Friday brief: Councillor sanctioned for 'bringing council into disrepute'
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A West Northamptonshire Conservative councillor who was aggressive to a planning officer at a meeting attended by inspectors has been sanctioned for his actions.
Cllr Phil Bignell has been suspended from chairing the authority’s strategic planning meeting for three months (for which he receives an additional special allowance of £14,630 per year) and also from attending the other planning policy committee he sits on, due to his behaviour at a planning meeting last November.
Cllr Bignell was found by a panel of his fellow councillors at a special hearing at the guildhall on Wednesday night, to have breached two parts of the council’s code of conduct which dictate:
You must not do anything which compromises or may compromise the impartiality of those who work for, or on behalf of, the councillor must not conduct yourself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing your office or the council into disrepute.
You must not use or attempt to use your position as a councillor improperly to confer on, or secure for yourself or any other person, an advantage or disadvantage.
He was cleared of breaching a section of the code which states councillors must treat others with respect.
Cllr Bignell, had turned up at the meeting held on November 2, which had been called to make a decision on an application to build 45 homes in Flore, with 18 affordable homes. Cllr Bignell, as ward councillor for the area, had previously objected to the development at a parish council level, and even though not a member of the planning committee, or a named substitute he had attended in place of another councillor and voted on it. The application was turned down.
By law planning decisions must be made on the merits of the application and cannot be political. Councillors should not already have a preconceived opinion before making a decision about whether to grant or refuse an application. This is called predetermination. The panel found Bignell guilty of this.
At the November meeting, Cllr Bignell aggressively interrogated planning officer Misal Mogul, suggesting his report was incorrect and critiquing its assertions.
Liberal Democrat Rosie Humphries who was at meeting then complained to the council’s chief legal officer Catherine Whitehead writing:
“I can only describe his series of questions and assertions as a torrent of hostility.”
In her complaint Cllr Humphries also made reference to some emails which had been sent to Cllr Bignell which she had been copied into.
The email sent from the chair of Flore parish council Kathyrn Baines said:
“Thank you on behalf of the parish council for your support this evening - especially Phil. The planning officer was running scared!! That was an excellent result, no doubt it will go to appeal but we’ll wait and see.”
The authority employed independent investigators Alex Oram and Mark Hedges to carry out an inquiry into what happened on the night.
Planning officer Misal Mogul told the investigators that Cllr Kevin Parker, who was chairing the planning meeting, ‘did not do anything as chair to try and calm the situation’. Councillor Bignell could have made the same points in a calm manner without being aggressive.”
After the meeting Cllr Bignell apologised.
The officer said:
“When Councillor Bignell apologised I replied ‘I’m thick skinned, don’t worry about it’. I said this not because it had not affected me but because I took the view that I had to work with these members again and I did not want this to create issues in the future. Similarly I did give some consideration about making a complaint about Councillor Bignell’s behaviour but thought that it may create future issues. I did think his conduct towards me was unwarranted and quite aggressive.”
On the night, two members of the planning advisory service had come along to the meeting to carry out a peer review on request of the authority, which had concerns about how its planning operations were running.
Tracey Dark and Byrony Rudkin were interviewed by the independent investigator and said when they first arrived the building was locked and a caretaker had to let them in. When they went into the room they saw Cllr Bignell read from a script and he was speaking against the application. They described it as a ‘performance’.
“The member sitting next to Councillor Bignell was looking at the document Councillor Bignell was reading from. He didn’t appear to think that it was odd that Councillor Bignell was reading from this script. As a councillor myself if one of my fellow members turned up with a pre-written speech I would challenge them. These were not notes he had scribbled on.”
“Councillor Bignell is not someone who has only just been elected in May and is still learning the ropes, this is the Chair of the Strategic Planning Committee.”
She also said:
“My view is that the whole setup of the room and the behaviour of the members demonstrated that the Committee had needed a peer review for some time. They had just got complacent over time, protocols were forgotten and boundaries had become blurred. It felt like it had become a closed environment as opposed to an open and transparent one.”
In the report Cllr Bignell said it was with “extreme astonishment that I received the allegations against myself.” Despite providing evidence of a speech to the investigators he says he refutes the claim that what he said at the meeting was prepared. He also said his vote on the night did not affect the decision as ‘the other eight members with chairs casting vote were in favour of rejecting the application.’
NN Journal has been told by a tory source that many in the WNC Conservative group are shocked that Bignell had been recently re-appointed as chair of the strategic planning committee, despite this code of conduct matter hanging over him.
In April after publication of the damning report by the Planning Advisory Service Cabinet member for planning Rebecca Breese said huge changes would be made to the service.
News in brief:
A care company that ran a Kettering care home in which more than a dozen people died during the pandemic has been fined just over £200,000.
Amicura Ltd was fined at Northampton Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday after being prosecuted by watchdog the Care Quality Commission.
A number of residents had contracted the virus in the early months of the virus, possibly due to the infection being seeded in the home after patients were discharged from the two hospitals into the care home. A number of staff went off ill, including the home’s manager and it was taken over by the local health board. But on May 20 the CQC decided to close it down after a visit and surviving residents were moved elsewhere.
The CQC had rated the home as requiring improvement in 2019 but found a catalogue of failures months later. Residents had fallen, with some needing hospital treatment, but there had been no action to prevent other falls happening in the future.
Some residents’ wounds had been dressed inappropriately and had led to infections and parts of the home were dirty. In one case, the regulator said residents were “subjected to degrading treatment”, with one “covered in dried faeces” for hours.
Ros Sanderson, the CQC’s deputy director of enforcement, said: “The people living at Temple Court Care Home were catastrophically let down by the care provider’s poor systems and processes.
“I would hope this prosecution reminds all care providers they must always ensure people’s safety and manage risks to their wellbeing.
“The majority of care providers do an excellent job but when they don’t, we can and will take action to hold providers to account and protect people.”
Northants Telegraph spoke to families after the verdict. Read its report here.
Report by Nathan Briant, local democracy reporter
Health secretary Stephen Barclay yesterday reconfirmed the commitment to rebuild Kettering General Hospital by 2030. The hospital, which dates back to the Victorian era, is out of date and bosses said some years ago it was no longer fit for purpose. The hospital is also having to cope with the increasing numbers of patients as the area grows.
However as far as NN Journal understands the money has not as yet been given to the hospital and there has been little information released by the hospital in recent months. The board meeting last month did not provide an update.
🎸 Big Country are playing at the Roadmender, Northampton tomorrow from 7pm.
🍻 The Dukes Arms in High Street, Woodford, is hosting a beer festival over the bank holiday weekend from tomorrow until Monday
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