Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Fence Sitting or Pre Determination

As a local councillor, the other day I was accused (among many other things) as sitting on the fence. A very common complaint made against Councillors, so why is it that Councillors are very careful about getting behind a local campaign group, wishing to build or not to build, this or that, here or there.

Well the simple answer is that they are banned from doing so, by law.

Many from outside Councils I’m sure are now asking what!

Councillors currently are governed by a set of rules set out in the Local Government Act 2000 and Local Authorities (Model Code of Conduct) Order 2007, which members and councillors must abide by.

Within these documents is a section about what is called Pre Determination.

This in part, is what it says:-

“Predetermination is where a councillor’s mind is closed to the merits of any arguments which differ from their own about a particular issue on which they are making a decision, such as an application for planning permission. The councillor makes a decision on the issue without taking them all into account.
If councillors are involved in making a decision they should avoid giving the appearance that they have conclusively decided how they will vote at the meeting, such that nothing will change their mind. This impression can be created in a number of different ways such as quotes given in the press, and what they have said at meetings or written in correspondence.
Rarely will membership of an organisation on its own, such as a national charity, amount to apparent bias. This is unless the organisation has a particular vested interest in the outcome of a specific decision that a councillor is involved in making, or the decision is quasi-judicial in nature.”

Some extreme but true examples:

·        Members of South Cambridgeshire District Council were warned that they may be disqualified from discussing a proposed new site for a mobile phone mast if they themselves used a mobile phone, and could not comment on a proposed new park and ride scheme if they owned a car.
·        Candidates standing for election to Reigate and Banstead Council were warned against discussing a controversial decision to close a local swimming pool and sell the land for housing, because to express a view would exclude them from voting on the issue if elected.
·        An independent councillor on Rushmoor Borough Council was prevented from voting at full council on a proposal to turn the Farnborough Aerodrome into an executive jet centre, because he had expressed his opposition to the plans during his election campaign.
·        Councillors on North Shropshire District Council were discouraged from expressing their views on plans to introduce parking charges in three local market towns until a final decision was taken, for fear that to comment before the vote could leave the council open to legal challenge. This was despite the plans to introduce parking charges provoking lively debate among local residents.

So before having a go at your local councillor, for what sounds like a luke warm endorsement for your campaign, remember he or she has to play the game by the rules or be banned from playing.

The good news.

Local Government Minister Grant Shapps has stated that :-

“The Localism Bill will change the law to allow councillors to campaign on local issues and champion the needs of their residents - ending widespread and long-standing uncertainty among councillors, leaving them free to better represent their communities.”

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