23 March 2010

Declare, resign or ignore?

"In all of this what's really required is changes in behaviour, it requires a culture in which the principles of public life, selflessness, integrity and so on, are embedded in the behaviour of those who hold public office." - Sir Christopher Kelly, 23rd March 2010, commenting on the Lobbygate scandal.

The issue over whether or not a Local or District Councillor should register their interests has been rumbling along, nationally, for quite some time. The Telegraph publish a short piece about the issue in June 2002 and you can read it here.

In the case reported by the Telegraph, the councillors in question resigned over the introduction of a 'Model Code of Conduct' which required them to declare any financial interests(also see here). The former Chair of West llsley Parish Council explained that members resigned because they were: unpaid; had little influence and that the Council was terribly small. At the time of publishing the article, the National Association of Local Councils stated that only 6,000 of 10,000 councils in England & Wales had signed up to the legislation. But recent events in Somerton have shown that, even if a Council does sign up to the legislation, that doesn't mean that members will declare their interests.

Somerton Town Council's 'register of member's interests' (under the old Somerton Town Council) was a blank sheet of paper and enquiries at South Somerset District Council show that ex-Local and current District Councillor A H Canvin continues not to disclose his own interests. In a recent discussion at SSDC, I also learned that a District Council is dependent upon the honesty of members in order to regulate their Register. If a Member declares 'no interests' then the District Council must assume that the declaration is truthful and honest. There is also no mechanism whereby a Council can easily check if the Member's declaration is truthful and honest. Finally, the penalties which can be applied to any recognised failure to disclose are applied by fellow Councillors who, themselves, may be failing to disclose. So what exists could be described as a self-regulating culture of non-disclosure.

But why should this matter? Well, contrary to the view of the ex-Chair of West Ilsley Parish Council, Local Councillors can have significant influence in issues like local development frameworks. Such mechanisms can significantly influence the value of land and so the input of a Local Councillor can be far from insignificant. If land is designated as being for 'agricultural use' then its value will be anywhere between £2,000 and £5,000 per acre. If the same land is designated as being for 'industrial use' , then the value climbs to anywhere between £50,000 and £200,000 an acre. Finally, if the same land gains a 'residential use' then the sky is the limit. Its therefore easy to see that if a councillor (Local, District or County) were to have development business interests or land ownership interests then their views or their lobbying could be subject to 'influence' exerted by those interests.

It is also worth considering that Councillors do have access to discussions, policy documents and strategic decision making at various levels of Local Government which can confer advantage if the information is mis-used. Sadly, a Register of Member's Interests will not guarantee that Members behave 'properly'. What it would do, if it was effective, would be to offer the electorate another level of transparency whereby they might assure themselves that a Member does not have direct interests which might influence their actions.

Till next time, I'm Niall Connolly