• Former local plan panel chair found guilty on six charges

    27th May 2012 | News | Claire
  • Complaints were brought by Cllr Roger Giles and two members of the public, Sandra Semple and Emily McIvor.

    The breaches are mainly concerned with the way Cllr Allen behaved towards myself and Cllr Giles at local plan panel meetings between August and November 2011.

    One charge relates to a potentially damaging quote from Cllr Allen about Cllr Giles, published in the Pulman’s View From Ottery newspaper.

    The hearing, on Friday (25 May), was held with the press and public allowed to be present, following an unsuccessful attempt by Cllr Allen to convince EDDC’s standards committee that morning, that the event should be held behind closed doors.

    Cllr Allen argued for the hearing to be held in private as he claimed that he was the victim of a political campaign waged by myself and Cllr Giles in particular and by campaign group, *Communities Before Developers (CBD), in general. 

    He also claimed that to hold the hearing in public would undermine confidence in elected members.

    Following an investigation by independent assessor, Tim Darsley, resulting in a report of around 300 pages, EDDC’s standards committee met to consider the case.

    Standards Committee hearing – Friday 25 May
    In the room were:
    Tim Darsley, independent investigator
    Denise Lyon – deputy chief executive and monitoring officer
    Simon Pollentine – standards committee member (Sidmouth Town Council)
    Tim Wood – standards committee member (EDDC Exmouth councillor – Conservative)
    Alison Willan – standards committee independent chair
    Rachel Pocock – EDDC legal adviser and deputy monitoring officer
    Diana Vernon – member services officer and clerk

    In the public gallery were: Cllr Douglas Hull, Sandra Semple, me, Fran McElhone (Express & Echo) and Alain Tolhurst (Ottery/Sidmouth Herald)

    It took almost all day to hear the evidence, the witnesses and Cllr Allen’s numerous and continual defences of his conduct.

    Cllr Allen’s main defence against his conduct on 16 August (detailed below) appeared to be that I was ‘pre-determined’ because of my campaigning against the Local Development Framework and my ‘strongly held views.’ 

    In the case of Cllr Giles, Cllr Allen claimed Cllr Giles was disruptive and he felt intimidated as a result.  Cllr Allen claimed it was his job to control the meeting, which was why he had behaved towards Cllr Giles in the way that he had.

    The breaches of the code of conduct agreed by the standards committee are:

    1 At the LDF Panel meeting on 16 August 2011 Cllr Allen did not treat Cllr Wright with respect

    2 At the LDF Panel meeting on 1 November Cllr Allen failed to treat Cllr Giles with respect
    3 At the LDF Panel meeting on 1 November Cllr Allen failed to treat Cllr Wright with respect
    4 By his treatment of Cllrs Giles and Wright Cllr Allen brought his office into disrepute.

    5 By his comments to the Pulman’s View, Cllr Allen did not treat Cllr Giles with respect
    6 By his comments to Pulman’s View Cllr Allen brought his office into disrepute

    Detail on the charges
    Charge 1 – 16 August 2011, Local Development Framework (LDF) Panel meeting
    During the declarations of interest agenda item where I declared that had I had been a member of Communities Before Developers (CBD) campaign group and had signed the ‘pledge’ (to help protect the countryside), Cllr Allen launched a calm and controlled verbal attack on me. 

    I did not blog this at the time because I felt uncomfortable doing so.

    He said: 
    – I had a prejudicial interest (because of my campaigning with CBD)
    – I misled town and parish councils
    – I had been making personal comments about him
    – He would be taking matters further

    I was completely caught off balance and queried what he meant (bear in mind I was a new and inexperienced councillor).  Cllr Allen simply repeated his allegations and moved the agenda swiftly on to the next item.

    It was humiliating and I felt as though all eyes in the room (some 70 people) were on me and were wondering what on earth I had done wrong.  Tears came and I had to leave the room to try and get my emotions under control.

    Cllr Giles came after me and said he thought the way Cllr Allen spoke to me was outrageous and he was going to seek out the leader of the council, Cllr Paul Diviani. 

    While I was out of the room Roger spoke both to Cllr Diviani, chairman, Cllr Peter Halse and EDDC solicitor, Andrew Seddon while the panel meeting continued, with raised voices audible from the members room.

    I later returned to the meeting but was unable to concentrate as I was still upset, so I left.

    After I had left the meeting Cllr Giles indicated that he wished to speak and then told Cllr Allen that he felt he had abused his position as chairman as he had bullied me and owed an apology to me, and to everyone else in the room.  Cllr Allen stood up and told him to leave the room.

    Cllr Allen later submitted a formal complaint about this exchange with Cllr Giles, which was dismissed.

    4 October – LDF Panel meeting
    The independent investigator found that Cllr Allen had also breached the code of conduct on this occasion too, but the standards committee did not uphold this finding.

    Cllr Allen had not called Cllr Giles to speak, despite Cllr Giles having his arm in the air for some time and being directly opposite him in the council chamber. Several other people, however, had been called.

    Following a prompt from me, Cllr Allen eventually called Cllr Giles to speak.  After a proposal from Cllr Ray Bloxham (which I did not agree with) Cllr Allen put it to the vote straightaway, despite Cllr Giles having his hand in the air as he sought to make further points.  At the end of this debate Cllr Giles exclaimed loudly:  “That was disgraceful,” or something similar.

    At this point, as Cllr Giles was about to leave the room, Cllr Allen stood up and told Cllr Giles that he must leave the room and he would next see him with the Standards Officer.  It was an unpleasant scene, which appeared to be designed to humiliate Cllr Giles.

    Charges 2, 3 and 4 – 1 November LDF Panel meeting
    This was the final meeting prior to the Local Plan being submitted for consultation so it was vital that everyone got a chance to speak.  This was especially important for Ottery as the level of development was hotly disputed and many residents were angry.

    But when the time came for Roger Giles to represent Ottery’s views, as he began to take his seat at the microphone, Councillor Allen calmly told him that he would not allow him to speak after his ‘outburst’ at the last meeting.  There was a sudden hubbub with lots of people talking at once.  I was trying to speak because I was aghast at the idea that a chairman could prevent a ward member from talking at such a critical time. 

    I told Cllr Allen that I believed it was wrong and that Councillor Giles should be allowed a say.  Cllr Allen replied that unless I wanted to ‘get the same treatment’ I should be quiet, and this was my last warning (even though there had been no previous warning).  I assumed he meant to throw me out of the meeting so after this I decided to keep quiet but I was very unhappy at what had happened to Cllr Giles.

    Charges 5 and 6 – Pulman’s View From Ottery article (date)
    Asked for a comment by Lucie Simic of Pulman’s on his conduct at the 4 October meeting, Cllr Allen stated the following: 

    “That Cllr Giles had been ejected three times for shouting and disrupting LDF Panel meetings.  That the issue had been referred to the standards committee which was investigating the issue.”

    This was an untrue statement (being ejected from LDF Panel meetings) and an apparently deliberate attempt to besmirch Roger Giles character. 

    Tim Darsley, independent investigator, called Cllr Giles as a witness. 

    Cllr Allen called two witnesses – Cllr David Key (Local Plan Panel member) and Cllr Andrew Moulding (deputy leader of the council and vice-chair of the Local Plan Panel).

    Cllr Key was called first because he had to leave early for an appointment.  His witness statement simply related to an LDF panel meeting in February 2011 where myself, Cllr Giles and Jonathan Underwood (all members of CBD) turned up to observe with David Beasley from the Exmouth Journal. 

    At the time the panel meetings were held behind closed doors but there was a degree of confusion, following a recent email from Denise Lyon, about whether the press and public were from then on, allowed to observe the meetings.  At this meeting Cllr Key had told me, David Beasley and Jonathan Underwood to leave.

    It was clear that Cllr Giles had been entitled to attend this meeting and had not been asked to leave, let alone thrown out.

    In defence of his conduct towards me on 16 August, Cllr Allen claimed that I had not offered my declaration of interest voluntarily, which was why he felt it necessary to question me. 

    My jaw dropped at this point because on 16 August Cllr Allen had asked each councillor in turn whether they had a declaration of interest and I had declared mine, in line with the advice of the monitoring officer, when my turn came!

    Cllr Allen continued to tell the standards committee that at the full council meeting last July where my position on the LDF Panel was confirmed, I had been told that I must be impartial and that I should withdraw from the panel if I continued to hold these views and attitudes. 

    At this point deputy monitoring officer and EDDC legal officer Rachel Pocock said: “Cllr Wright was formally appointed by Council.  Are you questioning my legal advice?”

    In defence of not permitting Cllr Giles to speak on 1 November, Cllr Allen claimed that as I was the chair of Ottery St Mary Town Council I was in a good position to speak for Ottery!  (I wondered whether mayor of Ottery Town Council, Glyn Dobson, had heard the news that I now had his job!)

    Cllr Allen also claimed that Cllr Giles had interrupted the vote on 4 October, by shouting, which was totally untrue.

    Tim Darsley confirmed that committee clerk, Hannah Whitfield’s notes made it clear that I had declared my interests at the appropriate time, when asked.

    Cllr Tim Wood asked Tim Darsley whether, given the ‘substantial political arguments’ on this issue, the approach taken (to me on 16 August by Cllr Allen) was excessive?

    Tim Darsley answered that it was not the job of the chairman to behave in this way.  If Cllr Allen had had concerns, this should have been dealt with via the monitoring officer and not in a public meeting.

    During his stint as a witness Cllr Giles described each of the events to the committee.

    Cllr Tim Wood asked Cllr Giles, re the 4 October meeting, when Cllr Giles was trying to attract the attention of Cllr Allen for some time:  “Would it be abnormal for someone not to be speaking at this stage?”

    Of course there had been someone speaking at this time but Cllr Allen had repeatedly called other speakers when Cllr Giles (the ward member for Ottery) had been indicating he wished to speak (seated in the front row of the public gallery opposite Cllr Allen, with no obstruction between them), for some 10 minutes or more.

    Then it was Cllr Andrew Moulding’s (deputy leader of the council) turn to take the witness stand.

    Cllr Moulding was the vice-chair of the LDF panel and part of his role was to note down who wished to speak and inform the chair.  He claimed not to remember seeing Cllr Giles arm waving.  He claimed that if Cllr Giles had been waving his arm in the way he described it would have been impossible for him not to see him.

    Then CBD came up again.  Cllr Moulding claimed that the CBD members were told they had to relinquish their positions in the campaign group otherwise they would not have been allowed to take part in debates relating to development matters.

    This was untrue.  The monitoring officer had already confirmed prior to me even being a member of the LDF panel that I was perfectly entitled to be on the panel, providing I declared my interests as appropriate. The monitoring officer also confirmed that I retained voting rights.  I had scrupulously followed her advice.

    He accused Cllr Giles of ‘ranting and raving’ at Cllr Allen on 16 August.  And then Cllr Moulding seemed to get several of the meetings mixed up and gave a confused account for a minute or two.

    Next he said that it was his opinion that Cllrs Wright and Giles conducted a premeditated campaign, based on their personal agenda, in order to derail the local plan panel process.

    When prompted by Cllr Allen, Cllr Moulding claimed that I was predetermined because I had kept referring to a figure of 12,000 houses for East Devon in panel meetings.

    He said:  “Claire Wright was appointed a member of the panel and was a stated member of CBD.  Part of her manifesto was based on her views on development in East Devon.  She was expected, while serving on the panel, to be impartial.  It was evident throughout the process, however, that she would make her views known.  She had made up her mind that there should be less development in East Devon.

    “There was no reasoning behind her views and she made life very difficult for the chair and vice-chair.  Cllr Giles attended a number of the meetings and didn’t cause any problems but appeared to respond to Cllr Wright.  Cllr Giles then went into a disruptive mode and didn’t allow the panel to conduct its business.

    “There was a pre-determination of Cllr Wright’s views.  It was not the correct behaviour of a councillor.  She had a clouded view, a previously stated view.  There were concerns from other members of the panel.  Every time there was a discussion Cllr Wright was not able to consider the views of other members of the panel.

    “I consider that Cllr Allen conducted these meetings in an exemplary manner.”

    Tim Darsley said at this point:  “Claire Wright and Roger Giles’s conduct are not subject to an investigation.  It would seem entirely reasonable for two councillors who were elected partly on such a manifesto, to hold such views, express such views and campaign on such views.”

    Cllr Allen had made an official complaint about Cllr Giles’ behaviour, but there had been found to be no case to answer.

    Cllr Allen disagreed with Mr Darsley.  He said: “It was made crystal clear to Cllr Wright when she was appointed to the panel that she had to take a rational view of evidence, not to pursue a campaign.  Impartiality is important in planning and decisions must be taken on the evidence presented. 

    “If Cllr Wright wished to continue campaigning or choose to hold such views or could not control such attitudes, she should have withdrawn from the panel,” Cllr Allen said.

    Cllr Allen then asked about the legal situation relating to predetermination (having made one’s mind up) and predisposition (being inclined to a particular view).

    The monitoring officer advised Cllr Allen that the information was in the pack given to councillors when they first joined the council.

    Tim Darsley said (in relation to Cllr Allen’s comments to me on 16 August), that Cllr Allen had made his own interpretation of predetermination.  Mr Darsley said:  Cllr Allen “was not qualified to do this nor was it appropriate for him to do this.”

    Cllr Tim Wood asked if Mr Darsley was aware that at a full council meeting, some members expressed concerns over Cllr Wright’s appointment to the LDF panel.  He said it may have been thought odd if there had been no further questioning before Cllr Wright carried on her work conditionally.

    Mr Darsley replied:  “’Conditionally’ is a matter of interpretation.  The only way to pursue it is take someone to court.”

    Relating to the story in the Pulman’s, in which Cllr Allen had claimed that Cllr Giles had been ‘ejected’ three times from panel meetings,  Cllr Allen claimed that Cllr Giles had been involved in a vehement campaign against the LDF panel and its chairman.

    Cllr Giles replied that it had not been personal, it was against the level of development proposed and that to hold and express such views was permissible in a democracy.

    Cllr Allen then drew the committee’s attention to a range of articles and press cuttings where Cllr Giles had been critical of EDDC and its local development framework panel process.  He said:  “That was the situation I was facing.”

    More accusations then came from Cllr Allen to Cllr Giles relating to his views on the LDF process. 

    Cllr Giles stuck to his very reasonable line about being entitled to hold and express such views in a democracy – and anyway the articles being quoted by Cllr Allen were about the previous set of meetings which had been held in private and with no minutes published, prior to the meetings chaired by Cllr Allen, he said.

    Cllr Giles also pointed out that the panel had voted through 15,000 houses at its second meeting (August 2011), which was before the consultant’s report, before they had spoken to town councils and before they had received all the evidence.  He said: “It was completely ridiculous.”

    Cllr Allen started up about CBD again.  He said CBD was ‘legally at variance’ with the work of the panel and that the investigating officer had not attached enough weight to this issue.  There had been ‘severe lobbying’ by CBD and there was not a valid conclusion on the CBD-related declaration of interest.

    Defending his position of barring Cllr Giles from speaking on 1 November, Cllr Allen said he took advice from Cllr Andrew Moulding, his panel vice-chair.  He said Cllr Moulding told him the chair had the right to call whoever he chose.  Cllr Allen said it was only afterwards that he found out that there should be a vote to bar a member from speaking.

    Cllr Allen said the complainants, Sandra Semple, Emily McIvor, Roger Giles and Claire Wright (I had withdrawn my complaint some time ago) had all issued press statements against the panel.  He said emphatically that he did NOT fail to follow the code. 

    He added:  “I did not mean to treat Cllr Giles with disrespect, actually I find him quite entertaining.”

    Cllr Allen then claimed he had tried to talk to Cllr Giles but Cllr Giles had refused to speak with him.  I looked at Cllr Giles quizzically at this point who was looking astonished! 

    Cllr Allen went on to say that what he did, he did in ignorance and because he was not going to be intimidated by Cllr Giles as Cllr Giles had tried to bully him!

    Cllr Allen said the word ‘ejected’ in relation to the newspaper article was appropriate because he had the force of his chairmanship and the council behind him.  He admitted that he went too far in describing the complaint in the press that he had filed against Cllr Giles.  He claimed that he realised only afterwards he shouldn’t have done that.

    Launching straight back into his view of my impartiality on the LDF Panel, Cllr Allen claimed that I had misrepresented the panel and that I had a right to lobby, but not if I sat on the panel also. 

    He said he had not intended to belittle me but he had to raise his voice against the shouts of Cllr Giles.  Well this was news to me because no one had ever said he shouted at me and Cllr Giles was silent until much later on the meeting until after I had left!

    Tim Darsley reminded Cllr Allen once again that members were allowed to hold views. 

    But Cllr Allen replied that all members of the committee were expected to be impartial and reasonable.

    An increasingly exasperated Tim Darsley told the committee:  “A lot comes back to Cllr Allen’s view on what members say or declare what their views are.  It is an extremely controlling view of what politics should be and it is not one that I recognise at all.”

    The standards committee chair asked Cllr Allen what his approach was based on.  Cllr Allen replied that he had to control the procedures properly.  He said it was more extreme because it was a planning issue and that it was flawed by people taking lobbying views and that it wasn’t the purpose of a committee to push their own views.

    Tim Darsley interjected again.  He said: “We are not talking about the Development Management Committee, the LDF panel was not decision-making.  It doesn’t apply and there are terms of reference to back this up.”

    Cllr Tim Wood told Tim Darsley:  “Roger Giles was free to express his view but the view of Cllr Wright should have been more constrained.  She was the only member with views at variance from the panel.” 

    Cllr Allen added:  “I felt her (Cllr Wright’s) duty when she came on the panel, for legal reasons, should have been about evidence, not about what she felt.  My view of Cllr Wright is not the same as my view of Roger Giles.

    “Cllr Wright misrepresented the panel, she pushed the CBD view to Ottery St Mary Town Council, not the panel view.”

    Cllr Tim Wood asked Tim Darsley about his selection of witnesses and whether a different majority would have resulted in a different majority opinion.

    Mr Darsley replied that he had given the witnesses different weight, depending on how close to the complainant they were.  He said he had interviewed several officers and he had given particular weight to Hannah Whitfield’s account and her written notes.  He added that there was a high level of agreement on the facts.

    Tim Darsley had recorded face-to-face interviews with:

    – Sandra Semple (complainant)
    – Emily McIvor (complainant)
    – Roger Giles (complainant)
    – Claire Wright (witness)
    – Cllr Geoff Chamberlain (witness and leader of the LibDem group)
    – Cllr Mark Williamson (witness and (Conservative) chair of the Development Management Committee
    – Hannah Whitfield (witness and assistant democratic services officer)
    – Matt Dickins (witness and planning policy manager)
    – Cllr Mike Allen

    Recorded telephone interviews took place with:

    – Cllr Glyn Dobson (mayor of Ottery St Mary Town Council and witness)
    – Chris Holland (committee services officer and witness)
    – Andrew Seddon (senior solicitor and witness)

    Following the standards committee’s verdict, which was delivered, following private deliberations in another room, Cllr Allen said he was ‘deeply disappointed’ with the outcome. He said he had been under political pressure and was ‘terribly stressed’.  He said he apologised if he stepped over the line.

    The next stage was sanctions and Tim Darsley recommended ‘a short period of suspension’ to reflect on the breaches, given the number and the seriousness of them, particularly relating to Roger Giles being prevented from speaking at the LDF panel on 1 November.

    Mr Darsley said that Cllr Allen’s “lack of recognition of contrary views was a troubling element.”

    When the committee returned the chair said that although several breaches of the code had been found, they had recognised how challenging it was for Cllr Allen and how hard-working he had been as a councillor. 

    They said that Cllr Allen would have to apologise to the council in a manner specified by the standards committee. 

    Secondly, they ordered that Cllr Allen would undergo ‘personal development,’ including media awareness training.

    Cllr Allen now turned to Mr Darsley.  He asked whether it was ‘appropriate’ for Mr Darsley to ‘hold the role of prosecutor, rather than be impartial…. ‘

    (…. I thought that sounded rather familiar .…!)

    Cllr Allen indicated that he may appeal.

    * www.communitiesbeforedevelopers.org