Midlothian councillors suspended from planning committee

Midlothian councillors Margot Russell and John Hacket (both Lab).
Midlothian councillors Margot Russell and John Hacket (both Lab).
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Two councillors have each been given a one-month suspension from a planning committee in a row over tennis club netting.

Midlothian councillors Margot Russell and John Hackett were both accused of bias after they visited the home of a constituent who objected to an application to erect screening by Dalkeith Lawn Tennis Club.

The councillors, who both sit on the local authority’s planning committee, were called before a hearing of the Standards Commission Scotland following the allegations.

But while both councillors admitted they had made unaccompanied visits to the house and looked at the screening in question from the resident’s side, they insisted their visit had not prejudiced their actions at the committee.

And the commission ruled that while they had not acted in an unfair manner, they had breached their code of conduct by acting in a manner which would lead a member of the public to consider they had “given an appearance of unfairness and bias towards one of the parties”.

The commission was told that Councillor Russell, Midlothian depute provost, called in the planning application by the tennis club for screening to be put on top of a fence to allow a “full and open debate” about it.

She and Councillor Hackett had both visited the home of an objector whose garden was overlooked by the screening, some of which was already in place.

They did not follow their visits with any contact with the tennis club or follow-up.

At the planning meeting in April last year, Councillor Russell recounted her views about the type of netting used for the screening and told colleagues she had visited the objector’s home and seen it first hand.

Following debate in which both she and Councillor Hackett took part, the planning application was approved but a condition imposed demanding a lighter type of netting was used to provide the screening.

The hearing was told this resulted in the tennis club having to replace some screening already in place.

Sanctioning Councillor Russell and Councillor Hackett in separate reports, the commission panel stated in both cases it considered the incident to be a “one-off”.

In each case they added they considered that the councillors “had not acted dishonestly or made any attempt to conceal their visit to the objector’s property”.

Both councillors received a one-month suspension from Midlothian planning committee from June 1, which will allow them to take part in next week’s scheduled meeting.

A hearing into allegations against Councillor Colin Cassidy in connection with the same planning application is due to be heard in the near future.

Councillor Hackett and Councillor Russell said after the ruling: “We would like to thank the Standards Commissioner for the opportunity to present our cases.

“We have been found in breach of 7.3 of the Councillors Code of Conduct, stating our actions in visiting an objector to a planning application, and then not following this up with contact with the applicant, were considered as being seen to be prejudicial or biased.

“We are pleased to note the Commissioner agreed with our view that there was no question of improper conduct on our part, nor was there any question of being prejudicial or biased.

“Having found a breach of the code, the Commissioner is duty bound to impose a sanction, in this case suspended from the June 2019 meeting of the planning committee.

“It is important to note that we have not been censured and are able to attend the next planning meeting in May and all other meetings of the council, including other quasi-judicial committees such as general purposes and licensing.

“Given we have not been suspended immediately and only from one meeting of the planning committee, we believe this is the lowest sanction that could be applied and our track records as councillors and openness and honesty throughout this process was given consideration.

“We look forward to continuing to represent the interests of local residents in our communities.”