Clean-up operation at district council begins in the wake of Masterplan disaster

PUBLISHED: 10:39 29 May 2008 | UPDATED: 10:23 04 May 2010

AUDITORS were rifling through Masterplan documents even before ex-council leader Brian Ashton announced his intention to resign, it emerged this week. The auditor s arrival marked the start of a massive clean-up operation at East Cambridgeshire District

AUDITORS were rifling through Masterplan documents even before ex-council leader Brian Ashton announced his intention to resign, it emerged this week.

The auditor's arrival marked the start of a massive clean-up operation at East Cambridgeshire District Council in the wake of revelations of improper practices.

Leader of the council, Brian Ashton, resigned last Tuesday after it emerged that three councillors who worked with him to draw up the Masterplan had acted illegally by failing to set up a formal group where the details of the plan - a 20-year vision for the future of Ely - were formulated.

They met in private without taking minutes of their meetings - against council rules, which require the formation of an official working party.

Cllr Ashton was then unable to prove whether or not he had declared an interest in his ownership of land at Lisle Lane in Ely, because there were no minutes.

As a result, all district councillor will be called in to see the council's head legal officer over the next few weeks so make sure they fully understand how, where and when to declare an interest. A special meeting to discuss the future of the Masterplan has been rushed forward to Tuesday (June 3).

The errors came to light when Lib Dem councillor Ian Allen discovered, using the Freedom of Information Act, that Cllr Ashton had emailed Masterplan consultants about land he owns in Lisle Lane. He is now being investigated by local government watchdog, the Standards Board, and will no longer sit on any committees, although he is still a councillor.

Fred Brown, new leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council, said: "Brian was hoisted by his own petard. In hindsight, we wouldn't go near something like Lisle Lane with a bargepole."

On declaring interests, Cllr Brown told the Ely Standard: "We realise that procedurally there has been a difficulty, and in many ways we didn't understand what we had to do, but ignorance is no excuse. By law, we declare our interests in writing and they are on the internet for everyone to see."

"At the end of the day getting it right is what we've not done in the past. We've got to cover ourselves, that's why we have taken members who have got any sort of interest off the Masterplan working parties," said Cllr Brown, who admitted that he was resentful about doing so. "It's taking it to the letter. People vote for me, they know who I am, what I own and where I live, there aren't many people in Littleport who don't. The difficulty that I have got with it is, as someone who has more to contribute than most, the rules state now that I'm prevented from doing so. I'm prepared to be governed by that, but someone who doesn't live in the parish, who represents Littleport on the council can have a say in the future of the village, but they have no more right to be there and comment than someone who lives in the South of England, as far as I'm concerned. That is what happens when you follow procedure to the letter."

Cllr Brown emphasised that the most important thing for the new leader was to restore the name of the council in the eyes of the public.

"I feel like a fire-fighter," he said. "The reputation of East Cambs is more important than everyone else. We've got to establish trust, back from what the perception is out there, and hopefully we can get something that's credible. I think we can rescue most of the work that's been done on the Masterplan. I don't see it as a waste of money."

The district auditor will attend as an observer at the special meeting of the Strategic Development Committee on June 3, but he will not be issuing a public report.

A spokesman for the Audit Commission said: "The district auditor has been made aware by the monitoring officer for ECDC of the situation surrounding Cllr Ashton's resignation. He is observing the situation and will continue to do so, but it is for the council to determine its response to the concerns raised by its monitoring officer.

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