Councillor Kay Moss has resigned from the Conservative Party over her treatment following a controversial planning decision to allow up to 119 homes to be built off Eridge Road Crowborough.
Over the last nine months Cllr Moss said she felt her every move had been watched to see whether she put a foot wrong. She also thinks that her ability to represent the views of residents in her ward has been hampered.
In an unusual move, after councillors refused planning permission in February, the application was referred back to the planning committee. This was because the developer raised concerns about the decision-making process and threatened legal action if the decision was issued. In July, the planning committee considered the application afresh and voted to grant outline planning permission.
To understand more of the background concerning the planning application, readers might like to see this earlier article: Decision on major Crowborough development reversed.
In total the application has been considered by Planning Committee North on three occasions – in February (deferred), March (refused) and July (approved).
At the first meeting in February, Cllr Moss spoke as the local representative declaring a prejudicial interest because she lives near the site, and then as advised, she left the meeting before councillors discussed the application. On this occasion Councillors decided to defer making a decision to enable more information to be gained from East Sussex Highways.
Cllr Moss was later informed that she should have declared a Disclosable Pecuniary Interest and taken no part in the planning application.
Councillor Moss has said a press release issued by Wealden District Council inferred she was responsible for the application needing to be reconsidered. In a letter to Crowborough Life at the end of last week, she explained her full reasons for resigning from the Conservative Party. She will now continue, as both a Wealden District Councillor and a Crowborough Town Councillor, as an Independent.
Her letter explains she was wrongly advised by the Council’s Monitoring Officer before she spoke at the planning meeting. The Monitoring Officer’s role is to ensure that the Council, its officers and elected councillors maintain the highest standards of conduct, in line with the Council’s Constitution and the Code of Conduct for Members. A Disclosable Pecuniary Interest (DPI) broadly includes business interests (for example, virtue of a councillor’s, or their spouse or partner’s, business, trade or profession) or wider financial interests (for example investments or assets such as land or property).
Click to download the letter in which Cllr Moss explains her full reasons for her resignation from the Conservative Party.
A spokesperson for Wealden District Council has said:
Cllr Moss has omitted to state that, in seeking advice about the code of conduct before the Planning Committee meeting in February 2020, she failed to advise the Monitoring Officer that she lives very close to the application site such that her own property and home life would be affected by the proposed development. It was her responsibility to do so. As a long serving Councillor, including having spent a number of years on the Standards Committee and having attended a number of training courses on the code of conduct, this was a serious omission. When that information came to light, the Monitoring Officer advised Cllr Moss of the need to declare a Disclosable Pecuniary Interest. This meant she could play no part in relation to the major planning application at Eridge Road. By speaking against this planning application in February 2020, Cllr Moss failed to follow these rules.
Legal advice received by the Council was very clear that by participating in the initial planning committee meeting, Cllr Moss’s actions left the decision of the Planning Committee in March open to legal challenge and there was a realistic prospect that the judicial review threatened by the applicant would be successful. In order to protect public funds, the decision was taken to take the application back to Planning Committee to correct the error in the process, rather than fight the matter through the courts. That has now happened and a valid planning decision was made by the committee.
Whilst no formal complaint was lodged, we undertook an internal review in relation to Cllr Moss’s actions. That review found that she had not declared the correct interest in this planning application. The Chairman of the Standards Committee issued a rebuke to Cllr Moss and required her to undertake further training on the code of conduct.
The Council has not previously been able to name Cllr Moss for legal reasons, but has been clear that there was a procedural error due to the participation of a councillor in a meeting when that councillor should not have participated. As Cllr Moss has put her own details into the public domain, we are now able to clarify the full details surrounding this matter.
At all times the Council has sought to balance the right to privacy for Cllr Moss with legitimate public/member interest and replied to enquiries as appropriate.
The Leader of Wealden District Council, Cllr Bob Standley, has also issued a response in which he has said the onus was on Cllr Moss to explain to the Monitoring Officer that she lived on the opposite side of Eridge Road from the development site. Click to download Cllr Standley’s explanation.
Cllr Moss utterly refutes the statement from Wealden District Council:
As the Monitoring Officer is giving advice which the Council claim could be challenged legally against them, I would expect her to ensure she had all the facts in order to give that advice. If she were unsure as to any facts, I would expect her to ask the relevant questions. I am not aware of this situation coming up in a training session.
Whilst I have been a Councillor for a number of years, I do not know everything. I attend virtually all training sessions provided by the Council precisely because I am always willing to learn.
I sought advice from the Monitoring Officer because I had not been in this situation before. I had not previously dealt with a major application and this was the first time I had dealt with an application for which I had received many comments from local residents in the ward in which I both represent and live.
Wealden District Council has been accused of lack of transparency in the planning process. They have denied Freedom of Information requests on the grounds to publish the information would “adversely affect the course of justice”. Most recently Cllr Dr Patricia Patterson-Vanegas brought the subject up at Overview and Scrutiny Committee on 16th November and again at Full Council this morning (25th November). A series of training courses about planning matters and the Code of Conduct have been arranged for District Councillors. For more, see the report by Huw Oxburgh, the Local Democracy Reporter, published by the Sussex Express and others last week.
A video of this morning’s meeting of Full Council can be viewed on YouTube below. The question from Cllr Dr Patricia Patterson-Vanegas is at 30:56.
A practical guide was published by the Government to help councillors about how to be open and transparent about their personal interests. This document includes information about Disclosable Pecuniary Interests, and might be of benefit to readers wanting to understand the nitty-gritty.