Claim LDP ‘not a governance issue’ as councillors ‘exercised their democratic right to have an opinion’
Questions over who is responsible for Local Development Plan issues has surfaced again in a council meeting, with a question of if rejecting the LDP twice is a governance issue with Wrexham Council, or just councillors ‘following their democratic right to have an opinion’.
Cllr Paul Rogers pushed back against a committee, saying he felt it was “trying to sort of dictate as to what members should be doing”.
The independent Governance and Audit Committee met on Thursday looking at a range of items, including the council’s performance self assessment, displayed in a colour coded red/yellow/amber/green way. The performance included a ‘green’ assessment of the corporate plan, however there were arguments that with no Local Development Plan that should be a yellow score.
The meeting opened with an unscheduled statement due to ‘local media’ reports over the Local Development Plan – presumably Wrexham.com’s Freedom of Information write up, and subsequent reaction from one of the councillors involved.
Chair of the Committee, Independent Lay Member Jerry O’Keeffe said, “Before we turn to the agenda, I think it’s incumbent upon me just to ask the committee to reflect on the items that have been printed, published, on local media.
“I think on this particular point, the Committee will need to consider the implications of the articles published in the media yesterday and this morning, which references the action taken by the three main members and cited as on lawful in the narrative.
“We also need to note that legal processes are in motion, specifically the judicial review related to the original decision of the Council to reject the local development plan scheduled to be heard next week.
“Therefore care needs to be taken to ensure that any discussions initiated today will not prejudice such proceedings. We will be guided by the council’s monitoring officer who is in attendance.
“Nevertheless, this committee has a duty under our Terms of Reference to review and assess the corporate governance arrangements of the authority and to receive assurances that standards accord with the ethical frameworks and the code of governance.
“With this in mind, and mindful of the evidence disclosed in the Part Two document which is now in the public domain. It’s clear that the behaviour of the three members is very serious.
“I would therefore suggest that a full briefing report be prepared and brought to the December meeting. I would anticipate that the report would give full background details and provide this committee with assurances that steps have been taken a in full respect, look for response to actions I have described and be that all necessary mitigation measures are being considered.”
No questions were raised over why the committee were not proactively told of the issue, and required FOIs from Wrexham.com to raise the issue to a wider audience, nor why a report that was initially confidential was subsequently fine to release.
Wrexham Council’s Legal Officer was asked to bring a fresh full report to the committee, and was asked to comment.
The Officer told the meeting, “I have no issue with that that. I am not sure that we will be ready by December, given the timing for preparing a report and as we know as the judicial review is at the end of November. I have no problem bringing it to a future meeting when we are ready”.
Cllr Paul Rogers asked, “Just for clarity who who would be preparing this report? Would it be Sarah or would it be the Legal Officer because, obviously, I’m mindful of issues around possible differences of opinion which appear to have emerged between the monitoring officer and the three elected members in relation to the legal aspects on this. I’m just mindful that maybe it should be Sarah who prepares it, or would it be the monitoring officer?
The Legal Officer, also known as the Monitoring Officer, confirmed she would be preparing the report, “I will be providing the factual information. I may well do that jointly with Sarah in her role as well”.
Cllr Dana Davies appeared unhappy with Cllr Rogers question, “We have statutory officers within the council that provide professional statutory advice. That needs to be respected. I don’t think it’s appropriate to question that professionalism if I can put it that way.”
Trevor Coxon – Independent Lay Member added, “I don’t think it’s for this committee to determine who will report to it, we want a report and we want a contribution from all those that have relevant information to put in it”.
Cllr Trevor Bates added, “Going back to what Cllr Rogers said, I think it’s our duty to question everything. We need to ensure that any information that comes prepared independently.”
Moving to the substantive part of the meeting councillors looked at the colour coded assessment, with a debate around the lack of Local Development Plan adoption and if that was a ‘minimal area of concern’ or ‘very significant in terms of the organisation’, and if the reports should therefore have flagged it as more of a concern than was presented – ‘green’.
Cllr Paul Rogers said, “I take a different view from Mr Coxon and Cllr Dana Davies. A lot of work has gone into it both these documents – the LDP and the Council Plan. I don’t think just because members haven’t adopted the LDP, it should be moved from green to yellow.
“Members should be entitled to scrutinise accordingly and challenge those bands if they’re not fit for adoption. In my view they should remain green because they are just two documents out of all the corporate planning we do across many departments.
“I feel that highlighting just two which weren’t adopted just because members challenged them is not right, in my opinion.
Mr Coxon came back, “I accept entirely that the council has been harrowing over the adoption – or non adoption – of the local plan for many years. But in the assessment, under the theme corporate planning, there’s a of heading which is in blue type. Then the first sentence after that says, ‘we have a clear vision for the county borough, which informs our ambition, our well being priorities and our corporate planning processes’.
“Well, if we don’t have a local development plan in place, how can we meet that clear vision for our corporate planning processes? That’s the point I’m making and it does seem to be a significant issue to me.”
Cllr Paul Rogers was unhappy, “It does concern me where this conversation is going. Just because the council democratically decided not to adopt its LDP, and the executive decided to defer its council plan because of events which have taken place since March, I don’t think is a true reflection of the fact that we’ve been rated green here, in my opinion, it is for members to take that view, if they wish.
“It’s not an issue of governance, in my opinion, because the officers have done all the work. There’s ample documentation to back it up. There’s a clear vision, there’s clear evidence behind it, and the fact members choose to exercise their democratic right to have an opinion… I really concerned about this committee, is trying to sort of dictate those as to what members should be doing.”
The Chair looked to the terms of reference, and pointed to the democratic power of the committee itself, “….we make recommendations for changes to the draft self assessment. It needs to be a matter for this committee to decide, collectively by vote, what those recommendations are”.
A vote was later held to recommend a heading inside corporate planning themes should be downgraded from green to yellow ‘to reflect what we deem as a more relevant position’.
The vote was initially lost 6 v 7, with the green rating looking to be effectively endorsed.
It was questioned how that was possible with just twelve committee members.
The voting cock up took place due to a non-committee member having their hand up on screen, meaning the result was actually 6 v 6 – and so Chair of the meeting gave a casting vote – and he was ‘for it’.
Thus the ‘yellow’ recommendation went forward from the committee, however is non-binding on the Council.
The committee will get a further report on what has been going on regarding the Judicial Review attempt by three senior councillors likely in the new year, there is no detail on if that report will be ‘Part 2’ secret or public.
The LDP issue rumbles onwards, with the developer Judicial Review due to be heard later this week and outcome expected in December.
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