South Ribble councillor kicked off committee after police call threat

A veteran South Ribble borough councillor who threatened, midway through a meeting, to call the police about the conduct of one of his colleagues has been removed from the committee where the incident occurred.

Wednesday, 3rd February 2021, 9:28 pm

As the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) revealed in December, Conservative councillor Barrie Yates - who represents Samlesbury and Walton - indicated that he was going to make the intervention during a virtual gathering of the authority’s planning committee.

It came during a row over whether three of its members should have taken part in a decision about the conversion of the former Penwortham library into an arts centre.

The trio, two from the ruling Labour group and one Liberal Democrat, are also members of Penwortham Town Council, which was applying for retrospective permission for the change – prompting Cllr Yates to question whether one of them had properly declared an interest and whether any of them should have been able to contribute to the debate.

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Cllr Barrie Yates has been on South Ribble Borough Council for 30 years - and a planning committee member for 28 of them

At the latest meeting of the full council, during what is usually a perfunctory vote on committee membership, planning committee chair Caleb Tomlinson called for Cllr Yates to be removed from a role he has held for 28 of his 30 years as a district councillor.

Cllr Yates later told the LDRS that he believed the move was a politically-motivated “witch hunt”, after the vote to remove him split along party lines - with Labour and the Liberal Democrats supporting his removal and his own Conservative group opposing it.

During the full council, Cllr Tomlinson said that “continued, unacceptable conduct from [Cllr Yates] is placing the council at risk of legal challenge and is most certainly bringing this council into disrepute”.

He added: “His direct threats have also led to members not casting votes in determining planning applications, which is unacceptable.”

That was a reference to the decision by Lib Dem planning committee councillor Harold Hancock to abstain in the Penwortham arts centre vote so that he could clarify the legal position after the meeting.

The full council meeting heard that a previous planning committee discussion over an application for 2,000 homes on the Pickering’s Farm site had seen Cllr Yates challenge the right of Labour committee members to vote, because of what he said was their party’s opposition to the development prior to the 2019 local elections.

The authority’s chief legal officer advised in both that instance and the debate over Penwortham library that he did not believe the members being questioned by Cllr Yates were acting improperly.

However, Cllr Yates told the full council that he found the accusations being made – and the action being proposed – against him “quite astonishing”.

“Any decision made by full council…will predetermine the standards committee inquiry into a complaint against me and bring the procedures into disrepute.

“If I am to be removed from the committee by the council, I am entitled to know what reasons are being advanced so that I can reasonably respond to them in the interests of natural justice and fairness,” said Cllr Yates, adding that he had been denied that opportunity.

Conservative group leader Margaret Smith said she was also uncomfortable with the move to oust her colleague before the conclusion of the standards investigation into the affair, which was the result of a self-referral from Cllr Yates.

“Barrie has apologised to the council and to the committee and he has said he would like to put himself forward to go [before] standards.

“I don’t think we should be discussing the whys and wherefores of what went on at the planning committee when the standards committee could very well have to rule on it – and we don’t want to undermine [that] in any way,” said Cllr Smith, adding that she would take any appropriate action should a sanction later be deemed necessary.

Labour council leader Paul Foster said he had resolved that the council as a whole should take disciplinary action against members “in exceptional circumstances”.

“This is an exceptional circumstance,” he said.

WHO DID WHAT WHEN…?

Penwortham Town Council took over the library building on Liverpool Road in 2018 – with its plans to convert it to an arts centre finally coming to fruition a year later when “The Venue” opened its doors, providing a space for clubs, talks and exhibitions.

The town council brought a retrospective planning application to South Ribble Borough Council after only later learning that permission would be required for the change of use of the building.

However, a planning committee meeting where the issue was discussed – in December 2020 – descended into acrimony when Cllr Yates said that a fellow member, who is also on the town council, should have declared a financial interest in the matter.

“[He should have] left the meeting, he shouldn’t be speaking. He’s gone against the rules of [South Ribble] Council – but let’s say no more about it and just remove that person,” Cllr Yates suggested.

It was unclear as to which of his colleagues Cllr Yates was referring – even after clarification was sought from a council officer – given that three South Ribble planning committee members also sit on Penwortham Town Council. Cllr Yates described the individual whom he initially alighted upon only as “the councillor [who] spoke before and said he was on Penwortham Council, but didn’t declare a pecuniary interest”.

At the point of that intervention, all three town council members had already spoken – Liberal Democrat Harold Hancock, who declared a personal, non-prejudicial, interest at the outset of the meeting; Labour’s Will Adams, who acknowledged the same interest immediately before he addressed the committee when the item was being considered; and his Labour colleague James Flannery.

Legal services manager Dave Whelan told the meeting that the trio “arguably…have a personal interest”, but that he did not consider any of them to have pecuniary interest – and that there was nothing to stop them “from taking part and voting on the application”.

Cllr Yates said he disagreed with that advice – and added that the matter should be reported to the police after the meeting.

Later in the discussion, Cllr Flannery addressed the issue directly, telling Cllr Yates: “If you want, I’ll give you my address and you can go and do it…and I don’t want to hear that kind of threat again.”

Cllr Yates declared: “It’s not a threat – I’m doing it now” – before briefly being seen to produce a mobile phone during the hybrid meeting, which saw some members present at the council’s headquarters and others, including Cllr Yates, dialling in remotely. He did not appear to go on to make a call during the meeting.

The change of use application was ultimately approved by a majority, with Cllrs Adams and Flannery amongst those voting in favour.

Cllr Hancock abstained after stating that he wanted to seek advice from the monitoring officer following the comments of Cllr Yates – who himself voted “reluctantly” to refuse the proposal.

…AND WHAT DO THEY MAKE OF IT NOW?

Speaking about the vote to remove him from the planning committee on which he has sat for nearly three decades, Cllr Yates said it was unprecedented in his experience on the authority.

“Beware all councillors who criticise the Labour party or [its] councillors in South Ribble – they are in danger of the ruling Labour-Liberal coalition using their power to remove them from committees.

“I suggested that [the two Labour and one Liberal Democrat councillors] should not be voting on a planning application submitted by Penwortham Town Council, effectively giving Penwortham Town Council planning permission.

“Cllr Hancock declared an interest at the start of the application and – rightly, in my opinion – took no part in the debate.

“It is open to the public to judge whether the two Labour councillors should have continued to take part in the meeting.

“The planning committee is non-political, it has quasi-judicial powers and must be seen at all times to be acting in a transparent and non-partisan way.

“This a witch hunt designed to silence opposition,” Cllr Yates added.

However, Labour leader Paul Foster, whose minority administration is supported on an issue-by-issue basis by the Lib Dems, said repeated warnings from external auditors that the conduct of some councillors needed to improve meant the council was left with “no option” but to act.

“The standards regime can’t deal with things like this – there are no sanctions when members act inappropriately. The only entity that can deal with it is the council itself.

“Inappropriate conduct towards other members or officers will no longer be tolerated.

“The external audit report has highlighted how member conduct must improve – that has been commented on for two or three years. Cllr Yates is one of those who has pushed this to the limit on a number of occasions.

“Anybody that witnessed his conduct at [the Penwortham library] meeting will have seen that he made threats to individual members, so much so that one member abstained from voting,

“That was despite the fact that he was warned by the monitoring officer that he was absolutely incorrect – yet he still felt it appropriate to make these statements, which are grossly inaccurate and unfair,” Cllr Foster said.

Liberal Democrat group leader David Howarth warned that there could have been financial consequences for the authority of Cllr Yates’s actions.

“If he had influenced the outcome of a planning decision to the point where it was rejected, he then opens up the council to an appeal from the applicant, who will apply for costs against the council – so that’s why we had to act.

“It’s a given convention that you don’t question other party’s nominations to committees – it’s down to each group to decide who they are going to have on them, allocated proportionately.

“That is fine if those nominations then behave appropriately – but in this case, we had the monitoring officer saying that the councillors concerned were perfectly at liberty to take part in the meeting and yet we have got Cllr Yates waving a phone around, saying that he is going to call the police,” Cllr Howarth added.

Labour councillor James Flannery, whose clash within Cllr Yates was at the centre of the row, said: "On the issue of voting on [the Penwortham arts centre application], the legal advice from the monitoring officer was that we could – so we did.

“Our role on the planning committee is non-political and I take my role seriously, as these decisions affect people’s lives.

“We may have different opinions, but there is a level of conduct and behaviour which we all commit to.

“For the record, the arts centre is not in my ward and the ownership issue was negotiated before Cllr Adams and I were elected.

“From what I can see, Cllr Yates being removed from the planning committee was a culmination of his behaviour and not just this one issue,” Cllr Flannery said.

The LDRS has been contacted by two people offering testimonials in support of Cllr Yates.

John Greaves, chair of Samlesbury Residents’ Forum said: “Barrie’s first thoughts are always, ‘What do the residents want?’

“He has protected many acres of Samlesbury’s countryside from being covered with concrete, many times against the wishes of other groups of South Ribble councillors.”