A LEADING councillor has come under fire over comments which suggested that his political party has made a group decision to oppose a controversial opencast mining scheme in Northumberland.
Coun Peter Jackson, leader of the Conservatives on the county council, has sparked a formal complaint and criticism from political opponents following his recent comments on UK Coal’s bid to mine two million tonnes at Whittonstall, on the Northumberland / County Durham border.
Referring to the decision by Coun Anne Dale to resign from the Tory group and stand as an independent at May’s council elections, Coun Jackson cited “policy differences”.
He said these included Coun Dale’s refusal to support the group’s policies on the Whittonstall opencast “and our objection to it”.
Opponents say the comment suggests the group has pre-judged the UK Coal application, meaning Conservative members of the planning committee will not be able to determine it in an unbiased way as individual councillors.
Now Coun Jackson and one of his senior group colleagues have moved to clarify his remarks, and made it clear they have not taken a collective decision to oppose the Whittonstall scheme.
Liberal Democrat county council leader, Coun Jeff Reid, said yesterday that Coun Jackson’s comments implied the Conservatives had already decided how they would judge the planning application, which could have led to accusations of bias and prejudice.
He said: “Coun Jackson has yet again spoken without thinking about the consequences and, as a result, has yet again landed himself in hot water. He should know by now that you simply cannot have partisan lines being drawn when it comes to planning decisions.”
One county councillor has had made a formal complaint to the authority, claiming Coun Jackson’s comments breach the Local Government Act 1972.
The row led to Conservative councillor Trevor Thorne making a public statement at last week’s meeting of the planning and environment committee, which he chairs, clarifying the group’s position. Yesterday he said Coun Jackson’s comment that there was a group policy against the Whittonstall application was “incorrect”.
Coun Thorne added: “I made it clear that Conservative members of the central planning committee cannot take a group view, and must go into each planning application with an open mind. We can’t determine planning applications if we are prejudiced against them.”
Last night, Coun Jackson said there had been no group decision to oppose the Whittonstall mining scheme and he had explained this at a meeting with council chief executive, Steve Stewart, on Friday.
He said his comments were part of a lengthy conversation covering the group’s concerns about general opencast policy in Northumberland and local residents’ opposition to the Whittonstall scheme. He added: “It is quite clear that members of the planning committee must consider every application on its merits.
“I have made it clear there is no party political influence on planning applications in Northumberland as far as the Conservative group is concerned.”