Christopher Booker's notebook
'Prejudicial interest' rules make mockery of democracy
Thanks to a diktat from John Prescott, thousands of elected councillors have been shocked to be instructed by council officials that they are no longer permitted to represent the views of the communities which elected them. The bizarre consequences of this extraordinary bid to undermine local democracy are highlighted by four recent examples from just one county, Shropshire.
When Aggie Caesar-Homden was last September elected to Oswestry borough council, to represent the residents of the village of West Felton, she found herself at the centre of a local planning row. The parish council was up in arms over a 50-foot-high Orange mobile phone mast which had suddenly appeared on the edge of the village, blocking the view to the Berwyn mountains.
The villagers' objection was not to the mast in principle, but that its erection was in clear breach of planning rules. Of 10 procedures required by the rules for phone masts, nine had not been complied with. The mast was illegal. But when Councillor Caesar-Homden raised this on behalf of the parish council she was told by senior council officials that it was not her role to speak for her electors. Since she was now an Oswestry councillor, she must support her council.
There was no one angrier about this than the local MP, Owen Paterson, who had recently been involved in a similar row over a highly unpopular plan by North Shropshire district council to close down municipal swimming pools in Ellesmere and Wem. Councillors from the two towns had been told by North Shropshire officials that they could not participate in debates on the issue, because the fact that they represented the views of their communities gave them a "prejudicial interest". Only when Mr Paterson intervened was this ruling reversed.
In Telford, the council came up with a contentious plan to build on part of the local park. A councillor billed to chair a meeting on the issue was forced to pull out when officials told her that her participation would exclude her from attending any council debate on the issue. A letter on behalf of the council's head of "Legal and Democratic Services" explained that a "councillor's overriding duty is to the whole community, not just to the people in their ward or area". Decision-making must be "undertaken impartially", and councillors must not appear to be "improperly favouring any group or locality".
In South Shropshire, council officials went even further. Following an incident when a protestor shouted abuse at a planning meeting, they produced new guidelines stating that members of the public are not permitted to speak to councillors, before, during or after meetings. Council leader Heather Kidd explained that, because members of the public had shown "disrespect to councillors", the rules had been introduced to "protect the security of councillors".
But one councillor, Claude Bodenham, urged electors to ignore the rules. He said "I am always out and about in Craven Arms or Ludlow, and I expect people to come up to me."
Last week I reported how Bob Mills, a Powys county councillor, was told by officials that, because he had criticised wind turbines in a letter to the local paper, he would not be permitted to attend any debates on this issue. His letter showed that he had a "pre-determined" view. It was fine for the council and the Welsh Assembly to have a "pre-determined view" in support of turbines, but because he opposes them he must leave the chamber whenever they are discussed.
Similar instances are sprouting up all over the country, thanks to zealous interpretation by council "monitoring officers" of Mr Prescott's Local Authorities (Code of Conduct) Order 2001. By excluding from council business any councillor who can be considered to have a "prejudicial interest", the code is now being widely used to silence councillors who wish to speak on behalf of the communities they represent.
And, like the bulk of the laws which now rule our lives, this astonishing revolution in local government was imposed by means of a statutory instrument - a ministerial edict which Parliament had no chance to discuss.
For a chap who spent years campaigning for the abolition of the House of Lords and was elected to Parliament by calling for Britain to pull out of "Europe", Neil Kinnock hasn't done badly. He is now a lord himself and, as a former European Commission vice-president, enjoys a pension of £75,000 a year - one condition of which is that he must promote "European integration".
This is doubtless why he has been wheeled on by the UK Metrication Association to head its campaign for the use of miles to be made illegal on Britain's road signs. This tiny but tireless pressure group has been squeaking away for years about how silly it is that we still use miles, which, as Kinnock points out, "contradicts the image of our country as a modern, multicultural, dynamic place". It is time, says the great man, that we followed the example of the Irish, who metricated their roads last year. We must spend a mere £80 million on eliminating the hated mile by the time the "all-metric Olympic Games open in London in 2012".
What the noble lord didn't perhaps grasp was that changing our road signs (opposed by more than 80 per cent of respondents in the latest poll) would actually cost £800 million, according to the Department for Transport. And the figures from Ireland show that the switch to metric is far from an unqualified success: last year, both road deaths and speeding offences soared.
As for those "all-metric Olympic Games", I leave the last word to "Metric Martyr" Neil Herron, who points out that the country likely to win most medals in 2012 is the non-modern, non-multicultural, non-dynamic United States - which is also still, of course, non-metric.
New Zealand winemakers have been told by Brussels that they cannot use the word "Kiwi" on wines exported to "Europe" because a French company has reserved the name for its Kiwi Cuvee. The New Zealanders were selling under a Kiwi label to Sweden before the French registered the name - but the French knew their way rather better round the Brussels system.
Some years back another French winemaker persuaded Brussels to prohibit a South African vineyard calling itself Provence - even though it had been doing so since it was founded by Huguenot exiles in 1715.