Party loyalties influence judgement

THE HIGH Court ruling on 16 February to uphold the decision to reject plans to modify Liverpool Football Club stadium has highlighted the issue that party loyalties should not play a decisive role in decisions relating to planning matters.

The case, R v Local Commissioner for Administration in North and North East England ex parte Liverpool City Council, centred on approval of plans for the height of the stadium roof at Anfield Road to be raised to 15.8 metres to make room for more seating. Voting for the plan was 41 in favour and 30 against.

A challenge by Liverpool City Council of an ombudsman's report, found that it was guilty of maladministration in giving the go-ahead for extensions to Liverpool Football Club stadium.

Ombudsman Patricia Thomas, held that there had been maladministration in two respects.

One was that councillors had toed the party line in their voting. The National Code of Local Government Conduct – which all local councillors agree to abide by – says that while councillors can be strongly influenced by the views of their parties, the end decision must be down to their own views.

There was evidence that in the Liverpool decision, some councillors had voted in line with party policy which they did not agree with.

Three councillors had indicated that they would have voted against the scheme had it been a "free vote".

Thomas' second important finding was that the voting of six councillors who were season ticket holders at the club, and another who was an ardent fan, added up to a breach of procedure entitling her to make a finding of maladministration.

Mr Justice Hooper considered that under those circumstances, a finding of malad ministration was justified on the basis that the decisions of the councillors who were Liverpool fans were, or might appear to be, influenced by personal interest.

He also considered that the Ombudsman's finding was justified on the basis that political loyalty had played too strong a role in the voting.

In a decision which will have wide repercussions for local authorities throughout the country, and which for many local political parties calls for a re-think in voting strategies – certainly as far as planning matters are concerned – Judge Hooper upheld those findings.

His decision leaves no doubt that if party politics take priority over the indi-vidual views of councillors, the ground will have been laid for a maladministration finding.

The decision also resulted in crucial guidelines on the criteria which determine the level of personal interest a councillor has to have before he or she declares that interest, or withdraws from the voting procedure.

David Goldman, a partner in Watford-based Pulvers, who represented the ombudsman in the case, says that the ruling is one of "enormous importance" in local government planning circles.

"The judge quoted the code of practice provisions which specify that councillors must not allow party loyalties to override their own views when voting.

"While this was in the context of this case, and therefore involved a planning matter, I think that the principles laid down by this decision could be extended beyond planning," he says.

"The code [the National Local Government Code of Conduct] says that party loyalties must not be decisive and that has been backed by this ruling. In the light of that

I think some local political parties will have to take a fresh look at their voting strategies."

The council has indicated that it wants to appeal the ruling.