CALLS to ban the chairman of the planning committee from commenting on planning matters on social media have been dismissed by St Helens Borough Council’s legal boss.

The suggestion came from the council’s Liberal Democrat group, as part of a review of protocol for councillors and officers dealing with planning matters.

This formed part of a wider review aimed at improving strained relations between officers – paid employees of the council – and elected members, which was sparked by the findings of a Local Government Association Corporate Peer Challenge published in January 2019.

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As part of this work, all political parties on the council were invited to make suggestions to several key documents.

A new section added to the planning protocol document relating to media and social media comments says members of the committee should ensure they “do not create the impression that they have pre-judged a planning application.”

A breach of this protocol may constitute a breach of the council’s code of conduct.

However, the Lib Dem group, led by Eccleston ward councillor Teresa Sims, said the new section was “too vague” and said extra text needs adding to explain what councillors can say.

The Lib Dems also suggested that the chair of the planning committee – currently Labour’s Seve Gomez-Aspron – should be subjected to stricter controls than other members.

Cllr Gomez-Aspron faced an immediate backlash from green belt campaigners following his appointment in May 2018, with questions being raised over his suitability for the role due to his chequered disciplinary record and previous comments on green belt development on social media.

During planning protocol review, the Lib Dems said the chair should be banned from commenting on any planning matters related to the council to the media or via social media, and should step down if they cannot accept that.

St Helens Star: St Helens Town HallSt Helens Town Hall

“The chair shouldn’t comment on any applications or planning matters relating to St Helens Council,” the Lib Dems said.

“If that person doesn’t accept that, well then they can step down for someone who will.

“This section really needs legal to look at other councils and populate it with what is described above.

“Without it, the documents are not a guidance or deterrent, and there certainly is no robust consequences, which do need to be in there to be the required deterrent.”

Mark Fisher, legal services manager at St Helens Borough Council, has reviewed the suggestions made by all of the political parties.

Speaking at the standards committee on Monday, Mr Fisher said it would be “unusual” to impose stricter controls on the chair of the planning committee.

He said: “Whilst I fully accept that the chair of the planning committee is in a very, very important position and clearly must ensure that the way the planning committee is conducted is fair to all sides.

“Compliance with that requirement would not require the chair to be subject to stricter requirements than any other member of the planning committee.

“The planning committee chair has to be fair – all members of the planning committee have to be fair.

“In my view, it would be unusual if standards committee or indeed full council sought to impose stricter controls on the chair of the planning committee than on any other member of the planning committee.”

St Helens Star: Cllr Seve Gomez-Aspron is the current chair of St Helens Council's planning committee Cllr Seve Gomez-Aspron is the current chair of St Helens Council's planning committee

Another suggestion raised by the Lib Dems was for a council officer to sit in on any political group meetings that take place prior to the planning committee.

They argued that if these meetings are not monitored, there is no way of assessing whether any breach of a code or protocol has occurred.

Mr Fisher said political meetings prior to planning meetings are a “very common occurrence” across the country, but said there must be a recognition that officers “cannot and do not attend group meetings as a matter of course.”

“As in quite a few areas where members are discussing planning matters, there is a lot of trust that needs to be placed in the members,” he said.

“An example of this for instance, members of the planning committee will be more than aware that they have to read all the relevant documentation to ensure they consider all the material considerations relevant to the application.

“And clearly there’s a trust level in that because the only person who knows whether or not the member has read or is aware of all the relevant documentation is the member themselves.

“In terms of that, it is common, it is necessary for the trust to be placed in members and it’s not going to be possible,  my view is that it’s not possible to require officers to attend group meeting prior to planning committee as a matter of course, to police them, that’s not relevant.”

A review of the member code, member and officer protocol and the planning protocol was last formally considered by the standards committee at its meeting in April 2019.

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Subsequently, councillors decided the following month at annual council that the documents should be the subject of further review.

Since then, two new documents be introduced, the “ward member protocol” and the “member led council – developing effective member and officer relations” document.

The standards committee agreed to send all of the documents to full council next week, where councillors will decide whether to adopt them.