Eric Pickles accuses North Herts District Council of ‘lacking common sense’ over Hitchin Town Hall meeting row
- Credit: Archant
A heavyweight politician has joined the argument on a controversial conflict of interest relating to the continuing Hitchin Town Hall renovation row.
Secretary of state for communities and local government Eric Pickles has waded into the row on whether Councillor David Leal-Bennett should have been excluded from a debate on the future of the contentious project.
Councillor Leal-Bennett was advised when he joined the council his position as a trustee and director with Hitchin Town Hall Ltd – the group formed to run the new-look venue once the transformation was complete – constituted an interest, meaning he should not enter debates on the issue.
But although he later stepped down from the role, the North Herts District Council monitoring officer subsequently ruled he could not vote or take part in a debate on the project at a special council meeting.
In a letter sent to Hitchin MP Peter Lilley, Mr Pickles stated: “If a councillor stops having a beneficial interest, then by definition, it is not a disclosable pecuniary interest.
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“Section 25 of the Localism Act 2011 clarifies a councillor is not to be regarded as being unable to act fairly or without bias if they participate in a decision on a matter simply because they have previously expressed a view or interest, or campaigned on it.
“Councillors may campaign and represent their constituents – and then speak and vote on those issues – without fear of breaking the rules on pre-determination. Council monitoring officers can offer advice to councillors.
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“The goal of the Localism Act was to inject some common sense while allowing for genuine debate, freedom of speech and democratic representation.
“It would appear such common sense may be lacking in this case.”
Mr Lilley told the Comet: “I have been puzzled by the rigid way the council’s monitoring officer has interpreted the line about whether or not a councillor can participate in debate about the town hall.”
Councillor Leal-Bennett added: “The monitoring officer offers advice to councillors. It’s just that – advice.
“I need to know the legal basis of barring me from meetings.
“I’ve also written to the leader of the Conservative group, and expressed in the strongest terms my extreme concern at the misinformation given which was used to justify my exclusion.
“This matter is not going to rest here. Watch this space.”