The Leveller has run several pieces over the course of this year looking at plans to build a Carnival Park near Ilminster. The plans were eventually passed by South Somerset District Council’s (SSDC’s) Area West Committee. CPRE, the countryside charity, took the decision to a judicial review.
The plans involved building large scale industrial units in open countryside with difficult road access. The purpose was to allow carnival floats to be built, worked on and stored in the units.
The decision was controversial as two apparently conflicted councillors took part in the vote. These were LibDem councillors Hamilton and Baker. A third LibDem, councillor Cllr Val Keitch who was also conflicted, declared her interest and took no part in the proceedings. However this action simply drew attention to the two councillors who failed withdraw.
This mattered as the vote was 6-5 in favour of development. Without the two councillors who were conflicted, the vote would have been lost 5-4.
Mr Justice Chamberlain ruled today (8 November) that SSDC had unlawfully approved the planning application. He stated the two councillors Baker and Hamilton, were ‘ tainted by apparent bias ’.
In a press release issued after the judgement and commenting on it, CPRE noted “Cllr Brian Hamilton is a town councillor and deputy mayor at Ilminster town council. He also sits on SSDC’s Area West planning committee. The town council had voted to become the applicant, and to indicate its support by letter. The judge ruled that taking these facts into account, a fair minded person would conclude that there was a real possibility that he would be biased in favour of the town council’s application. Therefore he automatically had a prejudicial interest, and so was disqualified from voting. Cllr Jason Baker also sits on SSDC’s Area West planning committee. He has a long standing association with both Chard Carnival Committee, which was said in the planning application to be supportive of the planning application, and with Chard based Eclipse carnival club, which was a beneficiary of the planning application. He was personally pictured among a group of individuals appearing to support the carnival park committee, which was the agent for the application.”
Hugh Williams, Chair of CPRE Somerset told The Leveller “CPRE Somerset is pleased that the High Court has agreed with us and quashed the decision. Ensuring planning decisions are taken lawfully is crucial for everyone involved in the planning system, and we look forward to seeing this matter re-addressed in the correct way by SSDC in due course “.
However it is important to note that the judge concluded that neither of the two councillors (Baker and Hamilton) attempted to hide their associations, and had declared their interests openly. Both followed the advice of SSDC’s Monitoring Officer, which the judge ruled was wrong in law. So to that extent the councillors had acted in good faith. As to SSDC’s monitoring officer, she “went wrong in law, as many public decision-makers and most judges do at some point, but was not otherwise at fault.“
The Judgement may yet have consequences for South Somerset tax payers when costs are assessed. Initially SSDC failed to file a defence and refused to respond to CPRE in the usual pre court exchanges. This can be taken into account when assessing costs at the end of the case. CPRE will be seeking full payment of their costs from SSDC.