Judging by JK Rowlings’ latest fictional creation, parish council politics is often a murky business what with petty vendettas, incomers versus born ‘n’ breds, power crazed old duffers up to no good and old fashioned class war clashes in postcard-perfect streets. Yes, Ledbury is a goldmine of source material for her next book. In fact I might write my own even more salacious, even more true-to-life tragi-comedy on the subject. It will be called Casual Disregard. (Be sure to sign up below if you want an advance copy).
One interesting pattern I’ve noticed is how town councillors joyfully and mercilessly stick the boot in to their political or social rivals, but squeal like stuck pigs if they get so much of a hint of rough stuff in return. Reactions range from pained affront (‘this is like character assassination’), through ‘how very dare you’ up to the nuclear sanction of being reported to the Monitoring Officer at the county council (gulp). The whispering campaigns and malicious emails are a given. Even so I was surprised to get a poison pen letter recently: I know who wrote it as he had carelessly hand-written the envelope, a dead giveaway given his characteristic looping script. Not so clever after all.
It seems Ledbury’s deputy mayor Rob Yeoman is very upset with me at the moment. Apparently, I’ve hurt his feelings and damaged both his, and the town council’s reputation by making a few astringent remarks concerning his undeclared business interests on Facebook a few weeks back. So before I go any further let me apologise to Mr Yeoman if I’ve caused him even a moment’s discomfiture. Let’s be friends. But first, in living up to his own high moral principles, perhaps he might answer a few practical questions.
What so offended him was my asking whether it was right that the town’s deputy mayor and member of the Neighbourhood Plan group should not have mentioned to his colleagues that he was also acting as an agent for a building development company.
People may recall that when the planning application to build on the cricket pitch came before Ledbury Town Council, Mr Yeoman, as chairman of Ledbury Cricket Club, promptly declared a non-pecuniary interest and absented himself from discussion. So far so good.
What he didn’t reveal to the Council was his role as ‘developers agent’ on behalf of the Silverwood Partnership, the company seeking planning permission.
This only came to light at the Planning Committee hearing of Herefordshire Council on 11 February when it emerged that his original ‘non-pecuniary’ interest (as cricket club chairman) had evolved over the preceding months into a ‘pecuniary interest’ (as agent for the housing developers). A pecuniary interest is when a person has an interest in a matter because of a reasonable likelihood or expectation of financial gain (or loss) to the person. It usually means you or your family stand to make a few quid if something goes through.
‘Not in Keeping With Council Values’
Surprised by the revelations at Hereford Planning Committee, Ledbury’s very polite Ward Councillor Terry Widdows wrote to Rob Yeoman to find out more about his ‘pecuniary interest’ as developer’s agent and why he had not previously declared this to Ledbury Town Council or any of its sub-committees.
Flashing the steel, this was Rob’s reply: “I do not know who you think you are or what your role in this is, but I am not accountable to you in this way. Your previous email contains many incorrect facts and supposition and I feel it is written in a menacing and demanding tone not in keeping with council values.” As you can see, Mr Yeoman does not appear amenable to reasonable or polite discussion on the matter.
When I asked him similar questions, I received no response at all, which is perhaps a mercy, since deep down I’m quite a sensitive soul myself.
What is very disturbing is that during successive meetings of the Neighbourhood Plan Working Party, a sub-committee of Ledbury Town Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, Rob failed to declare any interest in matters bearing on housing development. Rather he participated vigorously in critical discussion of Herefordshire Council’s Core Strategy, on site evaluation for housing development, on sports field provision, as well as seeking to shape the manner and timing of community consultation for all of these.
It didn’t go unnoticed: group members muttered uneasily about his conflicted interests as a planning policy- and decision-maker and also a key player in the Cricket Club relocation which necessitated the old Ledbury cricket pitch being redeveloped for housing, a highly controversial move, implacably opposed by the majority of the town council and the local community. Coincidentally, this week in the Ledbury Reporter, a local resident Mr Gareth Williams has written and complained on this topic.
At the news that he was acting directly for the Silverwood Partnership Neighbourhood Plan group members are now aghast. Says Silverwood's director Kevin Bird, “we are specialists in achieving valuable planning consents via detailed consultations with stakeholders prior to and during planning applications”.
First Cuckoo of Spring?
So during many sensitive discussions of the Neighbourhood Plan Working Group about housing, recreation and open space land supply it turns out there was a developer’s agent in its midst. Presumably, all of the conversations that were had about development options could have been relayed back to the planners and lawyers at the development company. Ouch.
Not only did Rob fail to declare this pecuniary interest to the Neighbourhood Plan sub-committee but it seems that he might have failed to update his involvement with the Silverwood Partnership on the register of member’s interests. If this is the case, the penalties, rightly, are severe. (See here). It must be admitted however that Herefordshire Council is woefully in error at the present time by not having kept the Register up to date, particularly at this time of heightened political sensitivity. So let's give Rob Yeoman the benefit of the doubt on that one.
Once again, I unreservedly apologise if I have hurt Mr Yeoman’s feelings by drawing attention to these facts and if I have got anything wrong.
Now, in return may I ask that he gives the electorate a clear and unambiguous statement of his interests and why he did not feel it necessary to tell town council and community colleagues at the appropriate moments that he was acting on behalf of a housing developer?
The voters of Ledbury South ward, in which is situated the doomed cricket pitch, will be keen to understand all the reasons why he worked so hard to have a precious and beautiful open space consigned to the bulldozer.
Putting aside hurt feelings for a moment, I ask: did deputy mayor Rob Yeoman act impeccably in his involvement in gaining planning permission for housing on the cricket pitch at the back of the Full Pitcher pub?
Voters might think about that question when they put their crosses in the box on 7 May.
 Don’t panic: Mr Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State has effectively removed any teeth from the standards process. The worst that can happen is you get a polite wrap over the wrist. Phew.