Midlothian Council - Tennisgate leads to planning committee meeting walkout

A row over tennis club netting has threatened to bring Midlothian Council to a “grinding halt” after 10 elected members walked out of a planning committee.

Midlothian Council Debating chamber at Midlothian House, Buccleuch St in Dalkeith 19/2/18

In what is being dubbed “Tennisgate”, the councillors refused to take part in the committee after two of its members were sanctioned by the Standards Commission for meeting an objector on their own.The Standards Commission ruled Councillor Margot Russell and John Hackett (both Lab) had “given the appearance of being unfair”, after they openly admitted visiting the objector without a planning officer.

The visits  were ruled in breach of the Councillors Code of Conduct. And at this week’s planning committee, fellow councillors voiced concern that the Commission’s ruling put them all at risk of being in breach and appeared to contradict previous guidelines.

Provost Peter Smaill (Con), who was among those to leave the meeting, said guidelines issued in 2017 stated that “as an elected member you are within your right to meet with whoever you wish regarding planning matters”.

Midlothian councillors Margot Russell and John Hacket (both Lab).

He said: “This decision is a diminution of the democracy of this council.”

Planning committee members are not allowed to express a view on any application before it comes before committee for a decision and if they have done so are expected to declare an interest and withdraw from the decision-making process.

In the case of Councillors Russell and Hackett, it was argued that their unaccompanied visits to an objector without any follow up with the application could have given an “appearance of unfairness”.

However at this week’s meeting, they were two of the few councillors who remained in the council chambers as their SNP and Conservative colleagues left en masse.

Committee convenor Councillor Russell Imrie (Lab) refused to suspend the meeting saying he was concerned that if issues were unresolved the June meeting would also be suspended, leaving planning applications unresolved until after the council’s summer recess.

He said: “That means this council comes to a grinding halt and applicants, particular with major developments would have the right to go and lodge an appeal which does nobody any good.”

A spokesperson for the Standards Commission said the Councillors Code of Conduct was clear regarding planning.

Following the meeting, Councillor Smaill said that the next step for councillors was to seek clarification from the Standards Commission before they could return to their roles.

He said: “This Tennisgate judgement makes the role of every councillor unworkable. We simply do not have the resources to have planning officers accompany us on every visit and this will have an impact on local authorities across Scotland.

“As councillors we will now seek clarification from the Standards Commission.”

A spokesperson for the Commission insisted the Councillors Code of Conduct was clear.

They said: “The reason that Councillors Russell and Hackett were found to have breached the code was because they undertook unaccompanied visits to an objector’s property without making any corresponding visit to the applicants or make any attempt to discuss the proposal with the applicants.

“As such they failed to abide by the provisions in the Code that require councillors not only to act fairly but to ensure they are seen to be acting fairly when making quasi-judicial or regulatory decisions.

“Had they also made a corresponding visit to the applicants or an attempt to discuss the proposal with them, they would not have been in breach of the code.”

If the councillors who walked out of this month’s meeting do not sit at the next planning committee, when Councillors Russell and Hackett are suspended, it will not have enough members to make any decisions.