Thursday 4 January 2018

Brent Council to instigate recording of legal advice & (some) meetings with developers in response to criticism

The Audit Advisory Committee is not the most high profile of Brent Council committees but is has an important role, not least in these times of controversy.  The Committee has a fairly independent membership so it is to be hoped they give matters a good airing.

Next Wednesday's meeting has three items relating to stories published on Wembley Matters where officers seek, in two of them, to respond to some of the criticisms.

Firstly there are recommendations made by the auditor following his consideration of the objections to Brent Council accounts regarding the payment made to Cara Davani, former Head of Human Resources LINK. Despite not finding for the objectors he did suggest some actions in areas highlighted in their evidence.

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The report puts on record Brent Council's  view of the initial case in which Cara Davani was found guily by a Watford Employment Tribunal of racial dscrimination and bullying of Rosemarie Clarke:
It remains the Council’s position that the sequence of events resulting in the unfair dismissal of Rosemarie Clarke reflect poorly on the organisation as it then was, and caused harm to the Council’s former employee. Lessons have been learned and new procedures have been implemented and the Council hopes that with this report the long-standing matter may now be brought to a close.
Another controversial issue has been Cllr Butt's meetings with developers, the lack of a note of what took place at the meetings and absence of any officers at these meetings LINK.

The Committee will consider proposed changes to the Brent Planning Code of Practice and will need to ensure that the changes are sufficiently robust as to restore public confidence in the planning process before they go to the Cabinet for approval.

The report states: 
There is a new section on ‘Discussions between members and meetings with developers or their representatives’. This in part incorporates into the code ad hoc advice issued by the Monitoring Officer to Members in the recent past and in part strengthens the Council’s commitment to being seen to be promoting good practice. The requirements aim to strike a proper balance between promoting public confidence in the integrity of the planning process and the legitimate reality of local government life. Of particular note is the requirement that pre-application discussions or discussions about undecided applications between Members and developers (or their representatives), are arranged, attended and documented by an officer.
This is the full section:*
Provided Members comply with the practical requirements  if this code and the Members Code of Conduct, there is no legal rule against Members, whether of the same group or not, discussing strategic planning issues, general policy issues or even future decisions.

Similarly, joint working, both formal and infornal, and dialogue between members of the Planning Commitee and members of the Cabinet is recognised as a legitinate reality of local government life. Members of the Planning Commitee need to ensure that when making planning decisions, they make up their own mind and on the planning merits.

Relevant members of the Cabinet are entitled to meet with developers or their representatives and other relevant stakeholders as part of their role to promote Brent and the regeneration, development and other commercial opportunities available in the borough.  In doing so Members of the Cabinet must always act in the best interests of the council and ultimately in the public interest, and in accordance with the high standards of conduct expected of Members, to ensure that the integrity of the planning process is not undermined and the council is not brought into disrepute.

Reasonable care and judgement should be exercised in relation to such meetings, taking into account the purpose of the meeting, the nature of the issues to be discussed and the timing.  In appropriate circumstances, exercising proper judgement may include ensuring a record is kept of the meeting. Cabinet members should make sure it is understood that their participation in marketing events or commercial discussions is separate from the adminstrative and regulaltory role of Members of the Planning Committee.

Although members of the Cabinet are entitled to express support or opposition to development proposed in the borough, they cannot use their position as a Member improperly to confer on or secure for any person an advantage or disadvantage.
As pre-application discussions or discussions about undecided applications require particular care, the following additional rules apply. An officer must make the arrangements for such meetings, attend and write notes. The meeting arrangements must include agreeing an agenda in advance. (my emphasis)
* The report on the Committee Agenda is a 'tracked changes' Word document converted into a PDF and very hard to read, particularly for anyone not versed in Word. Without a 'clean copy' I find it hard to see how it could receive proper scrutiny. See it HERE  It's ironic that a document trying to increase accountability and transparency is itself not readily accessible.

The last item is controversial and will remain so as Brent Council has restricted public access to the information. There is an update on the issues surrounding the asbestos contamination in Paddington Cemetery, first raised by Cllr John Duffy on this blog LINK but the update is not publicly available and the public will be excluded from the discussion about it.   No glimmer of light here.

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