Local councillors hit out at red tape plan

NEW legislation intended to cut needless bureaucracy from local government while making councillors more accountable has provoked a mixed reaction from councils and their members.

A number of changes affecting the way local authorities handle complaints of councillor wrongdoing and register their members’ pecuniary interests have been introduced by the communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles.

Parish, district and county councillors throughout the local area and nationally are now required to register their partners’ financial interests alongside their own to be published online for public scrutiny.

Although this is intended to instil a greater level of public accountability to local government and prevent councillors abusing their position for personal financial gain, many believe the new demands to be overly intrusive.

During Thursday’s Spilsby Town Council meeting, Coun Julia Pears said: “This is a disgraceful new document.

“There’s a big concern that at the next election we won’t be able to get enough people to stand for election.”

The Mayor of Skegness Coun Mark Anderson has also explained that several of his colleagues felt the new requirements were ‘intrusive’ when the matter was discussed at a special meeting held last Wednesday.

Conversely, Mr Pickles’ other changes to council complaint handling regulations have been criticised for being too lax, leaving authorities powerless to sanction against councillor wrongdoing.

Previously, East Lindsey District Council’s standards committee would receive any complaints made against a councillor and could disqualify or impose temporary bans against those it found guilty.

Under the changed system, however, local authorities are left with no sanctioning capabilities, meaning that only criminal transgressions of the code of conduct can be punishable through criminal proceedings.

The Lincolnshire Association of Local Council’s chief executive Trisha Carter fears this could allow non-criminal offences to go unpunished and may also put undue strains of the criminal justice system.

She said: “There are those who feel this has been cobbled together and we’ve been left with less sanctioning power to combat misdemeanours, which made up the majority of complaints under the old system.”

Mrs Carter and her predecessor Richard Enderby both feel the new regulations have been rushed through and pose more questions than answers.

Mr Enderby said: “There’s always a lot of unrest when changes come in and there’s been a lot of disappointment about the way Mr Pickles has handled this.

“It’s policy on the hoof and no one knows what the answers are,” he added.

ELDC’s strategic development manager Alison Penn, however, has welcomed the changes and believes that appropriate councillor behaviour can be maintained better through mediation and personal responsibility under the new system than the former complaints procedure.

She said: “We are pleased the overly bureaucratic and expensive standards regime has been abolished.”