Councillors who have previously expressed support for Luton Town’s planning applications have been told to stay out of the committee room when the schemes are being debated so they can’t be accused of exerting undue influence on the vote.
The Hatters’ plan for a stadium at Power Court go before the Development Control Committee this evening at the Town Hall from 6pm, with the Newlands Park proposal for retail/leisure/offices near M1 J10 – fiercely opposed by Mall Luton owners Capital & Regional – scheduled to be determined on January 30.
And a leaked memo seen by the Luton News shows that Luton Council intends to take no chances that a possible decision to support the developments could be legally challenged on the grounds of bias or pre-determination.
Members of the Development Control Committee had previously received standard legal advice that if they were season ticket holders or it could be deemed they had strong links to the club they should declare an interest, should not take part in the debate/vote and steer clear of the meeting room.
Additionally, members of the council’s Executive – who made the decision to sell a parcel of the Power Court land to the Hatters – have received “cautious” advice that they too should step aside from the proceedings.
But now all 47 councillors have been given supplementary guidance in advance of the meetings “due in part to the sensitivities surrounding these applications and support some political groups/members have been showing”.
The memo states: “It is clear that members of Development Control Committee are perfectly entitled to make up their minds and support a particular line provided they do not take part in the decision making process or exert influence by sitting in the public gallery for instance when the committee decision is being made.
“By analogy therefore, my view is that other non-Development Control members are equally entitled to voice support etc for a particular proposal provided they do not place undue influence on the committee or its members. It follows therefore that such non-Development Control members should not be in the decision making chamber when the time comes or be seen to be exerting influence in other ways.”
The latest memo continues by saying that Development Control members connected with a particular political group that has shown support for the Hatters’ plans but have not been actively involved themselves, should make a public statement to this effect at the committee meeting.
The original officer advice issued to committee members also warned that councillors with a personal or prejudicial interest, such as living close to the Power Court or Newlands sites, should withdraw from the meetings.
It said: “Any councillor who is a season ticket holder, member of LTFC or box holder, for instance, should declare an interest and not take any further part in the matter.
“This is because I am of the opinion that the affiliation is such that a reasonable member of the public would feel that there is a real possibility of bias and so any participation could jeopardise the decision made by the council if a challenge were made to the High Court.”
The note drew attention to a case in 2000 where a complaint was upheld by the Local Government Ombudsman and later the Court of Appeal that seven councillors should not have backed a scheme by Liverpool FC because they were season ticket holders or regular attendees of matches.
A briefing session for councillors regarding Power Court took place last Wednesday afternoon (January 9), with a similar meeting planned for January 22 over Newlands Park. Councillors who consider they have an interest which they believe should preclude them from attending the January 16 and 30 meetings, were advised not to attend the briefings.
A Luton Council spokesman told the Luton News: “It is not unusual for our legal advisers to send guidance to members ahead of meetings. This is judged entirely on a case by case basis with the purpose of protecting the integrity of any decisions taken.
“As has been the case throughout, our focus is firmly on ensuring that our planning arguments and processes are absolutely robust and not open to challenge.”
She added: “The Development Control Committee meeting to decide 2020 Development’s Power Court application will be held at Luton Town Hall.
“There will be limited capacity and the meeting is likely to last several hours. We are therefore advising anyone with an interest in watching the meeting to log on and watch the meeting via a livestream on Facebook. https://www.luton.gov.uk/Environment/building-control/Pages/Development-Control-Committee-16-January-2019-Power-Court.aspx
“An upcoming meeting to decide a separate application from 2020 Developments – relating to Newlands Park – will be held on January 30. We are considering alternative venues for this and will release details as soon as we have them.”