HC Deb 09 May 2001 vol 368 cc240-4

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Pearson.]

11.36 pm
Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

I have applied for this Adjournment debate to draw the attention of the House to the alleged abuse of planning controls at Rother district council in my constituency. I wish to make it clear from the outset that the irregularities to which I shall refer do not arise from any obvious deficiency in planning legislation nor, so far as I can tell, are they the result of maladministration or neglect by council planning staff. The problems that I shall highlight are, allegedly, the result of collusion between so-called property developers and councillors, involving bribery and senior council members having undue influence over their colleagues. I shall argue that those matters should be thoroughly investigated.

This is not the first time in this Parliament that I have shared with the House the results of my research into controversial issues on which it has become clear to me that answers, explanations and action are needed. I am pleased that, as a result of those earlier debates, positive steps were taken in each instance although, in some cases, more still needs to be done. I can at least claim with some confidence that the topics that I aired in that way were not trivial; I investigated them carefully before referring them to the House.

My most recent attempt to elicit open answers to several related questions was on 30 March, when I introduced the Second Reading of my Bill requiring freemasons elected to public office to register their interest. My speech that day was restricted to a mere 25 minutes or so because of a determined effort by some hon. Members to talk out the preceding business, for whatever motive. In the limited time available, I did not have an opportunity to speak about past links between various London criminals, including the Brinks-Mat bullion gang—Kenneth Noye and his solicitor are both freemasons—and freemasons in East Sussex. Those matters, made known to me by a retired head of the Metropolitan police crime squad, Mr. Brian Boyce, would, I believe, have illuminated my arguments in favour of masonic councillors registering their interests as freemasons.

There is a direct connection between my call for openness on masonic interests and the subject of this debate, as allegatios of planning abuse and councillors' impropriety were first raised with me by an elderly freemason, Mr. Eric Johnson, who, for many years, was a distinguished councillor. He advised me that a few fellow freemasons, including one or two councillors, were complicit in a property scam to take advantage of a woman landowner, who is now about 80.

Mr. Johnson alleged that there had been embezzlement, tax fraud, planning abuse and bribery concerning the purchase and sale of land for development at artificial prices. He spoke of inducements paid to a councillor to influence the granting or withholding of planning consent, and allegations of covert payment to a representative of a building firm, Fairelough Homes, by means of which a pension fund of at least £80,000 had secretly been provided.

I then spoke to the elderly landowner, Mrs. Pamela Ward-Jones, who reinforced the allegations. She referred me to her professional advisers, including a solicitor, Mr. Patrick Battersby, a banker, Mr. Graham Carn, and a distinguished chartered surveyor in East Sussex, Mr. Clifford Dann. All these people told me that they had carefully examined a number of property transactions involving on the one hand, Mrs. Ward-Jones, and on the other, a Mr. Ken Jolly and a Mr. Barry Eades.

I understand from reliable professional sources that Mr. Eades is a fugitive from this country, following disputes with the Inland Revenue and also, apparently, with dubious sources of property finance in south London. Mr. Johnson advised me—and other Bexhill residents confirmed—that Jolly and Eades are both freemasons. So was a local councillor alleged in statements given to Mrs. Ward-Jones's solicitors by other constituents to have been paid by Jolly to influence planning decisions. I shall not name this councillor in the House because he would not be able to answer for himself, as he died abroad, I am sorry to say, not long after my inquiries into these matters were made known to the local authority chief executive, the Serious Fraud Office and the inland Revenue.

Mr. Battersby told me that his client, Mrs. Ward-Jones, claims that Jolly and Eades tried to bankrupt her by procuring that her bank manager refused her credit when she could show adequate means of raising finance. He added the suggestion that Jolly and Eades acted with other parties through whom improper dealings were procured through contacts that they made as freemasons, but he rightly insisted that there was no suggestion that any masonic lodge itself was involved in impropriety. The allegation was merely that individuals involved in the alleged wrongdoing had been drawn together by their common membership of freemasonry.

Among the property sites in which Jolly and Eades became involved improperly, according to Mrs. Ward-Jones, were Willow Way, Top Acre and Curles Farm, but the most controversial planning history seems to relate to land off Spindlewood drive, Cooden, and at Old Harrier kennels, Maple walk, Cooden. That included some eight acres of land that Mrs. Ward-Jonas had provisionally agreed to sell to Bovis Homes for development.

Although the land was not earmarked in a rather outdated local development plan, it was at first approved by council members, and then, after local elections, the approval was reversed, against the recommendation of planning officers. Mrs. Ward-Jones appealed against refusal. Some months later, her appeal was dismissed on the grounds that a much-delayed deposit draft local plan was not in place, and it was then fore not technically possible to earmark fresh areas for development beyond the limits of the old plan.

According to Mr. Clifford Dann, the significance of the Maple walk and Spindlewood drive sites was that when Mrs. Ward-Jones appealed against refusal, a local firm, Freshfield Properties Ltd., acting in concert with Mr. Jolly's company, Buxton Homes, wrote to her suggesting that the elected members of the council who had just refused her permission could be persuaded to do an immediate volte-face.

Mr. Peter Gooch of Freshfield Properties wrote: We believe that a revised planning application to Rother District Council may now be more favourably recived…To achieve this we need to employ the services of Buxton Homes— that is, Mr. Jolly—

who have persuaded us in their belief that they can achieve the desired goal … in the next few weeks. Mr. Gooch went on: We would like to proceed with a purchase"— from Mrs. Ward-Jones—

before the date of any appeal hearing… The reasons why this planning opportunity has arisen are complicated… You do have opponents to your sites on the committee and a fresh approach may be a way of overcoming these difficulties. On a plan attached to the letter was a note to the effect that the plan would be submitted to the council on the advice of the late councillor who died abroad earlier this year. Mr. Dann asked how it could possibly be in Mrs. Ward-Jones's best interests to sell the land to Mr. Gooch and Mr. Jolly, and challenged them to explain why they believed members of the council would so swiftly contradict the beliefs that had resulted in the recent refusals. No answer was given, and the offer was not taken up by Mrs. Ward-Jones.

As I have already said, I referred these matters to the Serious Fraud Office and the Inland Revenue. The latter has yet to respond to me, but Ms Helen Garlick, a senior advisory lawyer at the SFO, has done so. She said that the SFO tends to deal with cases involving at least £1 million. She doubted whether witnesses could now be found who would be capable of giving admissible evidence of corrupt conduct in a criminal trial. In her opinion, the case was more suitable for determination in a civil court.

Civil proceedings are a matter for Mrs. Ward-Jones and her solicitor to decide on. For the Minister and for the elected members of Rother district council, there is much to review and to investigate further.

The council's planning committee has been chaired since the last election by Councillor Brian Kentfield, a past master of a masonic lodge in Battle and a close colleague of the recently deceased councillor who was the subject of many of the allegations to which I have alluded. If integrity is to be seen to be preserved, it is for Councillor Kentfield to take the initiative and to seek an independent review by someone completely free of connections with freemasonry. Other members of the planning committee have spoken freely of heavy-handed lobbying by senior colleagues over planning decisions put before them. For the sake of Mrs. Ward-Jones, and for the council's good name, these matters should be examined impartially and without further delay.

When Mr. Johnson first drew my attention to these allegations of planning abuse, and the collusion against Mrs. Ward-Jones by what he regarded as a few unscrupulous fellow freemasons, I wrote to Councillor Kentfield and to the local Conservative association, many of whose most senior officers are also councillors, but no explanations were forthcoming. There was only a veil of undisguised animosity at the notion that a wider audience within the party, let alone the public at large, should be made aware of what a few masonic members were doing.

The role of the recently deceased councillor in the local party has now been filled by that councillor's solicitor, who is himself a senior freemason. However, the grand master of Sussex freemasons has written to me assuring me that he will investigate any allegations of wrongdoing among his members. I take him at his word, which I trust he will honour.

It is time that the stables were mucked out. It is time for openness and accountability in the public interest. After 18 years in the House, and particularly in light of the recent withdrawal of the Opposition Whip with all the absurdity and hypocrisy that that has implied, I trust that it can be said that I have been my own man and that I have spoken out in what I believe to be the interests of my constituents whenever I have judged it necessary. I hope that in doing so, I have fulfilled my duty in this place.

11.48 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) has made serious allegations. When we saw that he had succeeded in getting an Adjournment debate on the abuse of planning controls, we tried to speak to his office to see what it was he wanted to raise.

Mr. Wardle

I did not get that message, and apologise for that. It has always been my practice to help when I can, and I am sorry that there was no reply to the Minister's communication. I saw her sitting on the Front Bench before the debate started, and I wondered whether I should nip over and give her an outline of my concerns. I apologise that she has not had one.

Ms Hughes

No, I have not had one, but I was not criticising the hon. Gentleman. Having heard what he had to say, I wondered whether he deliberately did not want to inform anyone in advance, as the nature of his allegations was very serious. I have some speaking notes about enforcement of planning decisions, planning conditions, section 108 and all the rest of it, none of which is relevant to the points that he has raised. I shall, however, try to make some helpful responses.

The hon. Gentleman made serious allegations about planning abuse and councillors' impropriety. As I think he will agree, he was talking less about abuse of planning controls than about alleged criminal activity, bribes and corruption. He gave details of the circumstances of the allegations, and, indeed, named individuals. I know that, given his experience of raising such matters over many years, he will understand why I cannot comment on such allegations on the Floor of the House.

The hon. Gentleman said that he had talked to the Serious Fraud Office and had been told that for various reasons this was not an appropriate case for the SFO to consider. The complainant has been directed to the civil court. I agree with what the hon. Gentleman seemed to be saying: that does not appear to be a terribly appropriate remedy for someone in such circumstances. The hon. Gentleman did not say whether the allegations had been forwarded to the police, or whether the police had commented. He suggested an independent review by the council. Someone outside the allegations would have to initiate such a move: DETR has no powers or resources to investigate the matter, because the allegations are of criminal activity, corruption and so on, and a Government Department cannot undertake investigations of that nature. I can think of no avenues to explore on the spur of the moment, but if I think of any that have not occurred to the hon. Gentleman, I shall reply to him.

As the hon. Gentleman may know, the Local Government Act 2000 introduced a new ethical framework for local government, setting out a series of principles relating to issues of the kind that concern him—honesty, integrity, propriety, responsibility and so on. Developed from that set of principles is a code of conduct put together by the Government, the Local Government Association and other interested parties. It includes both the code applying to local councillors and the parallel code applying to officers. The code will require councillors to declare membership of organisations, and freemasons are listed as one such organisation. Under the Act, every council will also be required to have a standards committee It will not be an investigatory committee, but it will be required to ensure that the council concerned has a robust ethical framework; that it is applying, if not the model code of conduct that the Government recommend, its own code based on that model; and that that code is enforced.

There will also be a national standards board, appointments to which I have just completed. The board will be chaired by Anthony Holland, the former chair of the Northern Ireland Parades Commission, who has a robust reputation in he context of such matters. It will have a body of inquiry officers who will undertake investigations of matters such as this—any matters concerning alleged impropriety, dishonesty, wrongdoing or bringing the reputations of councillors or local government into disrepute. It will have power to investigate, to adjudicate and to impose sanctions.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman—and the Government strongly agree with him—that this is a time for openness in public life, and for transparency. The vast majority of councillors—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares this sentiment—do an excellent job in a spirit of strong public service, and are honest and decent. The minority who behave wrongly and corruptly do a great disservice to the vast majority of upstanding people on our councils. That is why we introduced that framework: not because local government is riddled with corruption—far from it—but to provide a transparent and robust mechanism to protect the representations of the vast majority of decent councillors.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. I will see whether other avenues are open to the people concerned. I know that the hon. Gentleman is standing down at the forthcoming election and that he is held in high regard for his efforts to bring serious matters to the attention of hon. Members. On behalf of the House, I wish him well for the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Twelve o'clock.