THE Coventry councillor and senior council figures at the centre of ‘serious allegations’ that planning rules were breached over a planning application for her family’s home must end their silence and come clean with the public, opposition councillors said today in response to a Coventry Observer investigation.
Conservative group leader Gary Ridley said his group of councillors would seek answers from Coventry City Council’s legal monitoring officer Helen Lynch – the officer responsible for ensuring the council’s constitution and codes of conduct have been adhered to.
Coun Ridley also suggested Labour Holbrooks councillor Rachel Lancaster should ‘move quickly’ to ‘calm any public anxiety’ over the ‘serious allegations’.
The Coventry Observer has since Tuesday put a series of detailed questions concerning the saga to Coun Lancaster, council officers and leading council figures.
So far, the only response has been from a ‘council spokesperson’: “We have been made aware of these allegations. We have looked into them and are satisfied that Cllr Lancaster has not acted improperly.”
The response does not even state the identities of the respondents – likely to include a small number of council officers and senior figures – who cannot legitimately claim to speak for the ‘council’, which is a body of 54 elected councillors.
It is not yet known if some councillors will call for a full inquiry into the allegations – potentially by the council’s standards committee, at a specially arranged EGM, or by another body.
Our exclusive front-page story yesterday (published on our website on Wednesday) revealed council planning officers granted planning permission to build a first floor on an Allesley bungalow last July to Coun Lancaster’s mother Margaret Lancaster – herself a former city councillor and long-standing general election agent of long-serving Coventry North west Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson.
It was despite ‘safeguards’ in the council’s own constitution (available on its website, page 102) which state decisions on planning applications where a councillor has an ‘interest’ should not be delegated to unelected officers.
Instead, such decisions should be made openly in public by a planning committee of councillors to prevent any appearance of wrongdoing.
It is understood Coun Lancaster, her mother and family now live at the converted Allesley home purchased by her mother five months AFTER the planning application in May last year.
A declaration of that application form stated Margaret Lancaster owned the property – when Land Registry documents reveal she did not, until last October.
Coun Lancaster herself had applied to Warwick District Council later last year for building regulations approval for the project, and declared the property in her ‘register of interests’ this month – amid questions being raised over the planning application.
Coun Ridley said today: “Councillors are governed by a strict set of rules to ensure openness and accountability. In order to maintain public confidence in politicians and public servants generally it’s vital that these regulations are adhered to.
“The allegations against a senior and experienced member of the council that appropriate declarations have not been made are very serious. They raise questions about whether the correct protocol has been followed and damage public confidence in the system.
“We’ll be discussing this with the monitoring officer in more detail in the coming days. However, I’m sure that Cllr Lancaster will want to move quickly to clarify the situation and calm the considerable anxiety these allegations may cause to members of the public.”
Our questions to the council and Coun Lancaster on Tuesday sought a detailed explanation, asked whether they accepted mistakes were made, and what should happen now.
The planning 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.
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 daughter Rachel as a councillor.
The new home attracted controversy last week when Coun Lancaster ordered Coventry North west independent candidate Ciaran Norris – a former Labour member – off the property when he was doorstepping for votes. She tweeted: Just had the pleasure of asking party dropout Ciaran Norris to get off my property. #notimefordisloyalty
Coun Lancaster was a cabinet member under ex-council leader Ann Lucas until the latter was ousted last year.
Coun Lancaster was a planning committee member until her removal this month by fellow Labour councillors, when she was also removed as chair of the scrutiny co-ordination committee.
The section of Mrs Lancaster’s planning application form that declared she owned the home – signed by agent Simon Grove – is a formal declaration for a ‘certificate of ownership for planning applications’. Rules clearly state an application cannot be ‘valid’ if the certificate is ‘incorrect’.