Brian Ashton's Resignation Speech

PUBLISHED: 15:46 21 May 2008 | UPDATED: 10:23 04 May 2010

This is the statement that Brian Ashton read out before he stepped down as leader of the Conservative party on East Cambridgeshire District Council. The Masterplan for Ely was born out of a conviction that existing plans for our district presented a rath

This is the statement that Brian Ashton read out before he stepped down as leader of the Conservative party on East Cambridgeshire District Council.

"The Masterplan for Ely was born out of a conviction that existing plans for our district presented a rather lacklustre view of the future, especially for Ely.

They did little to suggest that it was possible to increase local employment, improve retail services, reduce congestion, improve transport networks or provide for a rapidly ageing population. Funding to develop the Masterplan was obtained, consultants tendered and selected and a Steering group was formed.

It was set up as a round table forum consisting of the consultants, their technical advisers, council officers, representatives of the Greater Cambridgeshire Partnership, Cambridgeshire Horizons and Cambridgeshire County Council together with three district councillors including myself as Leader of the Council. Advice and evidence was received from over 60 local organisations and experts, indicating that additional growth was needed to break the impasse.

Throughout, I repeatedly reminded members and officers that my family owned a fully developed one-acre site in Lisle Lane, Ely, formerly our family business and currently held under a long commercial lease by a national firm of builders' merchants. [Travis Perkins].

Towards the end of the process, as the consultants were drawing together the themes and contents of the final published document, I received by email on Friday February 15, copies of a series of pen and ink sketches that were intended to illustrate the content of the report. The consultant had indicated that he would be working on the document over the weekend and so my comments and questions in relation to the sketches were emailed back to him on Sunday morning. Having commented on the artists' impressions, I, foolishly, included comments on the one for the Lisle Lane area, pointing out where I thought that it did not accord with the emerging proposals in the draft report. I had mistakenly taken the view that, as I was commenting on the artists' impressions and not the proposals, that this was satisfactory.

With hindsight I fully accept that I should have made my comments through a council officer the following Monday.

In fact, none of the sketches were ever used because it was considered that any representations of buildings would be a distraction from the principles of the proposals.

My eight-line email came to light during collation of all the papers under a Freedom of Information Act request made by a district councillor and led to queries being raised about the establishment of the steering group.

Whilst notes were taken by the consultants during steering group meetings, no sequential minutes were taken as it was not constituted as a formal decision making body. I advised the Steering group of my interest in Lisle Lane and whenever I felt that discussions were getting close to affecting my interest I repeated my comment. I do not believe that anyone was in any doubt as to the specific nature of my interest. I am told that, consequently, this makes it an uncertain record.

I can confirm that I have never taken part in any formal approval of the Masterplan for Ely [This was done at Strategic Development Committee, of which Cllr Ashton is not a member], and I have never voted on it or any part of it.

In future, I understand that the council's monitoring officer will be advising council officers to establish similar groups as formal working parties of the council with clear terms of reference, agendas and minutes in order to protect the personal position of councillors and the work of the council.

There is increasing concern that the only safe answer is for councillors with any kind of interest to exclude themselves from such broad-based processes in case their participation can be constituted as bias. This seems to be against the interest of representative democracy. To stand for election on a manifesto commitment indicates a bias and if being explicit in public is to be considered a fault then we are headed into very dangerous territory.

If council officers, advisers, experts and councillors can only have minuted meetings, how can we develop the best possible policies when all will have to protect their backs? If councillors are to be excluded form policy development except in public meetings, all we will get is politics. These are real challenges that need to be addressed.

I am shocked and appalled that commenting on possible illustrations directly with the consultant together with the lack of formal minutes has led to the Masterplan for Ely being returned to the Strategic Development Committee for reconsideration in accordance with the legal notice issued today.

I unreservedly apologise to everyone who have been involved in the process for the delay, inconvenience and cost that this referral has caused.

I am convinced that arguments over details of process and procedure distract from the importance of discussions over the future of our district and Ely in particular. In the best interests of the council and to allow the Masterplan process to recover its progress, I feel that it is my duty to resign as leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council so that everyone can re-focus on the future.

Mr Chairman, I would like to thank you for your forbearance.

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