Report calls for review of council processes after legal advice row

Latest news from the Harborough Mail
Latest news from the Harborough Mail

Councillors should have been allowed to view legal advice before being asked to make a decision on proposed changes to a major planning document, a review has concluded.

But it is unlikely a different decision would have been made had Harborough Council bosses allowed councillors access to that advice, the newly-published report adds.

The independent review was commissioned by the council executive last summer following the controversial decision by the council’s previous leadership to replace its Core Strategy planning document in a move which increased the number of homes to be built across the district over the next 25 years.

Advice over the legality of revising the strategy was obtained from a lawyer but only senior officers plus its then leader, Mike Rook, and the planning portfolio holder were allowed to see the full counsel.

Current leader Cllr Blake Pain, who was Mr Rook’s depurt, was not allowed to see the full document, which was only briefly summarised in the report which went before councillors. The issue attracted heavy criticism from the Lib Dem opposition on the council and resulted in splits in the leading Tory group.

Cllr Pain was sacked as deputy leader by Cllr Rook a month before the decision was finalised in December 2012. Cllr Pain launched the independent review after taking over as leader last May, after Cllr Rook had stepped down.

The review, undertaken by Weightmans solicitors at a cost of £23,000, reveals senior officers at the council feared the counsel’s advice would be leaked if widely distributed to councillors.

The report states: “We believe officers had genuine and understandable concerns.

“However we also believe that given the full council was making the decision, all members did have a need to know what information was contained within the opinion. This does not necessarily mean they should have been provided with a copy.

“The information could have been disseminated in a way which minimised the risk of it being leaked.”

However the author of the review stated he did not believe a different decision would have been made had the full opinion been made available. He also found no evidence to substantiate allegations of inappropriate relationships between developers and council officers and members.

The report, which will be considered by the executive at a meeting on Monday, calls for a review of council processes.