Councillor cleared

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A LOCAL government watchdog has cleared Garstang Coun Tom Balmain of claims he tried to influence a decision on plans to demolish the office where his wife works in an effort to save her job.

Mrs Alene Balmain works as a legal secretary at Vincent Brooks solicitors, Castle View, Bridge Street, Garstang.

The owner of the building Coun Alan Vincent wanted to demolish it and replace it with flats.

Coun Balmain failed to declare his interest in the matter when he attended a meeting of Wyre planning committee meeting last year.

His failure to declare the connection prompted a complaint to the Standards Board for England which investigates alleged breaches of local authority conduct rules.

The complaint was made by one of Coun Balmain's Conservative colleagues. The identity of the complainant has not been revealed, but the complaint was taken seriously by the Standards Board's ethical standards officer.

The officer "considered Coun Balmain had a personal and prejudicial interest" in the application because a decision "could have a significant affect on his wife's well-being and employment."

The same official concluded that Coun Balmain, who is a member of both Wyre and Garstang councils, did breach Wyre's code of conduct by failing to declare his personal interest and by not leaving the meeting when the application was debated.

A summary of the investigation, which decided no further action should be taken, was presented to Wyre Council's standards committee this week.

It said: "It was alleged that Coun Balmain's wife worked in the office block that was the subject of the applications and would lose her job if it were demolished as planned."

Coun Balmain, who was contacted by Standards Board staff as part of the probe, said he "accepted with hindsight that he should have declared an interest because his wife worked in the building."

He said he had been asked by his constituents, who opposed the demolition of the distinctive Victorian villa, to represent them.

The ethical standards officer accepted Coun Balmain's statement that he did not believe at the time of the meeting that he had a prejudicial interest, and also that while he attended the meeting he did not have any voting rights on the committee.

The report concludes "no action needs to be taken in relation to these matters".

The vote taken at the meeting was to oppose the demolition of Castle View. A later appeal against the rejecttion of the demolition plan was thrown out.

Coun and Mrs Balmain are a former mayor and mayoress of Garstang.

Coun Balmain said this week: "It gave me six months of worry, but it is now all done and dusted."

The investigation is the latest probe into alleged breaches of conduct by councillors at Wyre.

The council was rocked last autumn when Coun Alan Vincent, the then leader of the ruling Conservative group, was suspended from his office as a councillor for six months, after breaching the council's code of conduct by acting in his capacity as a solicitor for a man applying for a taxi licence before the council's licensing committee.

Allegations have also been made against cabinet members Coun Viv Taylor and Keith Tebbs but in those cases it was ruled that no action needed to be taken.

As a result of the Tebbs and Taylor probes the Standards Board said some Wyre councillors were unclear about the rules and recommended training.

Wyre Council is now spending thousands of pounds on training its councillors.

The issue was highlighted at a recent planning meeting when Coun Roy Harrison of Brock bluntly told his colleagues he was voting against a planning application in Fleetwood because he did not like the applicant.

The applicant had started doing preparation work for the building project before planning permission was granted.

Within a few minutes of making the comment Coun Harrison apologised.