A leading Aylesbury Vale District Councillor voted to approve two major planning applications by a developer she has a financial investment in, a Bucks Herald investigation has revealed.
Councillor Janet Blake, the cabinet member for commercialisation and business transformation, said she had done nothing wrong and was acting within the rules.
But the situation has been criticised by the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the council’s chief executive Andrew Grant has said that Mrs Blake should have declared her personal interest in the business at the meetings.
Councillor Blake, who represents Stewkley on AVDC, owns a bond investment in the developer Rectory Homes, which is based in Haddenham.
The firm has developments in Stone, Haddenham, Aston Clinton and Long Crendon. The planning applications have often been the subject of strong opposition from residents concerned about the impact on the area and infrastructure, with hundreds of letters being submitted in protest.
Councillor Blake, who is married to the leader of the council Neil Blake and also sits on Bucks County Council, had declared her bond investment in Rectory Homes and the declaration is published on AVDC’s website, dated Wednesday, February 17, 2016.
Later that year, two applications by Rectory Homes were voted on by members of the strategic development management committee. These meetings were on November 2, 2016, and April 27, 2016.
Guidance issued by the Department of Communities and Local Governments says that any declared interest must be disclosed to the meeting.
At both meetings, Councillor Blake did not declare an interest and was involved in the debate, later voting in favour of the proposals receiving planning permission.
In response to an approach by The Bucks Herald for comment, Councillor Blake said: “The original advice I received from our monitoring officer regarding my small investment in a Rectory Homes Bond was that it was not ‘a disclosable pecuniary interest’.
“However, I chose to register it myself on the council’s website for complete transparency.
“I therefore have a personal interest in the company but do not feel it necessary to declare this at strategic development management committee meetings because of my voluntary registration.
“This bond is a fixed term, fixed interest rate investment, with no voting rights and is not dependent on the profitability of the company.
“Consequently, I have nothing to gain should I vote to approve planning applications from Rectory Homes,” Councillor Blake added.
The Gov.uk website, in a post which lays out rules that councillors must follow says: “A person’s pecuniary interests are their business interests (for example their employment, trade, profession, contracts, or any company with which they are associated) and wider financial interests they might have (for example trust funds, investments, and assets including land and property).”
James Price, campaign manager at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “As always, sunlight is the best disinfectant and taxpayers deserve to know as much as possible about the interests of those who are spending their money.
“It should be for residents and voters to determine whether they are happy with the level of disclosures and act accordingly.”
Andrew Grant, AVDC chief executive, said: “There is a statutory definition of what interests councillors are legally obliged to disclose in their Register of Interests, called ‘Disclosable Pecuniary Interest’. Councillor Janet Blake sought advice from the Council’s Monitoring Officer and was advised that the purchase of a bond from Rectory Homes did not constitute a disclosable pecuniary interest and therefore she was not legally obliged to disclose that interest on her register. However, the Code of Conduct for Members does refer to Personal Interests which are declarable at meetings.
“Under the Code of Conduct a decision in relation to the business of the Council that could reasonably be regarded as affecting the wellbeing or financial position of the councillor could be regarded as a “personal interest”.
“Where a councillor has a personal interest in any business of the Council they may also have a “prejudicial interest”. This is where a member of the public with knowledge of the relevant facts could regard that interest as likely to prejudice their judgement of the public interest. This is a judgement to be exercised by the councillor in each situation.
“Councillor Janet Blake chose to voluntarily disclose her interest on her register for the sake of transparency but was not obliged to do so. Failure to declare a personal interest was not, therefore, unlawful. However, under the Code of Conduct we have now clarified that in respect of the Rectory Homes planning applications considered by Committee, Councillor Janet Blake should have declared the purchase of the bond as a personal interest at each of those meetings.”