Lancaster sleeping councillor probe rules ‘no breach’

Lancaster general view
Lancaster Town Hall.
Lancaster general view Lancaster Town Hall.

Seven councillors have been cleared of breaching Lancaster City Council’s code of conduct.

Complaints arose from a meeting of the council’s planning committee on March 6 2017, during which Skerton Labour Coun Roger Sherlock fell asleep on several occasions.

Allegations were also made against members of the committee’s Labour group, following comments made by one of its members, Coun Margaret Pattison.

Coun Pattison’s comments suggested that members of the Labour group decided in advance how they would vote on planning applications.

During the meeting, she was also seen to lift Coun Sherlock’s arm to vote, and told The Lancaster Guardian afterwards that councillors attend a pre-planning meeting to “decide how we’re going to vote”.

When quizzed, Coun Pattison denied lifting Coun Sherlock’s arm saying she had “nudged” him, and said she made the comments “in the heat of the moment”.

However, following an investigation carried out independently by CAP Business Solutions Ltd, no evidence was found that the council’s code of conduct had been breached.

The investigation, which cost more than £15,000, involved the interviewing of 26 councillors and members of staff, in addition to reviewing practices and procedures involved in the planning process.

In relation to Coun Sherlock, the investigation found that at the time of the meeting he was suffering from a serious illness, due to which he had been slipping in and out of consciousness.

The report notes: “This was out of his control; he did not realise how ill he was and it is accepted there was nothing he could have done to avoid the situation. In these unique circumstances, the conclusion is that there was no breach of the code of conduct (by Coun Sherlock).”

In a statement, the council said: “The investigation also found he had abstained from voting during the item which he was alleged to have fallen asleep and both the chair of the meeting and other councillors had behaved appropriately.

“Everyone was concerned about the health and wellbeing of a fellow councillor and their actions did not compromise the integrity of the planning meeting.”

The other allegations stemmed from comments made by Coun Pattison, suggesting the Labour group members of the committee decided in advance how they would vote on planning applications.

The report found that while some consistency was found in the voting patterns of the Labour group, there was not sufficient evidence to demonstrate predetermination.

The report notes: “It is pertinent that most of the Labour group members are long standing members of the committee, are very experienced and that with the exception of one item...all decisions followed officer recommendation.

“Members also demonstrated that they were aware of the need to give sound planning reasons for their decisions.”

The report concludes that there were no breaches of the code of conduct.

The council is required by law to appoint an Independent Person to oversee standards complaints. The position is currently held by Jackie Waring, who said: “This was a very thorough investigation with a clear outcome, which demonstrates the robustness of the procedures the council has in place to deal with any allegations that the code of conduct has been breached.”

Susan Parsonage, chief executive of Lancaster City Council, added: “These were serious allegations and it was only right and proper that they were investigated independently.

“The independent report found that there were no breaches of the code of conduct and should restore confidence that the council’s planning processes and procedures are sound and follow Government advice.”

Coun Oscar Thynne, chairman of the council’s Standards Committee, said: “The issue of predetermination is extremely serious and it is vitally important that the public has confidence in the planning system.

“By investigating the complaints independently and thoroughly, the council has been able to demonstrate that its procedures are sound.

“However, this case should act as a salutary lesson to all councillors of the need to avoid any actions which may lead people to perceive the contrary.

“Even the merest hint of predetermination can have serious consequences and lead to planning decisions potentially being subject to judicial review, which would be an even more expensive process than the cost of this investigation.”