Councillor faces standards probe over alleged comment at planning meeting

Cllr Geoff Harrison

Lib Dem councillor Geoff Harrison is the subject of a formal complaint over a comment he allegedly made before voting on a green belt planning application. - Credit: St Albans Council

A councillor is facing a standards investigation after a formal complaint was filed over his conduct in a planning meeting.

Lib Dem Geoff Harrison confirmed to the Herts Ad that he was the subject of a complaint over a comment he allegedly made to a developer’s agent before an important meeting last month.

Campaigners allege in a complaint, filed on Monday night, that the comment suggested bias by Cllr Harrison in favour of a planning application he then voted to approve.

Cllr Harrison would not confirm or deny whether he made the statement in question.

He said: “With it being an official complaint to the council, I can’t comment on it at the moment. I have replied to the council and they are taking it forward.”

St Albans district council also declined to comment.

CLASH

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Campaign group CLASH (Campaign by Locals Against Sewell Housing) has filed two formal complaints – one about a committee’s decision-making and the other about Cllr Harrison specifically.

The group has fought for years against attempts to bulldoze Green Belt land off of Harpenden Road.

But despite the campaign being backed by wildlife experts and more than 1,000 residents, the council’s Planning Referrals Committee granted tentative permission for 150 homes on July 26.

An aerial view of the Harpenden Road site, which could see 150 homes built on Green Belt land.

An aerial view of the Harpenden Road site in north St Albans, which could see 150 homes built on Green Belt land, unless the Secretary of State steps in. - Credit: Google Earth

Robert Jenrick – Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government – has the power to veto the council’s decision, so CLASH is now lobbying him.

In the meantime, it has also filed complaints with St Albans council.

The Expert

One speaker at the July 26 meeting was Jed Griffiths, a Fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute, whose job includes training councillors on how to properly determine planning applications.

Mr Griffiths spoke against the planned development, saying he and others had gathered evidence of traffic problems around the development site which Hertfordshire County Council had denied.

“Our photographs show the reality of the traffic problems along the A1081 and they will be exacerbated by the addition of 151 dwellings,” he said.

But later in the meeting, Cllr Harrison – vice-chairman of the committee – told councillors: “On the question of traffic, I’m afraid that Hertfordshire County Council, in their wisdom, have said there is no problems, or no major problems, with this application and given it their backing.

“We cannot use that as a reason for refusal because the appeal inspector, if it went to appeal, would just laugh at us... So we cannot look at that at all.”

Jed Griffiths

Planning expert Jed Griffiths, who trains councillors on how to handle planning applications, said he was 'taken aback' by a comment he observed Cllr Harrison make before the meeting. - Credit: St Albans Council

The Complaints

CLASH’s complaints rely on an expert witness statement Mr Griffiths wrote for them on July 28.

In it, he wrote that he believed Cllr Harrison’s advice to the committee about the traffic problems was “wrong”.

“Members are there to be critical of external reports and to make their own assessments based on the factors on the ground,” Mr Griffiths wrote.

“They do not necessarily have to go with Hertfordshire County Council Highways every time, if there is evidence to the contrary.”

He then alleged that before the meeting began, he witnessed Cllr Harrison approach an agent for the developer, there to speak in favour of the application.

He wrote that he witnessed Cllr Harrison make a comment to the agent, which he quoted in his statement.

“I was taken aback by this,” he wrote. “In countless training sessions all over England, I have advised members on the provisions of the Localism Act 2011 and the need to carry out their duties in accordance with the Code of Conduct. There should be no perception of bias.”

A spokesperson for the developer’s agent declined to comment.

The Council

St Albans council has a blanket policy of refusing to comment on standards complaints against councillors unless they have been upheld.

However, policy states that the council’s head legal officer must determine, in consultation with an “independent person”, whether to progress the investigation and refer it to the Standards Committee.

St Albans councillor Geoff Harrison

Cllr Harrison said he could not comment on the complaint while the council was investigating. - Credit: St Albans Council

The council did confirm receipt of CLASH’s second complaint.

A spokesperson said: “We have received a complaint from a campaign group about a planning committee’s decision-making.

“This is being dealt with in accordance with our complaints policy, which is published on our website.

“We will respond to the group within the timeframe stated of 15 working days.”

For more, read:

150 homes plan for green belt land in north St Albans is approved

Developers appeal over Green Belt homes bid

Second rejection for homes on Green Belt

High Court challenge over St Albans Sewell Park development

St Albans Green Belt homes development bid wins High Court judgement

Why the future of St Albans' Green Belt is at risk from development

Sewell Park planning row goes to court of appeal

St Albans Green Belt scheme contested by council at fresh appeal hearing

St Albans homes scheme decision looms

St Albans' Green Belt housing scheme legal challenge rejected

D-Day for decisions over St Albans' Green Belt homes plan

£136,000 fight against St Albans housing scheme

Delay over decision over massive Green Belt homes scheme for St Albans

Is this the end of the line for Green Belt homes project behind St Albans Girls' School?

Developer disputes total housing need for St Albans district

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