COVENTRY council is facing calls for an inquiry into how a councillor is living in a family home for which false information was used on a planning application – approved quietly by officers despite council rules.
It follows the Coventry Observer’s investigation in May into applications which secured building regulations and planning permission for a three-bedroom family home in Allesley, Coventry, for Labour councillor Rachel Lancaster and her ex-councillor mother Margaret Lancaster respectively.
Providing such false information about who owns a property – knowingly or otherwise – is an offence in law under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.
The council is also now facing calls to invalidate the planning permission. Other councils have confirmed they do so in such circumstances – not least because of the possibility of legal challenge.
Calls for a full and open inquiry today from this newspaper and some councillors came after councillor Lancaster took to social media last week to publicly defend herself – and senior officers also sought to defend her and the council’s actions in emails obtained by us.
In doing so, she and they made further claims which appeared to be at odds with the evidence.
Our investigation in May revealed:
- The planning application – signed by agent Simon Grove – falsely stated the owner of the property at the time in May last year was Margaret Lancaster – a Coventry Labour party stalwart and long-standing election agent for Geoffrey Robinson MP.
- Land Registry documents proved she was not, until five months later when she bought the bungalow for £260,000 after planning consent was granted in August for a first-floor extension and large-scale renovation next to open green space.
- A government website explaining the law states that declarations on planning applications about who owns the property – to obtain a ‘certificate of ownership’ – must be correct. It states: “It is an offence to complete a false or misleading certificate, either knowingly or recklessly, with a maximum fine of up to £5,000.” It adds such an incorrect application “is not valid”.
- The application was approved and signed off in July last year by unelected council officer Tracy Miller, head of planning, who granted planning permission – rather than councillors.
- But ‘safeguards’ in the council’s own codes of conduct in its constitution (page 102) state planning decisions must NOT be taken by officers over planning applications where any councillor has an “interest”.
- The rules – adopted by other councils too – are designed to prevent any appearance of wrongdoing or special treatment for councillors. In such instances, it means elected councillors at a planning committee hearing in public should decide whether or not to grant planning permission.
- Such matters are so potentially controversial that all Coventry City Council planning application forms require the applicant to state if a councillor or member of staff is related to the applicant. Margaret Lancaster’s application DID declare her association with Coun Lancaster, who was last year a member of the planning committee.
- Rachel Lancaster herself was the named applicant to Warwick District Council for building regulations approval for the home in August last year. It also gave the Allesley property in question as her address.
COUNCIL LANCASTER RESPONDS
She admitted under challenge on Twitter last week that it had been a mistake to have her name on that application. She also claimed to have belatedly emailed Warwick District Council to highlight the error last November, which was two months after building regulations consent was granted.
Coun Lancaster last week wrote privately to all councillors – in emails obtained by us – immediately after being aggrieved at being prevented from putting her case to fellow Labour councillors at a group meeting.
In the correspondence, she includes an apparent written “explanation” from the council’s monitoring officer and leading solicitor, Helen Lynch.
It states Ms Lynch had apparently “looked into the issues raised” by our investigation and “concluded” there was “no breach” of relevant council codes. Specifically, the code’s requirement that planning applications (page 102 of the council’s constitution, available on its website) in which councillors have an “interest” must not be determined by officers.
Coun Lancaster’s email to councillors state Ms Lynch concluded: “The fact that councillor Lancaster is named as a relative of the applicant on the form does not mean that she has an interest in the planning application… At the time the application was submitted, councillor Lancaster did not have a pecuniary interest in the property.”
Yet this appears to be at odds with the council’s own code of conduct, which clearly on page 102 states the rules apply when a councillor has an “interest”, rather than solely a disclosable pecuniary interest.
The code for councillors also requires them to “declare any private interests” relating to their public duties and to “take steps to resolve any conflicts”.
Another section of the council’s own constitution on its website (section 8.4 at page 240) states of staff as opposed to councillors: “There may be occasions where you have a financial or other interest in something being done by the city council.
“You will have a financial interest where either you or any member of your family has something to gain or lose financially. Such interest can be direct, such as applying for planning permission.
“… A personal interest is where you, or any member of your family, friends or organisation to which you belong could gain or lose (other than financially) from an act or decision of the council.”
Questioned by campaigner Richard Heneghan on Twitter account @KovBlog, Coun Lancaster tried to claim the false declaration had been “irrelevant” as “another family member owned the property and had full knowledge of the application” and therefore the legal requirements had been satisfied.
But this is simply not the case, as the planning application had clearly falsely named Margaret Lancaster as the owner in section A for the certificate of ownership.
An email by head of planning Ms Miller last week (July 6) to one enquiring councillor questioning if the planning permission should now be invalidated, seen by us, states: “No it doesn’t invalid the planning application. If it is pointed out to us during the application the ownership certificate is incorrect we would request correct details. However once the application is determined we have no recourse to then get it corrected.”
HOW OTHER COUNCILS APPLY THE LAW
Yet other councils follow the protocol as outlined in a North Somerset council document which states: “If a local planning authority determines an application and grants planning permission and the correct certificate has not be served, then the permission granted will be invalid and there would be a real risk that the High Court would quash the permission if any person aggrieved by the grant of the permission brought judicial review proceedings.” So too does Horsham District Council, for example.
Dorset County Council confirmed it “would consider any planning application that contains incorrect information to be invalid. A permission granted based on incorrect information could be challenged at a later date.”
Coun Lancaster only declared the Allesley home – where her family and mother now live – on her ‘Register of Interests’ in May this year. Over months prior to that, she posted photographs on social media of her new home being renovated.
CALLS FOR INQUIRY
Conservative opposition councillors are now set to raise further questions, including about whether the saga should be investigated at an ethics committee hearing or EGM.
Independent councillor Glenn Williams is also raising questions with council officers. He said: “Residents think it stinks. Some have told me it appears to be one rule for one, and another for another.
“It needs to be looked into further if only to clear Rachel Lancaster and council officers. There could be reasonable explanations but it’s not transparent. It’s for members and officers to ensure things are transparent.”
The Coventry Observer today calls for a full and open inquiry – through the council’s own standards processes or EGM in the first instance – into the entire saga and how it has been handled, including concerning the actions of senior officers.