'Is there going to be accountability?' - councillors voice concerns over Dissington Garden Village controversy
Councillors asked if anyone was going to be held to account over the ‘significant concerns’ around a controversial and high-profile Northumberland planning application.
The county council has said in a report there is ‘now significant evidence that appears to suggest that attempts were made to subvert’ the authority’s planning function in relation to the Dissington Garden Village (DGV) scheme.
The proposals for up to 2,000 new homes and other facilities near Ponteland, by Newcastle-based developer Lugano, sparked a High Court claim against the council in 2018 that was later dropped.
The application, which had a minded to approve resolution before it had to be reassessed, has since been withdrawn, while Lugano Dissington Estate Ltd has gone into administration.
Some concerns were passed onto Northumbria Police, but the force has said that ‘having considered this information, we could not find anything which would warrant a criminal investigation’.
During the discussion of a report at a meeting of the council’s audit committee on January 22, Coun Nick Oliver, the cabinet member for corporate services, revealed that a complaint had now been made to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC).
He later confirmed that the IOPC had also been contacted in relation to the concerns around the council’s former development company Arch, which saw police say ‘no criminal offences have been identified’ after ‘thoroughly reviewing the documents provided’.
The IOPC has been approached for comment.
During the meeting, the committee chairman, Coun Georgina Hill, asked: “Is there going to be accountability?” Coun Oliver responded: “We share those concerns.”
In relation to the police response, he added: “The IOPC referral is confirmation that we don’t accept that. There are things only the police can look at, the council can only go so far.”
The meeting also heard that information had been passed onto the relevant professional body in relation to the conduct of the former senior planning officer highlighted in the report.
A spokeswoman for the Royal Town Planning Institute said: “We can confirm that we have received a complaint about a member from Northumberland County Council which we are currently investigating.
“We take all complaints seriously and have a rigorous investigation process in place which we will follow. Our full complaints procedure and our Code of Conduct can be found on the following webpage: https://www.rtpi.org.uk/membership/professional-standards/”
Meanwhile, an update by the administrators lodged with Companies House explains that a confidential report on the conduct of the directors of Lugano Dissington Estate Ltd has been submitted to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
During the meeting, members mentioned on several occasions the report’s reference to a potential loan from the council to the developers, described as ‘highly irregular’ and an issue which has been raised in the council chamber on previous occasions.
It has previously been described as a ‘Tory smear’ by the leader of the previous Labour administration, Coun Grant Davey, who said no agreement was reached and it had not ‘gone any further than a conversation between two chief executives’.
But the report cites evidence that the discussions had reached an advanced stage, with heads of terms and other correspondence obtained relating to an initial £34million from the local authority plus further funding of 55% of the site value once outline permission was granted.
Invited to comment afterwards, Coun Davey said: “In our administration, officers would deal with things. There may have been heads of terms, I’m not aware of that.
“Senior officers would bring things to the risk appraisal panel and if they approved it, they went to cabinet and then full council. They could not be signed off by the section 151 officer (head of finance).
“This loan didn’t come to the risk appraisal panel, it was just things officers were working on. Good governance in our administration meant it followed a proper procedure.”
On the wider DGV scheme, Coun Davey added: “This was the biggest project that had been brought to the council and it went through proper procedures.
“The Government was backing it financially and it was supported by the Prince’s Foundation, the North East Chamber of Commerce and the North East LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership).
“Labour members were not involved in the removal of the core strategy or the removal of the minded to approve resolution and Labour members were not involved in the £300,000 fees to protect two members and the chief executive.”
At the meeting, Coun Davey, as well as independent Coun Anne Dale, were also named in relation to their efforts to oppose the withdrawal of the core strategy, which included seeking their own legal advice, rather than accept that provided by the council.
The withdrawal of the core strategy is tied to the DGV scheme as it led to the application having to be reconsidered and was one of the strands highlighted by Lugano Dissington Estate Ltd in its High Court writ against the authority.
It was also claimed during the meeting that the pair circulated anonymous letters containing allegations, that the council says were ‘wholly without basis’, which were then relied upon by Lugano in its legal action.
Coun Mark Swinburn sought to refer Couns Davey and Dale to the council’s standards committee, although he was told that this was not appropriate.
An amended motion to raise the issue with the monitoring officer and seek advice was narrowly passed by the chairman’s vote after an initial 3-3 tie.
Those to vote against were the three Labour members present, with Coun Ian Swithenbank saying he wasn’t against anyone being held to account, but that ‘this is not the vehicle’.
Independent member Ben Haywood Smith, who doesn’t have a vote, was of the same viewpoint.
After the meeting, Coun Davey said: “I do not believe I have breached the Nolan principles (the basis of the ethical standards expected of public office holders). I have not breached any standards.”
He added that he has ‘no problem giving my evidence to an independent auditor’.
Coun Dale said: “The facts are fundamentally wrong and I’m happy to discuss this and raise my concerns with the monitoring officer Liam Henry.”