Councillors in gagging row

LOCAL politicians are being “gagged” from speaking out about controversial plans to develop greenbelt land, it has been claimed.Tendring District Council is drawing up a new blueprint for development in the area - which includes a scheme to earmark 27 hectares of farmland near Frating for industrial use.

By Juliette Maxam

LOCAL politicians are being “gagged” from speaking out about controversial plans to develop greenbelt land, it has been claimed.

Tendring District Council is drawing up a new blueprint for development in the area - which includes a scheme to earmark 27 hectares of farmland near Frating for industrial use.

The scheme, known as the Oasis site, has provoked a storm of criticism from locals worried it will lead to the creation of a new town in the countryside.

Now councillors have been sent a guidance note from the council's head of legal services and monitoring officer Sian Walter-Browne telling them what to do if they are approached by constituents or others and asked to support a particular view or proposal about the emerging plan.

The guidance said: “If members are to undertake fully their constituency roles, it is inevitable that they will be subject to lobbying on specific emerging proposals.

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“However, in relation to any planning matters, councillors must act and must be seen to act fairly and openly and should therefore avoid any contact with interested parties which could create the impression of unfairness or an appearance of bias for or against a particular proposal.

“Whilst there is nothing improper in a councillor receiving comments and representations from his or her ward constituents, a councillor should aim to adopt a completely impartial stance in dealing with any party making a representation to him or her about an emerging policy matter and should not get involved in discussions with that party.”

The guidance adds that if a councillor is exposed to extensive lobbying and thinks they have a prejudicial interest they should not take part in decision-making or voting on that matter because it would make the council's decision “unlawful and subject to legal challenge”.

Yesterday Sarah Candy, a Tendring councillor, said: “It reads like a gagging order. A lot of councillors are angry about it because the advice is we can't offer any opinion and you elect your politician to have opinions with a big policy like a local plan.”

She said the local plan is a matter of policy rather than planning, where strict rules prohibit councillors from expressing opinion on planning applications and then making decisions.

Jenny Willson chairman of the Campaign Against Rural Destruction (CARD), which is opposed to the oasis site, said she was incensed by the guidance to councillors.

“If your elected councillor cannot discuss it with you - where's democracy? It's despicable that their hands have been tied.

“There's such a strong feeling against this industrial site that people are going to be asking their councillor which way do they go. You've elected your councillor, why have you not got the right to ask them their opinion?”

But another Tendring councillor, Graham Potter said he was happy with the guidance. “The intention is to stop ourselves as councillors being put into the position that could be seen to breach our code of conduct rules.

“It's important we are not seen to be favouring a developer or particular point of view.”

A Tendring District Council spokesman said: “This is quite simply guidance that reflects the views of the national standards board on planning issues.

“Clearly members are encouraged to become involved in community issues as part of their role, but objections and comments on this plan are only valid in writing and to council officers for later consideration by our members, who we are suggesting should be seen to remain impartial up to that stage.”

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