The chairman of Lincolnshire County Council’s Planning Committee has been found guilty of breaching the council’s code of conduct, after handing public money over to a group challenging council policy.
Councillor Ian Fleetwood gave money to the Hawthorn Road Action Group, set up to oppose the county council’s plans to close Hawthorn Road when the Eastern Bypass is built.
Rival campaigners the Lincoln Bypass Action Group lodged a formal complaint with the county council over his actions in February 2015, with a hearing held to assess whether he had broken any rules.
The decision reached by the private hearing panel found that part of Councillor Fleetwood’s allocation of the Big Society Fund was used for lobbying against county council policy by parish councils.
It is understood that after taking advice, the councillor awarded £500 sums to Cherry Willingham and Reepham parish councils in November and December of 2014, who then subsequently forwarded the grants to the Hawthorn Road Action Group.
Under council rules, the Big Society Fund should not have been used to support groups contesting council policy.
This misuse of the fund was found to be a minor breach of the Members’ Code of Conduct.
Richard Wills, Monitoring Officer at the county council, said: “At the meeting between Councillor Martin Hill, the Conservative group leader, and Councillor Ian Fleetwood, the outcome of the panel’s deliberations were noted.
“It was accepted that there was a legitimate criticism of his use of his Big Society Fund on one occasion.
“It was agreed that in future, Councillor Fleetwood expressly follows the guidelines regarding the Big Society Fund and as chairman of the planning committee, he should take all due care to provide appropriate clarity of intent in meetings, especially when it is a matter regarding his own division.”
Imogen Lemon, spokesperson for the Lincoln Bypass Action Group, said: “The inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money should never go unchallenged and we welcome the conclusion of the panel that Councillor Fleetwood’s award to those opposing LCC policy for the Lincoln Eastern Bypass (LEB) clearly breaks the rules of the fund.
“A great deal of taxpayers’ money is being invested in this major infrastructure development and for more of our money to be used in order to oppose that policy is totally wrong.
“The actions of those opposing the LEB plans, if successful, could result in further delays to this much needed relief road and Councillor Fleetwood, in his capacity of Chair of the Planning and Regulations Committee, is well aware of the importance of this road to our county.
“We welcome the news that the complaints process has now concluded and that the panel has confirmed our original assertions.
“One final question for us though is when will this money be paid back to the public purse?”
However, a spokesperson for the Hawthorn Road Action Group said: “The Hawthorn Road Action Group has never received any money from the Big Society Fund grants facilitated by Councillor Ian Fleetwood to both Reepham and Cherry Willingham Parish Councils.
“Some of the grant money was used by Cherry Willingham Parish Council to provide banners campaigning against the closure of Hawthorn Road.
“It is understood that it is already on the agenda for the next meeting of Cherry Willingham Parish Council to repay any grant money identified as incorrectly received once the detailed facts of Councillor Fleetwood’s Standards Inquiry have been considered.
“It is also understood that Reepham Parish Council funded all their opposition to the stopping up of Hawthorn Road from their own balances and not their own Big Society Fund grant which was used for other purposes within the rules of the grant scheme.
“This is acknowledged by the county council in their statement which said ‘it was accepted that there was a legitimate criticism of his use of his Big Society Fund on one occasion.'”
Councillor Fleetwood, who represents the Bardney and Cherry Willingham division on Lincolnshire County Council for the Conservative Party, was contacted by The Lincolnite, but has failed to respond as yet.