not taken into account all the factors that governed what was acceptable, and were simply responding to 89 letters of complaints addressed to Waverley Borough Council. He felt that pressure had been put on the councillors and he would be interested to know how many letters Councillor Mrs Mansell had received on the application.

2.32 In this respect Mr Bower’s concerns appear to relate more to issues of whether Councillor Mrs Mansell was biased against the application before it was considered by the Plans Panel due to the large number of objections received and therefore failed to formulate a reasoned and impartial view on proper planning grounds. These are issues that are addressed at Borough level in the Good Practice Code for Members on planning applications, and do not fall within the remit of the Standards Committee

PART 3 – Provisional reasoning of the Investigating Officer as to whether there has been a failure to comply with the Code of Conduct

3.1 The planning application for development in the rear gardens of numbers 5 to 11 Old Compton Lane was considered by the Plans Panel of Farnham Town Council in accordance with its established procedures, and a delegated decision was taken by that Panel. Councillor Mrs Anne Mansell has confirmed that she commented at the meeting on 18 August 2005 that she felt that the application site was not in Old Compton Lane but in Lynch Road because of the arrangements to be made for accessing the site, and that therefore she did not have an interest to declare. While Councillor Mrs Mansell was acquainted with the applicants she was not on close terms with any of them and she could not see the development site from her property, given that it was 0.3 of a mile from her house. This latter point was confirmed by a site visit made by myself as Investigating Officer on the day of the interviews, and it may be that Members of the Standards Committee will wish to make their own site visit, if they are in any doubt as to the proximity of Mrs Mansell’s property in relation to the site of the proposed development.

3.2 With the benefit of hindsight, Councillor Mrs Mansell has reached the view that it would have been best for her to err on the side of caution and declare a personal interest, since she would still have been able to participate in the discussion. Indeed had she made a direct request for advice on this matter from either the Assistant Town Clerk or the Committee Administrator, they have both confirmed that they would have advised such a cautionary approach. Nevertheless having regard to findings of fact set out in this report, I have concluded that Councillor Mrs Mansell did not have a personal interest in the matter and that she did not therefore breach paragraph 7 of the Code.

3.3 Given my findings in relation to paragraph 7 of the Code, I have concluded that the question of whether Councillor Mrs Anne Mansell had a prejudicial interest in the matter under paragraph 9(1) of the Code does not arise.

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