EXCLUSIVE: Cabinet members's future in doubt following damaging claims by Sainsbury's over alleged breach of rules
PUBLISHED: 23:27 21 September 2012 | UPDATED: 23:41 21 September 2012
SERIOUS allegations about the conduct of one of Fenland's most senior councillors - sufficient to at the very least jeopardise her Cabinet role- were made public tonight by supermarket chain Sainsbury's.
The company’s lawyers have set out detailed accusations against Councillor Jan French. In particular they have questioned her behaviour as a planning committee member who was instrumental in Wednesday’s extraordinary about turn on a rival bid for a Whittlesey supermarket by Tesco.
The allegations have the potential for seriously embarrassing Fenland District Council leader Alan Melton who, also, announced a U turn earlier in the day.
Yesterday Cllr Melton explained he was satisfied with his planning committee’s actions to over turn refusal of planning consent for Tesco, thus allowing the final decision to be made by the Government.
However today Cllr Melton had changed his mind in the light of detailed analysis by the Cambs Times and Wisbech Standard which showed the planning committee had almost certainly broken the council’s code of conduct by their actions.
Cllr Melton revealed today that he had called a special Cabinet meeting on Tuesday and with chief executive Paul Medd in attendance upon his return from holiday. Specifically excluded from the meeting will be the three Cabinet members who sit on the planning committee – Cllr French, Councillor David Oliver and Councillor Peter Murphy. All three had inexplicably declined to accept officers’ advice and voted to allow the Tesco bid to go ahead. The Cabinet will also examine the likewise inexplicable decision of planning committee chairman Phil Hatton to use his casting vote in favour of Tesco.
Councillors face increasing criticism for their vote on Wednesday, especially since the code of conduct insists the public has the right to be notified in advance of planning matters. Using a mixture of procedural stealth and emotion, Cllr French steered the committee into a vote not, as expected, on ratifying the previous meeting’s refusal of Tesco’s application but approving it instead.
Cllr French’s insistence of entitlement to debate the issue puts her at odds with chief planning officer Graham Nourse. Ironically Cllr French is Cabinet member for planning improvement and so her actions are even more damaging in maintaining good working relationships with Mr Nourse.
Cllr Melton told me he hoped Cabinet “could find a way forward” that would allow a further planning committee to take place to rehear the Tesco application.
He will spend the weekend studying the claims made against Cllr French in the letter issued today by SNR Denton, the London firm of solicitors acting for Sainsbury’s.
Their letter claims “some serious allegations have come to light which suggest the members’ decision not to ratify the original reasons for refusal was improperly influenced”.
Specifically they allege Cllr French spoke with Tesco representatives before and during a break in the meeting which contravened the regulations.
The lawyers also claim Cllr French spoke to a fellow councillor before the meeting and told them how she intended to upend the Tesco refusal. Sainsbury’s say if true it would be “a blatant breach of the code of conduct for members”.
I can reveal tonight that the councillor she is alleged to have told is Pop Jolley, newly appointed to Cabinet following a spell as overview and scrutiny chairman.
He told me he had phoned Ian Hunt, the council’s solicitor, “to make a statement” to that effect. Cllr Jolley has also told Cllr Melton of the alleged conversation.
Sainsbury’s are demanding a full investigation of the allegation claiming that if true “the decision reached by members is flawed and open to challenge”.
If Fenland Council refuse to set aside the decision Sainsbury’s warned that they will challenge it in the courts.
Lib Dem councillor Dave Patrick said tonight the committee should have stuck to the original refusal.
He said he was angry too that the council, even though he is a member, is refusing to provide him with the exact wording of the reasons given for allowing Tesco’s application.
Elaine Cooper, the committee clerk, emailed him tonight saying that “after speaking to a legal colleague, I am unable to provide you with the information you request as it would not be in the public domain until the minutes are published 10 working days after the meeting, which would be October 3.”
Unknown tonight is what will happen to Councillor Martin Curtis, the vice chairman of planning who ruled himself out of the decision making process to fight for the Sainsbury’s store.
He was rumoured throughout the day to be on the verge of quitting but I am told that after a call from Cllr Melton he will await the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
Questions put to both Fenland Council and to Cllr French have not been answered: Cllr Melton said he is not able to comment on the specific nature of the complaint by Sainsbury’s until after Cabinet meets.
In a brief text message Cllr French told me: “Get your facts right. I did not have a meeting with Tesco.”