Councillors cleared of breaching conduct code

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A Pendle Council investigation into a complaint over the conduct of six Conservative councillors in failing to declare a pecuniary interest in their consideration of a planning application has found none of them breached council rules.

Labour group leader Coun. Mohammed Iqbal brought the complaint against Couns Joe Cooney, Neil Butterworth, John McBeth, Margaret Foxley, Graham Waugh and Paul White on April 12th, two days after the council’s Colne and District Committee, on which all six councillors sat, had approved plans by RB Business Park Ltd for a garden centre in Greenfield Road, Colne.

RB Business Park is associated with Libra Textiles, which in June, 2013 had made a donation of £20,000 to the Pendle Conservatives.

In support of his complaint, Coun. Iqbal said there needed to be a detailed investigation into the link between the £20,000 donation and the decision on the application.

A report into the investigation by Pendle Council deputy chief executive Philip Mousdale said: “It is his view that the perception amongst members of the public must be to question the reasons as to the support for the application by the councillors as there are clearly grounds for suspicion.”

Coun. Iqbal had also queried the grounds for Coun. White’s declaration of a pecuniary interest at the committee meeting because he was employed as a campaign manager for Pendle MP Andrew Stephenson.

Mr Mousdale said Mr Stephenson had said the donation had been used wholly for his re-election campaign and the six councillors had not felt under any obligation or pressure because of the donation when determining the application.

Mr Mousdale says in his report: “In June, 2014, Coun. McBeth ceased to be a councillor having decided not to stand for re-election. In view of this, I discontinued the investigation in respect of him as little purpose would be served by it.

“Coun. White declared a disclosable pecuniary interest arising out of his employment and took no part in the consideration of the planning application.

“While Coun. Iqbal has challenged the basis of this, the fact is that he was not involved in the decision making and cannot be said to have been in breach of the code of conduct.

“I am satisfied from the information provided by Mr Stephenson as verified by Coun. Tony Beckett that Mr Richard Bannister’s (of Libra Textiles) intention was that the donation was to be applied as determined by Mr Stephenson to Mr Stephenson’s own re-election campaign and was in fact so used.

“The donation was made after the six councillors’ elections in 2010, 2011 and 2012 so there can be no question that they may have received any election expenses sponsorship arising from the donation.

“In the case of Coun. Butterworth and his standing for re-election in June, 2014 after the donation was made the position is a little less clear because the donation appears to have been mixed in with other Pendle Conservative Association funds.

“However from my inquiries of Mr Stephenson and Coun. Beckett, the donation monies were spent well before the lead up to the 2014 elections. I do not therefore consider that it can be said that Councillor Butterworth received any sponsorship from the donation in connection with his 2014 re-election.

“I have no evidence that any of the councillors received any sponsorship in respect of the carrying out their duties as councillors.

“The councillors needed to exercise their own judgement about this and this is not a simple task.

“One possibility was that they could have declared a non-pecuniary interest but also concluded that its nature and distance from them was such that they did not need to withdraw from the meeting.

“In the final analysis, however, there was clearly no financial benefit to themselves and they were not otherwise close to the circumstances of the donation. I do not consider that they can be said to have been at fault in not declaring an interest.

“My finding is that none of the six councillors has failed to follow the member code of conduct.”