Amber Valley councillor in legal trouble over Somercotes housing vote

Councillor Jack Brown
Councillor Jack Brown

An Amber Valley Borough Councillor could face legal repercussions after failing to declare a financial interest when voting to approve a controversial housing development in Somercotes.

Section 31 of the Localism Act 2011 suggests that Conservative Councillor Jack Brown, who chairs the planning board, should have withdrawn from discussing and voting on a particular application at the meeting on December 18, 2017.

He remained in the room, chaired the discussion, and even cast the decisive vote to grant permission for 200 new homes on land at Nether Farm, in response to an application by landowner Bernard Swain.

According to his official declaration of interests, recorded after he was re-elected for Ironville and Riddings in 2016, Councillor Brown has a beneficial interest in a property at 181 Birchwood Lane, adjacent to the development site in question.

Councillor Brown said: “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve not done anything wrong. The property belongs to my wife, and has been declared every year since 2002.

“The council have told me they are looking into this, but I am not aware of having committed any offence. If I haven’t declared it in the meeting, then I’m sorry about that.”

Section 34 of the Act makes failure to declare a pecuniary interest in any council meeting a criminal offence, punishable by a fine of up to £5,000 and disqualification from serving as a councillor for up to five years, if the Director of Public Prosecutions decides to pursue the case.

Under Section 33 of the Localism Act, councillors may be permitted by law to cast votes where they have conflicting interests, if written authorisation is granted in advance when the situation meets certain criteria.

However, when the Ripley and Heanor News asked if Councillor Brown had sought or been given any exceptional legal advice ahead of the meeting, a council spokesman only reasserted the standard statement issued at the start of each meeting, which imposes a duty on each councillor to declare any interest.

Those instructions also state that failure to declare an interest is contrary to the council’s own Members’ Code of Conduct, which would have required Councillor Brown to leave the room while the case proceeded.

The situation came to light following a formal complaint to the council by a member of campaign group Somercotes Against Development.

Residents have long fought against the plans, citing their impact on the landscape and community, road safety, and possible contamination of the land - with evidence linking it to a historic landfill waste site used for toxic materials.

The site was also noted as a potentially significant departure from the permitted Development Plan.

A spokesman for the group said: “The council seem to have flouted the concerns of a community living in the shadow of landfills, turning a blind eye to what could happen.

“We are only a small group and the aggression with which we have been treated is phenomenal. They have made us jump through hoops just to bring this complaint.”

While not mentioning Councillor Brown by name, on Thursday, April 26, the council’s legal monitoring officer Chris Potter responded to the complainant to say: “Concerns have been raised and it is prudent that the matter is returned to the planning board for fresh consideration and decision.

“This planning application will, therefore, go back to the planning board. Due process must indeed be followed.”

Mr Potter told the Ripley and Heanor News: “I can confirm the council has received a complaint about a councillor, and because of the ‘due process’ which must be followed in this situation, it would not be appropriate to name the councillor at this time.”

Responding to the complainant, he also revealed that the council was shortly expecting to appoint a statutory Independent Person to handle the matter.

It would not be the first time that Councillor Brown had failed to declare a prejudicial interest while conducting council business.

In 2005, he was censured under previous regulations for approving a planning application by a company which had dealings with his own haulage business, JB Transport.

In 2012, he was also given a ‘slap on the wrist’ by fellow councillors after JB Transport erected a 15 foot sign at Victoria Street, Ironville, without prior planning permission.

Somercotes residents report that he has also carried out works on the Birchwood Lane property without seeking necessary planning permission, which is also subject to the complaint.

While the responsibility to declare the interest appears to fall on Councillor Brown, questions may be asked of council officers who failed to flag the issue.

The December planning board meeting was also significant as it saw approval granted for 65 houses on a contested heritage site at Whitehouse Farm in Belper.

Following heated debate on the Nether Farm case, Councillors Lyttle and Walker—representing Somercotes and Alfreton—left the meeting in protest, potentially tipping the balance for the Belper vote.