Babergh orders judicial review into own planning decision after councillor voted on application involving family member

Nick Barrett (right) owns Scutchers restaurant in Long Melford, here seen at the Sudbury Food and Drink Festival.
Nick Barrett (right) owns Scutchers restaurant in Long Melford, here seen at the Sudbury Food and Drink Festival.

Babergh District Council has applied for a judicial review – into a decision taken by its own planning committee.

The move, comes after it emerged that a councillor related to the applicant had taken part in the vote.

Melanie Barrett, a district councillor for the Nayland ward, voted in favour of an annex being built in the garden of Scutchers restaurant in Long Melford, which is owned by her brother-in-law, Nick Barrett.

Mrs Barrett confirmed she had taken part in proceedings and voted in favour of the application, but declined to comment further.

The minutes of the meeting on November 30 show that Mrs Barrett stated that she had a family association with the applicant.

Michael Holt, councillor for the Glemsford and Stanstead ward, also stated that he was employed by a family member of the applicant.

Following clarification from Phil Devonald, legal advisor to the committee, it was resolved that the statements by Mrs Barrett and Mr Holt did not constitute a disclosable interest by reason of close family relationship or employment.

In the transcript of the meeting, Mr Devonald is recorded as saying: “It’s not unlawful for a member with that interest to speak, however, the member should take account of the fact that it’s the public perception that matters [in regard to] transparency and integrity in the planning process.

“At the end of the day, officers can’t make members decide; it’s a matter for the conscience of the member concerned.”

Mr Barrett has expressed his disgust at the way the matter has been handled, describing it as ‘appalling’.

The application was to provide an annexe for his 87-year-old father, who is confined to a wheelchair.

Mr Barrett said: “She [Melanie] asked Babergh’s solicitor whether she should leave. We have done everything they have asked and have started building.

“At the end of January, we got a letter stating they were taking a judicial review and giving us two days to respond.”

The council missed the deadline to revoke the decision and has had to apply to the High Court. Mr Barrett said the family could not afford to appeal the move.

“We are shocked,” he said. “They are spending tax payers’ money. They should have told Melanie to leave.

“Perhaps she should have left, but she was told it wasn’t an issue. Then they waited two months to do something about it.

“If I wanted to fight it, it would cost thousands. I think it’s a disgraceful waste of taxpayers’ money.

“We are distraught. My father is 87, has had a stroke and needs 24/7 care.”

At the meeting, members debated whether the annexe would cause harm to nearby listed buildings and the village’s conservation area. They also discussed adding planning conditions.

After being proposed by Mr Holt, members voted by eight votes to four in favour of approving the plans.

In a letter sent to planning committee members on February 2, seen by the Free Press, Babergh’s monitoring officer Suki Binjal reminded members of the importance of the authority’s code of conduct.

She wrote: “One of the key aims of the planning system is to balance private interests in the development of land against the wider public interest.

“Public confidence in the planning system fundamentally depends upon fair, impartial and transparent decision making that complies with the planning acts.

“Recent events at the planning committee on November 30 compel me to clarify the rules within section 8 of the charter concerning applications in which members or officer are directly concerned.”

The charter states: “A member or officer who has an interest in an application either by reason of it being (i) their application (ii) an application by a close family member or (iii) an application on which they have made representations shall take no part in the processing or deciding of the application.”

At the end of the letter, Mrs Binjal said: “Having taken counsel’s advice and following consultation with the chief executive, an application for judicial review will be made.”

Babergh would not comment on the individuals involved but a spokeswoman said: “We work tirelessly to help members maintain high standards of conduct and ensure that the integrity of the planning process is preserved and that it is, and is seen to be, open and fair to all parties.

“While we would like to make it clear that no complaint has been received over the decision, it was, nevertheless, considered necessary to take immediate steps to quash this decision.”