The Northern Planning Committee met yesterday to consider the planning application for the controversial NWRR road. After nearly four hours, the committee voted by six votes to five to approve the planning application. The vote was on political lines. Six Conservatives voted for the plan. Three Lib Dem, one Green and one Labour councillor voted against.
This article is not about that debate. It’s about the attempts by Shropshire Council and a former cabinet member to exclude members who have in the past indicated that they don’t support the road from yesterday’s committee. No attempts were made to exclude those Conservative members who have supported the road in the past. This group of councillors are described in an email from a senior council officer to Shrewsbury & Atcham MP Daniel Kawczynski as “our councillors”, inferring their vote was in the bag.
These actions are unprecedented. They show that Shropshire Council was in a frenzy about getting its plans for the road approved. They have undermined the councils reputation as a democratic body.
There are reports on yesterday’s Northern Planning Committee meeting in the Shropshire Star (here, here, here) and on BBC Shropshire (here). The Guardian has reported on the impending demise of Darwin’s Oak. Some of the information used in this article comes from a freedom of information request by Better Shrewsbury Transport.
Attempts root out and disqualify councillors who did not support the NWRR from yesterday’s meeting began in January.
On 23, January, Richard Marshall, then the cabinet member for highways, wrote to Daniel Kawczynski MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham:
“As stated in our briefing meeting, where you stated ‘many people’ have contacted you with comments of dissent around the NWRR from opposition members. I would be grateful if you could send me any details you can on this please. If we can prove any of these comments have come from planning committee, then we will be able to challenge as ‘pre determination’, potentially excluding them from the vote.”
There is no evidence as to whether Kawczynski provided this information.
Last month Tim Collard, the council’s Chief Monitoring Officer advised some opposition councillors they could not vote because they took part in a Shrewsbury Town Council vote two-and-a-half years ago. The affected councillors took the view that the advice was based on a misunderstanding of the town council motion. Three of them attended and voted yesterday. The fourth could not vote as the road impacts his division.
Mark Barrow, Shropshire Council’s Director of Place has responsibility for infrastructure including the NWRR. He also oversees planning decisions. Many will see this as a conflict of interest.
A couple of months ago, he sent a confidential briefing note on the road including financial estimates to Daniel Kawczynski. There is nothing wrong with that as Kawczynski has been lobbying ministers to get money for the road. But surely it was wrong for Mark Barrow to allow the “confidential briefing” to be copied to the chair of the Shrewsbury & Atcham Conservative Association, who is not in a position to lobby ministers in favour of the road. The council is not an arm of the Conservative Party and I can see no grounds for allowing confidential information to be passed to anyone but Daniel Kawczynski.
On 28 September, Mark Barrow emailed Kawczynski’s Senior Parliamentary Assistant. That email raises concerns (my emphases):
“What I want to avoid is anything in the local media that could affect the planning process. I’m especially sensitive to any allegations of predetermination by our councillors as that would almost certainly open the door a judicial review by one of the anti lobbyist groups…
“In the run up to the planning committee I will be in touch to help choregraph some positive media messages from Daniel.”
It is extraordinary that an officer was planning to brief an MP on issuing supporting messages for a project that will be decided on the advice of officers in his directorate. By the phrase “our councillors”, Barrow seems to be suggesting that some of the committee councillors, undoubtedly all Conservatives, had made up their mind about the NWRR before the planning committee. These councillors were surely predetermined. The very idea of senior officers and the Shrewsbury & Atcham MP regarding some councillors as ‘their councillors’ makes me shudder.
After the information in the freedom of information request and the widely reported intervention by the Chief Monitoring Officer, I struggle to reach any other conclusion than Shropshire Council’s actions in recent weeks look like it was attempting to subvert the independence of the planning committee and councillors. That is unacceptable.
Officers should advise councillors on the merits and demerits of any planning application and let councillors decide independently. They are committed to this under planning law. Trying to exclude members who might disagree with officers and council leaders from voting is straying into dangerous territory. It might well be frowned upon by the courts.