Possible Legal Flaws Led To Masterplan Being Suspended

ELY S 20-year vision for the future of the city went from Masterplan to distaster-plan this week when the document was shown to be possibly legally flawed and then suspended. A legal notice was drawn up by the head of legal services at East Cambs Distric

ELY'S 20-year vision for the future of the city went from Masterplan to distaster-plan this week when the document was shown to be possibly legally flawed and then suspended.

A legal notice was drawn up by the head of legal services at East Cambs District Council after a Freedom of Information request was made by Liberal Democrat councillor Ian Allen and possible legal flaws in the process were identified.

A report prepared by Jeannette Thompson, head of legal services, will be presented to the council's Strategic Development Committee on June 3.

The flawed areas surround an email Brian Ashton sent regarding possible plans for the Travis Perkins site in Lisle Lane in Ely, which he owns, and also possible irregularities in the process by which the Masterplan was prepared by the Steering Group which did not take minutes of their discussions and was not formally set up.

Cllr Allen made the Freedom of Information request at the beginning of May, and received hundreds of documents, but after painstakingly going through them all he discovered that on February 17 of this year, Mr Ashton sent an email to Dr Nicholas Falk, director of the Masterplan consultants URBED asking them not to allocate Lisle Lane for leisure development.

Although Mr Ashton has always declared the fact that he owns an acre of land in Lisle Lane, he has admitted that had been "foolish" and should not have contacted the consultant direct with his views, and should have made the comments through a council officer the following day.

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In the email, sent from his home computer and using his personal email address, he stated that the area in Lisle Lane should not be considered for leisure development.

In draft documents, Lisle Lane was identified as "an ideal site for leisure uses," but under the revised final draft of the Masterplan the area is proposed for executive homes, which would net owners of land on Lisle Lane a high premium if they decide to sell their land to developers.

Ian Allen has told the Ely Standard that he also became concerned about the "secretive and personal nature" of the Masterplan in April, when it was announced publicly for the first time that Cllr Ashton was one of three Tory councillors on a steering group, who met informally with officers, consultants and representatives from two unelected bodies/quangos, (Cambridgeshire Horizons and the Greater Cambridgeshire Partnership) without making any public record of what was said, over a period of six months, prior to the public consultation on the Masterplan.

A steering group is legally entitled to meet in private and is not required to have members from different political parties represented on it, but it must be set up by committee and have representatives formally nominated to it.

Cllr Ashton is legally obliged to declare ownership of any land he owns in the district, both on relevant public documents and at meetings where that area is being discussed. According to local government rules, he must then either leave the meeting or not vote on policy if his interest is deemed to be strong enough. According to records obtained by Cllr Allen under the Freedom of Information Act, Cllr Ashton declared an interest only once, and continued to offer his opinion on Lisle Lane to consultants.

When asked to declare on the Register of Members Interests whether he has an interest in other land in East Cambridgeshire, Cllr Ashton's response is vague:

"Other investments may or may not have property in the district but are not known to me to hold such properties."

Cllr Ashton has a commercial tenant on the Lisle Lane land until 2025 - three years before the Master Plan was set to expire. Even though he claims he would be at a financial loss if the land were to be up for development before 2025, he could potentially receive a massive capital gain after the tenancy expires.

Cllr Allen said: "I would say that there has been a significant breach of the local authority code, but it's up to the Standards Board to decide.

Officers acting for the watchdog have the power to suspend Cllr Ashton from his position as councillor while the matter is investigated - even though he has already resigned as leader.

Councillors will have to decide in June whether to go back to square one and restart the Masterplan with a new team of consultants, or to amend part or all of the draft Masterplan. Any decision will include a fresh public consultation, at a cost of thousands of extra pounds to the taxpayer. Precious meeting time will be taken up as members of the strategic development committee will be forced to reappoint three councillors to sit on a new working party. New working parties will also be set up for Littleport and Soham masterplans.