It is OK for their leader to sign an agreement with a potential developer looking forward to delivering their ‘collective goal’ and it’s just fine, apparently, for him to attend secret meetings and lunches with them. But it seems it is not all right for any member of Ashford Borough Council’s planning committee to discuss or express a view on Imperial College’s plan to concrete over several hundred acres of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty at Wye.
Richard Alderton, the head of planning at Ashford, has warned every member of the committee — and that, presumably, includes a certain ex officio member and council leader, Concordat signatory and Imperial cheerleader, Paul Clokie — that they should not express a view on Imperial’s Wye Park proposals ‘until they have all the relevant information on which to base such a view’. And that, says Mr Alderton, could be some time in the future because, as we all know, this is still only an idea not a plan.
Mr Alderton’s email to all councillors at Ashford
The warning from Mr Alderton — contained in an email sent to all councillors on May 10 — was prompted because Ben Moorhead, the chairman of the Wye Future Group had contacted every councillor asking for their view on Imperial College’s ‘proposals’ (Mr Alderton’s inverted commas).
Mr Alderton warned: ‘The first and most obvious point to note is, of course, that there are no proposals beyond a very broad concept of the type of facility Imperial envisage. The masterplanners Imperial have taken on have only just started work on collecting basic data –- there are certainly no specific proposals of any sort.’
Regular readers of Christopher Booker’s Sunday Telegraph column will already be familiar with attempts by officers to ‘gag’ councillors over development proposals. The gagging of councillors follows the creation of the Prescott quango, the Standards Board for England and Wales, which has so far spent close to £100 million of public money investigating complaints, many utterly vexatious, against councillors. Across the country, elected representatives have found themselves barred from voting in committee on a raft of planning applications — most notably for wind turbines — because they may have expressed a ‘subjective’ view on them in the past.
In case you’d forgotten: Cllr Clokie (circled) at the signing of the second concordat
Quite how signing a ‘concordat’ with Imperial and encouraging the college to pursue its proposals falls outside this ban while communicating with Mr Moorhead falls foul of it may baffle some readers. When the newspaper London Student told Mike Taylor, head of the National Association of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, about Cllr Clokie’s signing of the concordat, he said: ‘That’s very intriguing and odd. That means he can’t be part of the planning decision because he’s taken a public position on it, and that would be illegal. If you’re a member of a local authority and you’re involved in any planning decisions, you’re not legally allowed to have any public position on that development until after the planning decision has been taken, or you have to declare an interest and withdraw from the planning decision.
‘That is quite a standard requirement and several local authority members have been disqualified from standing as councillors as they have infringed that rule. One fellow actually went to prison, so it’s not a light thing. If the leader of Ashford Council has already come out in support of this, he should automatically disqualify himself from having any role in the decision. You could argue that it’s going to be very difficult for any of them to prove they’re impartial. They are meant to go into that decision-making process with no fixed views.’
But Malcolm Johnston, Ashford’s head of corporate policy and planning, said that Cllr Clokie ‘will act according to the law and as advised by officers at the relevant time’.
You can read the full text of Mr Alderton’s email here