Senior Harrogate councillor "misled" resident on town centre Masterplan consultation

Coun Rebecca Burnett
Coun Rebecca Burnett

A senior councillor has apologised for misleading a member of the public over the Harrogate Town Centre Strategy and Masterplan consultation.

Harrogate Borough Council held a six-week public consultation between September and October 2015 on their plans to transform and redevelop the town centre.

Town Centre Masterplan

Town Centre Masterplan

Despite development consultancy firm, Peter Brett Associates, being paid £56,000 to prepare the masterplan, just 159 responses were received during the consultation.

Harrogate resident Peter Lilley raised concerns about the cost and need of the masterplan to Coun Rebecca Bunett, cabinet member for Planning and Sustainable Transport, given its limited response.

In her reply, Coun Burnett assured Mr Lilley that hundreds more verbal responses had been received at public events and these would be included in the review process.

However, in response to a Freedom of Information submitted in February, Mr Lilley was informed that "none of the conversations that took place with attendees were recorded at the events".

At a Standards Panel hearing into Mr Lilley's complaint on Wednesday (August 17), the panel again stressed verbal comments would not be incorporated into the final report and concluded Coun Burnett had misled Mr Lilley.

Panel Chair, Coun Robert Windass said: "The investigation concluded that Coun Burnett took a communication 'shortcut' and used 'careless phrasing' in an unsuccessful attempt to put an end to the correspondence she was having with Mr Lilley.

"Councillor Burnett accepts the outcome of the investigation and has stated that with hindsight she did not express the position regarding the inclusion of verbal feedback as well as she could have done.

"The Panel noted Councillor Burnett’s acceptance of the investigation report and agreed with the conclusion of the investigation that her statements were misleading and therefore placed her in breach of the principle of openness."

However. following a three-and-a-half hour exempt meeting, the panel decided that no further action against Coun Burnett was required as she had shown "no deliberate intention to mislead".

The panel said that publication of its findings was, in itself, the "appropriate sanction".

Coun Windass added: "This was in recognition of Councillor Burnett’s early and unequivocal acceptance of the investigation report, her expressions of regret and recognition of how she would handle the position differently in future."

Mr Lilley said he was disappointed with the result of the hearing given that Coun Burnett had attempted to claim "far more people" had responded to the public consultation than the portal displayed.

He added that he hoped the council had learned a lesson from the hearing before calling for a "comprehensive review" of future public consultations.

He said: "I am very disappointed at the panel’s response in respect of my Code of Conduct complaint against Coun Rebecca Burnett, not only the actual findings, but the whole tone.

"Coun Burnett claimed that numerous people had made comments at various feedback events organised by the Council and that these would also be included in her report to the Cabinet prior to the Masterplan being formally adopted.

"I would argue that Coun Burnett had many opportunities to recognise that she had been misleading long before I made a formal complaint to the Council and that she failed to make moves to resolve the matter and apologise at the earliest opportunity."

Mr Lilley also slammed the council for their "lack of transparency" and "contradictory approach to open government" after making the meeting and all the relating documents exempt from the public domain.

He said: "It was also disappointing to see a council which claims to be fully committed to the principle of “open government” immediately taking the decision to ban press and public from the hearing and also to deem all Council papers relating to the investigation as being confidential.

"Particularly so since the whole essence of my complaint centred on the issue of transparency."

A HBC spokesperson said: "When officers advise that there is likely to be a disclosure of exempt information in one of the categories as listed in the Local Government Act 1972, members vote as to whether to go into exempt session or hold the hearing in public.

"This is standard procedure for any council meeting where exempt information will be presented. In this instance, the reports considered at the Standard Panel Hearing contained exempt information relating to an individual as defined in section 1 of schedule 12A of the act.

"The outcome of the hearing, including details of the complaint, the hearing panel’s decision and the reasons for that decision, were read out in public session and a decision notice was published on the council’s website.