Monday 8 October 2018

Leader of Brent Council accused of breaching the Members' Code of Conduct over Planning Committee intervention

A previous Butt planning controversy

Whether it is because he is in thrall to the glossy world of developers or  because he suffers from a particularly bad case of Kilburnphobia, it is clear that all is not well with Muhammed Butt.
Behind the scenes the saga of Cllr Abdirazak Abdi’s removal from Brent Council Planning Committee has been burning away, emerging now and then in the Letters column of the Kilburn Times, and has now reached a crucial point. It is widely alleged that Abdi had been removed because he did not vote the ‘right way’, that is the way the Leader expected members to vote, although members on the Planning Committe cannot be whipped.

Cllr Abdi has submitted a Formal Complaint against Cllr Butt for breaching the Members;’ Code of Conduct.

The complaint, which has been seen by members of the Labour Group on Brent Council, sets out the background to the issue in detail and was sent to Debra Norman, Brent Council’s Chief Legal Officer.
I believe Cllr M Butt has breached the following Principles of Conduct in Public Life.
1. Objectivity. Failure to consult on the reasons why Cllr Abdi needed to be removed from the Planning Committee with Labour Group officers/Steering group in accordance with Labour Group standing orders.
2. Objectivity. The decision to remove Cllr Abdi from the Planning Committee cannot be justified based on the reasons provided by Cllr M Butt on 09 July 2018 and on the available information. Cllr Abdi is one of only two members on the Planning Committee who was not serving on any other committee (at the time). While 16 Councillors serve on 2 or more committees,11 serve on 3 committees and 5 serve on 4 or more committees.
3. Objectivity/openness. The justification given to Cllr Abdi by Cllr M Butt on 09 July, is not rational. If the purpose was to make sure all councillors serve on committees, why remove Cllr Abdi from the only committee he was on? (at the time).
4. Objectivity/Honesty/Openness. Cllr M Butt did not disclose the full reasons for the removal of Cllr Abdi from the Planning Committee (Please see emails on 09th/ 27th July 2018 from Cllr M Butt). This can be seen as misleading for not disclosing this information at the time. Breach of the rules of natural justice, right to be heard. Cllr Abdi was not given the evidence against him and even had Cllr Butt’s allegations against him been justified, Cllr Abdi was not given an opportunity to respond and challenge or develop in the role, before being removed from the Planning Committee.
5. Leadership. Lack of leadership for breaching the members’ Code of Conduct.
Muhammed Butt initially stated that Cllr Abdi had been removed from Planning Committee to make room for one of the new Willesden Green councillors elected in the by-election after the full council elections.  He said at the time that he thought Abdi was on another committee.
After protests Butt wrote to Cllr Abdi changing his grounds in a letter that manages to be both insulting and patronising accusing his colleague of posturing and pandering (to the public?) and threatening him with the Code of Conduct. Furthermore he brings council officers into the dispute sugegsting that they had ‘grave concerns’ over Abdi’s conduct. At one point he appears to suggest that councillors have to follow ‘prevailing expert guidance’ on planning issues. Does this mean the Committee should always rubber-stamp officers’ recoemmendations?
Dear Abdi,
I thought it would be helpful to try and clear up the mess that we find ourselves in.

Obviously we are at odds with regard to the recent change in your Planning Committee membership status. As Leader I have a number of obligations. In this instance I was caught between protecting this administration, and helping you, as a new member of Labour Group, avoid public embarrassment. In appointing you to Planning Committee I had hoped that you would take full advantage of the many opportunities available to grow into the role. Instead, it quickly became apparent that you were not prepared for the responsibility, nor willing to accept the multiple offers of impartial help and advice. Senior officers, committee colleagues, and experienced observers alike all expressed grave concerns about your conduct. In taking unsubstantiated positions on numerous applications, counter to prevailing expert guidance, and in failing to properly prepare for meetings, you were exposing yourself and this organisation to justifiable claims of bias, predetermination, and incompetence, not to mention reputational damage.

Your actions since have only served to reinforce my fears that you do not yet understand your role. For example, in making internal Group matters public you have broken party rules. And, in condoning your branch’s potentially libellous motion, you have exposed yourself to civil action. However, given the circumstances, I do not think it appropriate to take formal action. Indeed, I think it would be wise to put this down to naivety and inexperience, albeit on the proviso that any further such conduct will not be tolerated. Please understand that you have a mandate from the people of Kilburn, are governed by the rules of our party, and must adhere to this council’s code of conduct. As a result you have an obligation to do more than posture or panda to a vocal if ill-informed minority.

On reflection, I should have been explicit on the need for this change. I realise that you were caught off-guard by the speed with which things occurred. While the same cannot be said for your subsequent actions, I can see now that your immediate reaction was understandably indignant. With the benefit of hindsight I am sure we could have gotten to this point without incident and I apologise for not having found another way forward. I do believe that you have what it takes to be an effective local councillor and a valuable member of Labour Group. You are clearly a keen and well intentioned advocate as evident in your already impressive casework record, which is why it is such a shame that we have started out on this poor footing.

I hope you understand that, as an official substitute, you have the opportunity to redeem yourself on Planning Committee and moving forward any other committee, and that you will now avail yourself of the support and advice available. In the meantime, I’d be very grateful if you’d consider becoming a member of Brent’s Pension Board. You’d be tasked with overseeing the management of hundreds of millions of pounds of investments on behalf of this organisation’s past, present, and future employees. While the board meets quarterly, given the subject matter, I’m sure you can appreciate that a lot of interesting and important work goes on in between. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in, do please let me know.

In closing, if you ever want to talk anything through on this or any other matter you will always find my door open.
Cllr Abdirazak responded: 
Thank you for your email on 27 July 2018, explaining your decision on09 July 2018 to remove me from the Planning Committee. I am writing to reapond to your accusations and to again provide my view of why I was removed from the Planning Committee.
I would like to make several observations and comments on the allegations you make in your email, ‘it quickly became apparent that you were not prepared for the responsibility, nor willing to accept the multiple offers of impartial help and advice. Senior officers, committee colleagues and experienced observers alike all expressed grave concerns about your conduct. In taking unsubstantiated positions on numerous applications, counter to prevailing expert guidance, and in failing to properly prepare for meetings, you were exposing yourself and this organisation to justifiable claims of bias, predetermination and incompetence, not to mention reputational damage.’
Comments: The timing and context of these new accusations, you are making are very convenient, considering the following:
On 09 July 2018 when you first informed me of your decision, you said there following, “we are making quite a few changes on committees today right and er I am going to make you an alternate on planning right, because I need to put Elliot Chappell and three of the new councillors on committees. I am making those changes right” I objected and I said “I am not happy” and you said “You’re on scrutiny as well”. I said “No” and then I followed up by saying “you do what you have to do and I will do what I have to do but I am not happy with it and I am not going to accept it”. You provided a clear and explicit reason for your decision to make a change on the planning committee above, and you are now providing a completely different reason without any substantiating evidence, it seems like you are trying to cover up the faults of your original decision to remove me from the planning committee.
The subsequent revised reason you provided on your e-mail dated 27 July, explaining your decision to remove me from the planning committee, was made after I made my accusations of the possibility of political interference in the planning process. In an e-mail sent to labour group members on 09 July 2018 at 17:44. This further explanation was provided after you had already provided a reason (above) and after three weeks had elapsed from your decision on 09 July 2018.
In response to your accusation ‘nor willing to accept the multiple offers of impartial help and advice’. I did not receive any offers of help, advice or guidance as claimed. Further no one, either the Chair, deputy Chair, committee members or officers, discussed or made any concerns known to me about my decision-making or preparedness on the planning committee. I would appreciate any evidence or communications that you have in this regard.
In fact, on 16 May 2018 after the mandatory planning committee training session I expressed concerns to the deputy Chair of the planning committee, about you and Shama Tatler’s conduct. On 16 May 2018 We had a mandatory training session on planning. Please see my account of the training session. ‘The session was led by Alice Leicester Head of Planning and David Glover a senior planning Officer. The Lead member for regeneration, Shama Tatler also significantly contributed, and raised new points while elaborating on the points in the training. She sat next to the lead officers. I felt this was inappropriate as this training was tainted by the political agenda of the leadership in the council. Half way through the same training session Cllr Muhammad Butt came in and sat down, next to the other members, he opened his tablet computer and began to look at the tablet screen and type on his keyboard, throughout the session. He was not there to learn, which was obvious to me from his actions but to pressure members to fully accept and act on the information that was being imparted on to us. I felt this was inappropriate as the planning committee is independent and members were being influenced towards a certain political agenda.
Every decision I took on the planning committee, I made based on material planning considerations, as the committee approved all these decisions. I was not asked and neither did I provide explicit reasons for voting in any particular way. 
It seems like you are making an implicit suggestion that officers’ recommendations have to always be accepted, in response to your suggestion. What is the purpose of having a planning committee, if we always have to approve the officers’ recommendations?
I would like to also make this further observation about the lead member for regeneration Shama Tatler. On 25 June 2018, we had a Planning committee members’ briefing from developers looking to submit their planning applications. The lead member for regeneration, Shama Tatler, sat in on part, of this briefing. Her presence was not helpful as she was neither a committee member nor a substitute and because it could dissuade members from asking questions and being open to raise issues early on in the process, so the developers can amend their applications. 

In short, I believe I was removed from the planning committee because I voted against planning applications favoured by you and Shama Tatler and not for the reasons currently claimed; lack of capability, ineptitude or lack of preparedness. If these reasons provided were true, then there would be concrete evidence that these issues, mentioned above, were brought to my attention, an opportunity provided for me to refute or comment, and if needed a development plan put in place. There is no evidence of any of these steps being taken and this is a convenient reason provided to defend against the accusations I’ve made.


Philip Grant said...

Cllr. Butt to "Dear Abdi":

'... you were exposing yourself and this organisation to justifiable claims of bias, predetermination, and incompetence, not to mention reputational damage.'

The words pot, kettle and black come to mind!

Alison Hopkins said...

"Panda". Hm. I wonder who wrote this for Butt?

Anyhow, that whole thing of not going against officers is so much nonsense. Indeed, it is precisely what any good councillor ought to do if they see fit and feel it right. Sarah Marquis, when chair of Planning, did just that at a meeting I spoke at, to her huge credit.

Tatler is an interesting person. When I bemoaned the low turnout at the May elections to her, she said that as a former (primary!) school governor I was culpable in not educating people to vote. That rather made my head hurt. That same evening, I recall telling another councillor I thought far too many Labour councillors were corrupt and lazy, in that they were complicit in what's happening in Brent. Nothing before or after that has changed my opinion. Kilburn seems to be a shining exception, and well done to them.

We really are back to Bent Brent, aren't we.

Philip Grant said...

Martin was right to put the October 2017 "Kilburn Times" article at the top of this blog, as this is yet another example of Cllr. Butt trying to usurp control of Brent's planning system from the supposedly independent Planning Committee, in order to promote the interests of property developers.

He may think that he has valid reasons for encouraging lots of large scale housing developments - the more new homes, the more Council Tax you eventually generate - but that does not excuse his behaviour. As Cllr. Abdirazak has had the courage to point out, as Leader of the Council he should be abiding by the Members' Code of Conduct, and the seven principles of conduct in public life which are at the heart of the Code.

The 'planning controversy' last year was centred on hospitality which Cllr. Butt (and Cllr. Tatler) had received from Terrapin Communications (a PR firm promoting the interests of a number of property development companies), and unminuted meetings he had held with Terrapin and their clients.

One of these meetings was the day before that client's major planning application was considered, and approved by, Brent's Planning Committee. We do not know what was discussed at that meeting, or whether it had any influence on the planning decision.

As I pointed out in October 2017, one of the seven conduct principles is integrity, on which the Code says:
‘Integrity: you should not place yourself in situations where your integrity may be questioned, should not behave improperly and should on all occasions avoid the appearance of such behaviour.’

You might have hoped that Cllr. Butt would realise that his actions in connection with Terrapin had placed him in a situation where his integrity may be questioned. But among the more recent entries under "gifts and hospitality" in his Register of Interests on the Council's website is:
'26/05/18 - Two tickets to Sky Bet Championship Play-off Final at the Wembley Suite. Valued at £80 each. Gift received from Terrapin Communications.'

You have to wonder what Terrapin wanted from Cllr. Butt this time!

Cllr. Abdirazak has made a good point over Leadership, another of the seven principles. On this, the Code says:
'Leadership – you should promote and support these principles by leadership, and by example, and should act in a way that secures or preserves public confidence.

Whether he was acting as Leader of the Council, or as Leader of the Labour Group, in removing the councillor from Planning Committee and in the subsequent correspondence above, his actions and example are more like those of a bully - "do what I tell you, or I will punish you".

It may be effective in maintaining his control over everything the Council does, but that is NOT acting 'in a way that secures or preserves public confidence.'