Friday brief: ‘this is a ruthless attempt to silence me, to shut me down’
Northampton rebel tory councillor speaks out in council chamber about cobblers land deal plus news from across the county
A Tory rebel councillor has spoken out against his own party leader after he was kicked off committees due to his questioning of the Sixfields land deal.
Cllr Paul Clark, who represents Billing and Rectory Farm in Northampton, gave a speech at the full council meeting of West Northamptonshire Council last night, accusing the leader Jonathan Nunn of kicking him off of a scrutiny and a planning committee after he asked questions about the proposed sale of council land to the owners of Northampton Town Football Club.
He told the full council that Nunn had told him his ‘interference’ with the Sixfields deal was the reason for his removal from the committees.
“I assumed by using the word interference he meant scrutiny. But that is my role and my duty as a councillor. Why have committees in the first place? They are not there to nod through important decisions without proper and thorough scrutiny. Also mentioned as a reason was an email sent some 18 months ago, asking some direct questions to the leader of West Northants Council, Jonathan Nunn, and concerning impart of the chair of democracy and standards committee, Suresh Patel. Truly if these are justified reasons from the decision makers then I can only conclude that this is a ruthless attempt to silence me, to shut me down, a democratically elected councillor, from asking difficult and sometimes direct questions and so representing my constituents and the people of West Northants properly and responsibly with accountability.”
He received a round of applause from the public gallery after his speech.
Nunn responded and said during his conversation with Clark he ‘could not get a word in edgeways’ and it included ‘threats, insults and all sorts’.
He told Clark:
“You’ve made so many comments about wrongdoing - I just need to see what they are. Show the information. I’ve offered that you go to the monitoring officer if you prefer to go to her. We’ve had no evidence of it.
“This whole I’m speaking the truth bit - I don’t get it. All I see is a bunch of people who are deceived into the way that you’re somehow being shut up. We put our officers and everybody else at your disposal to answer these questions. Be honest with the people I think you are misleading Paul. My offer to meet and discuss this remains open.”
The email Cllr Clark referred to about Cllr Suresh Patel concerned rumoured meetings between Patel and the football club’s owners prior to the land deal.
Cllr Patel has previously denied the allegations.
Cllr Clark may now face sanctions from the Conservative party. He said however that he will continue to ask questions about the deal - which has been the subject of a judicial review after the rival bidder to the football club owners challenged the legality of the council’s decision. A decision from the judge is expected anytime now.
At the meeting Labour’s councillor Danielle Stone also brought up the situation of the chairs and deputy chairs of the council that only three are women.
“That suggests to me that we have a huge amount of work to do to become an equalities employer.”
She also queried the appointment of Cllr Andrew Grant to the chair of scrutiny for children’s services. She accused him of being responsible for the closure of sure start centres and taking out middle managers from the service. Liberal Democrat Sally Beardsworth also said Cllr Grant was responsible for stopping care for looked after children once they reached 16 (which is a statutory duty) and said she hoped he had learned lessons from the mistakes he had made in the past.
Cllr Zoe Smith also criticised the lack of opposition councillors chairing scrutiny committees. And Independent Cllr Julie Davenport criticised some cabinet members for not responding to other councillors enquiries and asked for a way to complain about cabinet members.
In other news from West Northamptonshire Council an investigation has found that one of its councillors deliberately used his position to disadvantage a housebuilder who proposed a contentious project in his ward and breached his authority’s code of conduct.
Cllr Phil Bignell was not a member of the Daventry planning committee or a substitute when he was allowed to sit on it and vote against a contentious planning application last November.
The external standards investigators said why he was allowed to sit on the committee remains “unclear”.
The application for up to 45 homes in Flore proposed by East Haddon-based Cora Homes was rejected by the committee by five votes to four. The investigation into Cllr Bignell’s conduct was triggered by Local Government Association (LGA) members who attended the committee as part of a peer review into West Northamptonshire Council’s (WNC) planning service.
The planning experts said Cllr Bignell, who represents Long Buckby, showed a senior officer presenting the application “a complete lack of respect” as he “waved his papers in the air” and argued they had omitted key information for the application. Cllr Bignell told the investigation that while he was “persistent”, he was not aggressive.
But the investigators found he had breached WNC’s code of conduct. They said he “failed to treat [the officer] with respect” but that it was “not so serious as to amount to bullying”.
The LGA representatives noticed during the meeting that Cllr Bignell read from a typed document, leading them to believe that he had already decided he was opposed to the application before the meeting.
Cllr Bignell told the investigators he had prepared a speech ahead of the meeting, ready to speak as a Long Buckby councillor. But the investigators found if that was the case he “should not have involved himself so directly in the decision-making process”.
Since he sat on the committee deciding the application, they found Cllr Bignell breached WNC’s code of conduct a second and third time. They said he used “his position to improperly disadvantage [Cora Homes]” and “brought his office and authority into disrepute by undermining the integrity of the council’s planning service”.
The investigators were told by the chairman of the planning committee, Cllr Kevin Parker, that he allowed Cllr Bignell to sit on it because he had “received the necessary training”. Cllr Bignell is currently the chairman of WNC’s strategic planning committee. Both are Conservative councillors.
It would have been clearly “unacceptable” if the Conservative group had made an attempt to “actively influence the decision…to achieve a predetermined outcome”, the investigators said. But they said they “did not find sufficient evidence” there was a “wider political effort to ensure the planning application was rejected”.
They concluded WNC’s monitoring officer Catherine Whitehead nor the WNC Conservatives’ group business manager Cllr Suresh Patel “were involved in the decision or even notified” that Cllr Bignell would be sitting on the committee.
WNC’s democracy and standards hearing sub-committee, of which Cllr Patel is a member, will meet on Wednesday to decide if it agrees with the investigators’ findings. It will also agree the sanctions it could impose Cllr Bignell, if it wants to impose any.
The panel could, for example, recommend that he is officially censured or removed from committees or sub-committees. It could also recommend that he be asked to attend training or make a formal apology to WNC.
Report by Nathan Brian, Local Democracy Reporter
News in brief
The annual quality report of Northamptonshire Healthcare Foundation Trust will be discussed behind closed doors next week.
The report is listed on the agenda for North Northamptonshire Council’s scrutiny commission and in an unusual move it will not be discussed in public.
The reason for the secrecy according to the council’s website is that it is exempt under Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972 which concerns the financial or business affairs of a person.
Northampton rapper Slowthai has been charged with two counts of rape. The rapper, who has been a critical success since he launched his first album Nothing great about Britain in 2018, has been dropped from Glastonbury festival in the wake of the charges, which relate to alleged incidents which took place in Oxford in September 2021.
Slowthai, whose real name is Tyron Frampton, appeared at Oxford magistrates court this week and the case has now been sent onwards to the crown court. He was bailed and says he is innocent.
Hundreds of people packed out a kettering hall yesterday to protest against the proposed closure of the Kettering Conference Centre. Last month operators Compass made a shock announcement that the centre, which includes the Lighthouse Theatre and Balance Health Club will close. We’ll bring you a report next week.
Corby MP Tom Pursglove is opposing a plan to build a major business park in his constituency.
Pursglove wrote to North Northamptonshire Council to oppose the plan for the proposed 120-acre park between Thrapston and Titchmarsh.
One of four plots on the site would be used by Thrapston-based DSV off the A605 and would be an extension to Halden’s Parkway.
Developers said building the site overall would create 500 jobs and that the facilities would create more than 2,000 jobs once it is completed.
The land is owned by the Diocese of Peterborough but it sold a 10-year option on the land in 2020.
But residents and other groups are opposed to the scheme and have told the council they worry about the impact on roads and environmental damage.
Mr Pursglove wrote to the council in a letter received this month ‘to outline, and firmly associate myself with the strong level of ongoing local objection expressed by my constituents’ for the application.
He said the scale of the project meant residents had ‘significant concerns…particularly in respect of flood risk to nearby, low-lying settlements’.
The MP said other residents were concerned about the impact of traffic on ‘already congested nearby roads’, given ‘insufficient public transport networks’ could not serve the development.
Islip Parish Council’s clerk Claire Tilley said:
“The application will not provide ‘needed’ local jobs, they will not be diverse and will be dependent on commuting and should be refused.”
STAUNCH (Save Titchmarsh, Thrapston And Upper Nene Valley Countryside and Habitats) said the project would be “significantly damaging to the environment, its ecology, habitats and the intrinsic quality and character of the open countryside, which creates an iconic rural setting for the town of Thrapston and conservation village of Titchmarsh”.
It said any damage would be “irreversible, unjustifiable and incapable of reasonable mitigation.”
The planning application will be decided by the council in coming months.
Report by Nathan Briant
🌻 Kettering’s Green Patch is hosting a plant sale tomorrow from 10am to 1pm. You can find the community garden at the corner of Margaret Road and Valley walk in Kettering.
🎶 West End show Whitney: Queen of the Night is being staged at the Royal & Derngate in Guildhall Road, Northampton tomorrow from 6.30pm. Ticket bookings here.
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