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Oh Yes They Did!

Oh Yes They Did!The pantomime whitewash that Fylde has accepted as fact shows up incompetence in the process that the Council uses to 'investigate' complaints made by members of the public against councillors.

If it wasn't such a serious matter, it might even have made an enjoyable pantomime.

But it is a serious matter, and this article exposes that incompetence in relation to two councillors who failed to declare interests which they knew - or should have known - would prevent them from taking part in meetings where matters regarding Cuadrilla were being discussed, because they had accepted easement payments from Cuadrilla for the use of their land.

In Fracking Interest in August 2014, we reported that Fylde Councillors Fiddler and Threlfall were at the centre of a maelstrom of suspicion and protest after they declared they had received payment for access to land in their ownership for the seismic geological survey undertaken on behalf of Cuadrilla in 2012.

A combination of items on the Council Agenda of 28th July 2014 had seen each of them declare both a personal interest, and a prejudicial interest, in respect of these payments, and they properly left the room and took no part in the debate or vote on that occasion.

But there had been several other occasions between their receiving the payment in 2012 and the Council meeting of July 2014, when both councillors had participated in similar meetings concerned with Cuadrilla.

They should also have declared interests at those meetings, and not taken part in them. But they had not done so.

We believed this crossed the line of acceptability as defined in Fylde's Code of Conduct for its elected members

Our previous article also wondered whether a criminal offence may have been committed because, if the payment constituted what is known as a 'Disclosable Pecuniary Interest' - (and we thought the relevant authorities would have grounds to believe that this was the case) - then as well as being improper conduct as a councillor, it would have been a criminal offence as well.

When a member of the public complained to Fylde Council about their conduct, Fylde's officers initially tried to avoid conducting an inquiry into the matter.

That approach is actually Fylde's formally adopted policy for all complaints about the conduct of councillors.

Fylde adopted this policy because it believes it should place its "emphasis on working with individuals to bring about mutually acceptable solutions, and ensuring that breaches did not re-occur" (rather than holding transgressors to account for what they did this time).

So at first they tried to avoid conducting an investigation.

When pressed further by the complainant, they said they did not have the resources to look into the agenda and minutes of previous meetings to see if the councillors had attended and whether they had declared interests, and if so what sort of interest they had declared.

The complainant contacted us for advice.

We researched of all the meetings of the Council and its relevant committees between 2012 and 2014, and we published the results in 'Fracking Interest'.

In effect, we undertook the research that Fylde said it did not have the time to do.

That research set out the dates of the meetings, and reproduced the official record showing the attendance and the Interests being declared at each meeting.

There were several instances when the two councillors should have declared interests, left the room, and taken no part in the meeting or its decisions.

But this had not happened.

In fact, one of them had allowed himself to be appointed Chairman of the Council's official committee looking into Shale Gas, and this was after he had received the easement payment from Cuadrilla for the use of his land.

Shortly after his promotion to Chairman, there was a significant change relating to the Council's shale gas adviser.

Mr Mike Hill - who had been chosen by the Council as its Technical Adviser, (and had worked closely with the previous chairman and committee of Fylde's 'Shale Gas Task and Finish Group') - was dismissed from that role, and Fylde published an extra-ordinary public notice dissociating itself from Mr Hill and from the comments he had made.

We had never before seen a Council publish such a notice.

Our former article also highlighted the fact that the minutes of one of Fylde's Committees were inaccurate - because they failed to record Cllr Fiddler's attendance, even though the webcast of the meeting clearly shows his being present and taking part in the meeting.

We concluded that article by arguing there was sufficient evidence to require Fylde to undertake an internal investigation into the standards of conduct of the councillors concerned.

We also wondered whether a police investigation may also be required to establish the facts in this matter for both councillors, and to come to a view as to whether a crime has been committed.

When Fylde itself had not acted within a month of the complaint having been made, we approached the Police directly to ask if they thought a crime had been committed.

Separately, we subsequently became aware of two other people who made (separate) complaints to the police on this matter.

After we had published the evidence about the meetings at which the Councillors had failed to declare the relevant interests, Fylde did undertake a 'Standards Investigation' into the conduct of the two Councillors.

They appointed their Deputy Monitoring Officer to conduct an investigation.

We understand that the Police also made contact with Fylde to inquire into the matter.

They were assured by Fylde's Chief Executive that 'in essence there had been no wrongdoing'

But Fylde's own 'Standards Investigation' had not addressed the matter of the possible criminality and Disclosable Pecuniary Interests at all.

It took the view that the payment they received did not fall into this classification because it only happened once.

So Fylde's investigation disregarded this matter.

We maintained our original view that were strong grounds to disagree with this view, and we set out the detailed arguments about why this was so in a second article called 'Another Whitewash?'

We'll return briefly to the matter of the DPI later in this article, but for the moment we will continue to focus on Fylde's internal investigation.

That investigation considered the conduct of the two Councillors and, for each of them, the Investigator found There is no evidence to show that Councillor [name] would have made a connection between Cuadrilla and his easement payment".

He concluded "that Councillor [name] has not knowingly failed to declare any interest prior to the Council meeting on 28th July 2014".

Readers should note that this conclusion does not say they failed to make the declarations.

And by doing so, it tacitly accepts that there was such a failure.

But the Investigator seeks to excuse the failure to make a declaration by saying that the two councillors did not know they should have made the declaration (because they had not made a connection between Cuadrilla and their easement payments).

Specifically, the investigator said his report demonstrated "that an interest can only be reasonably expected to be declared when the member is aware or should be aware of the interest."

And, speaking of time at which Cllr Fiddler received the payment, the investigator's report repeats his assertion that  "At that time, the fracking debate had not started and Cuadrilla was not a name he was aware of."

The investigator went on to say that once it became clear to the two councillors that they should have been declaring interests (in a note circulated to all councillors just prior to the 2014 Council meeting) they began to do so, and took no part in the subsequent meetings where decisions were to be made about Cuadrilla.

We fundamentally disagreed with the Investigator's view that they did not know and that they should be excused for not knowing about the connection with Cuadrilla and the easement payment they received.

So we published a second article on this matter called 'Another Whitewash?'

Here, we criticised the investigation for not being sufficiently thorough and robust.

We highlighted a number of sources of potential independent information and evidence that the investigating officer could have examined, but his report shows he had not looked into any of these.

If he'd have thought to look, he would have found that Cuadrilla's own website has a page all about the geophysical survey which includes: '...we have received permission from the individual landowners whose land we wish to access.'

It also says " As part of our commitment to work closely with the communities we work within, we undertook a large scale and wide ranging communications effort to make sure residents living within the Survey Area knew what was going on.

This involved:

  • Over 30,000 leaflets sent to residents inside and outside the Survey Area, over a month before the Survey began
  • Over 15,000 leaflets sent to residents inside the Survey Area as work began, timed to coincide with the progress of the work in each area
  • Hand delivered letters providing at least 24 hours notification of work in a specific area and information about what to expect
  • Newspaper advert notices
  • Radio adverts on Radio Wave
  • Freephone Information Line telephone line operated on week days to provide specific information on the work'

We don't think Cuadrilla could have done much more to let residents know what was going on, and that they were the organisation who were undertaking it.

Had we been investigating the matter, this freely available information would have sent us looking for more details. But the Investigator didn't even get this far. (It appears he had simply listened to the explanations given by the two councillors and had accepted their word. He did not appear to have undertaken any primary research)

So we undertook further research about the scale of the publicity for fracking ourselves, and we published details of the copy newspaper articles we held about fracking.

High Hopes for Fylde Gas Bid

These began with the Gazette of 12 Aug 2010 'High Hopes for Fylde Gas Bid' (NB: Aug 2010 is a year and a half before Cuadrilla made the payment to Councillors)

They ended almost two years later in June 2012 with Cuadrilla's half-page Public Notice in both local papers

Cuadrilla's Public Notice in the Gazette and Express

This notice from Cuadrilla was published two months after the easements payments were made to the two councillors.

Orange cables for the surveyThe notice also explained what Cuadrilla were doing with the orange cables that could be seen snaking across roads and verges throughout Fylde, and why they were setting off explosions that were shaking the ground.

In all, we listed 57 articles that the local papers has published about fracking and Cuadrilla and the geological survey over the 18 month period.

That averaged an article every week and a half or thereabouts.

We concluded that the two councillors should have known - and indeed, as Individual Cabinet Members - one for Planning Policy, and the other for the Environment, we believed they could not have failed to know - that the orange cables and the geological survey and the easement payments they received were all connected with Cuadrilla.

We said we believed this "partly because the newspaper and TV coverage we have documented above, means we struggle to see how *any* civic leader in Fylde could reasonably say they were not aware of the existence of fracking, Cuadrilla, the geophysical survey, or their interest at the time these two councillors were paid the easement."

But Fylde said the matter was closed, and they did not expect to re-open the investigation.

Our own view is that this so-called investigation did constitute another whitewash (similar to the first one that enveloped the former Streetscene department and the huge losses that department made, for which no-one was properly held to account).

And for us, there the matter remained.

But since we published 'Another Whitewash?' in March,  two further things have happened.

First, we understand that the two people who made complaints to the Police were not satisfied with the Police decision not to investigate, and are still pursuing that dissatisfaction along the appropriate channels.

The second is that two further pieces of information on this matter have come into our possession.

One came fortuitously when we were researching information for another matter, and the second came from one of our readers.

Our reader turned up a letter from Cuadrilla to Lancashire County Council dated 16th November 2011 (that's five months before the payment was made to Cllr Threlfall and Cllr Fiddler) and which was headed "Bowland '3D' Geophysical Survey For Cuadrilla Resources Limited Petroleum Exploration And Development Licence PEDL 165"

The letter gave notice of the geophysical survey that was about to be undertaken by Cuadrilla.

It said "Part of the feasibility study involves consultation with the County Council and the local Borough Councils. Any restrictions imposed by these Authorities will be strictly followed and no work will commence until formal consent has been received from the Head of Planning. In addition, all Statutory Undertakers, Emergency Services, Archaeology and Conservation organisations are being consulted."

As Fylde's Cabinet Member for Planning and Development with special responsibility for planning policy, it is difficult to believe that Cllr Fiddler was not made aware of the Cuadrilla's consultation on this survey as indeed the County Council was made aware.

Cuadrilla's letter went on to say 'The feasibility study will also involve contacting landowners and seeking their permission in principle ahead of a proposed survey.'

Assuming that happened as the Cuadrilla letter and website said it would, there will have been contact to seek permission from landowners such as Cllr Fiddler and Cllr Threlfall and, although it is not clear from their letter, we imagine such permission would need to have been given in writing.

So we believe there will probably be documentary evidence of permissions being given by the two councillors if Fylde's investigator had had the gumption to look for it.

The letter continued 'During any survey all households/businesses fronting each survey route will receive an explanatory leaflet at least three days prior to the survey recording operation commencing. Both this leaflet and a public notice placed in the local newspaper will display a local field office telephone number.'

So, as well as the public notices that Cuadrilla placed in the local papers, there were the leaflets and letters we referred to earlier that were distributed to all frontagers before the survey operations commenced. These would undoubtedly have explained what was about to happen and they were from Cuadrilla.

Both Councillors have property that fronts onto one of the routes that Cuadrilla would have used (which is why Cuadrilla wanted the cabling and sensors placed on people's land, to measure vibrations as the trucks set them off ad they went along the road)

The Cuadrilla letter also said 'Subject to the results of the feasibility study the 3D study is anticipated to commence in the early part of 2012 and is expected to last for several months.'

The letter ends by asserting that 'Details of the feasibility study have been sent to all County and Borough Councillors, Borough and Parish Councils'.

So, provided that Cuadrilla's statement in this regard is correct, it must be the case that before each of them received the easement payments, Cllr Fiddler and Cllr Threlfall would, as Borough Councillors, have received an individual letter from Cuadrilla explaining all about the geophysical survey Cuadrilla were undertaking.

They would also have  received a separate individual letter about the cables being laid on land fronting highways, (because they were frontager landowners), and a separate information leaflet from Cuadrilla a few days before the actual survey began because they lived on one of the survey routes..

Readers who like to assure themselves of the veracity of our claims in matters such as this, might like to follow this link to download a copy of the Cuadrilla letter, and perhaps to contrast its content with the investigator's belief that (as Cllr Fiddler had told him) "At that time, the fracking debate had not started and Cuadrilla was not a name he [Cllr Fiddler] was aware of."

We probably could have asked Fylde it they held a copy of the Cuadrilla letter, and if they had any further correspondence relating to it.  (We imagine Fylde themselves would (at least) have copied it  to its most senior people such as Cabinet Members like Cllrs Fiddler and Threlfall).

But we have not asked Fylde because they have said they consider the matter closed and will not be re-opening the investigation.

And in any case, we fully expect that if we had asked, we would have been told the letter had since been shredded to save space in the filing cabinets, or the file had been lost, or some other such reason, so we decided not to waste their (or our) time on it.

But we believe this letter is clear evidence of the probability that these two former Cabinet members, together with all the other Fylde Borough Councillors, would have received individual letters explaining about the geophysical survey and that it was being undertaken by Cuadrilla.

We therefore argue that, contrary to the belief of the Investigating Officer, the fracking debate had started (it had been reported in the newspapers for 18 months) and that Cuadrilla was a name that Cllr Fiddler and Cllr Threlfall had heard of, and that at the time they received the easement payments, both councillors would have known that Cuadrilla was undertaking the geophysical survey in Fylde that had resulted in their receiving the payments.

If we are correct, it means the findings of Fylde's Investigator's report are inaccurate, and thus the conclusions of the report itself are unreliable.

The second document we discovered is, in our view, even more damning.

After what we have already published, our readers may find incredible that the Investigator's basis for excusing the two Councillors' failure to declare interests at meetings between the date they received the payments (April 2012) and the Council meeting of August 2014 (when they did make declarations and left the room) was that they did not, and should not, have been expected to know, that the easement payment they received in April 2012 was connected with the geophysical survey undertaken by Cuadrilla.

On 11th June 2012, (that's two months after receiving the easement payment), Freckleton Parish Council held a meeting with a range of items on its agenda.

The minutes of that meeting record who attended and the decisions taken. They also provide some information about what was discussed.

They show that both Cllr Fiddler and Cllr Threlfall attended the meeting.

The Declaration of Interests section of the meeting shows that neither declared the interest they had as a result of receiving the Cuadrilla easement payment a couple of months earlier.

In ordinary circumstances this might not have been unusual because there was nothing on the agenda about Cuadrilla.

But at item 16 on the Agenda there was a sort of 'standing item' for the Parish Council to receive an update from the FBC Councillors about what is going on.

Councillor Threlfall spoke first, and mentioned progress on the 'In Bloom' Scheme

The minutes then report him as saying "The orange cables laid to determine where shale gas can be accessed will be laid in each area for approximately three weeks"

Cllr Fiddler then reported about Warton's 'Enterprise Zone'

Given that Cllr Threlfall's report was about Cuadrilla, it could be argued that this constituted another failure to make a declaration of interest by two concerned. The payment they received had been just a few weeks before this meeting.

But this instance is probably not as serious as the concerns we have raised about declaring interests at other meetings, firstly because at this meeting it was not specified as an agenda item, and secondly, because it was only an information item (not involving a decision which they might have been thought to influence). So we mention it as a declaration question here, only for the sake of completeness of this report.

But, given that Cllr Threlfall - two months or less after receiving the payment - was the person who explained to Freckleton Parish Council what the orange cables were for, we believe that this, together with all the previous evidence we have discovered, leads us to justifiably hold three views.

Firstly that whilst the two Councillors may just about be excused now for not remembering what happened two or three years ago; they cannot be excused for forgetting the payment they had received from Cuadrilla at the Freckleton Parish Council meeting when that meeting was only two months after the payment had been made.

Neither can they be excused for forgetting it at the Borough Council meetings in May 2012 (which was only one month after the payments were made), nor in September 2012 (five months after the payments), nor the FBC meeting in November 2012 (about seven months after the payments were made) and all the rest of the FBC meetings where they failed to declare an interest when matters relating to Cuadrilla were discussed and where decisions were taken.

As the records of the Parish Council show, they clearly were aware of Cuadrilla's geophysical survey..

Nor, we believe, does it excuse the failure of Cllr Threlfall to declare the payment before or at the time he was nominated by his Conservative colleagues to chair the Shale Gas Working Group in September 2012 (five months after receiving the payment)

Secondly, we believe it fully justifies our contention that the investigation conducted by Fylde was incompetent.

It was neither robust nor thorough. It was hardly an investigation. It was barely an inquiry. It failed to discover the truth, and it provided the basis for a huge whitewash to obscure the real facts.

It is impossible to tell whether this whitewash was deliberate or not, but sadly, it does seem to have influenced the view that Fylde's Chief Executive gave to the Police - and which has apparently coloured their judgement not to investigate the matter.

Thirdly it casts serious doubt on the ability of Fylde's current processes and policies to adequately address complaints made by members of the public into the conduct of Councillors.

We quite accept that the 'he pulled my hair' councillor-on-councillor complaints may be adequately dealt with under the current 'don't do it again' system, but this case has clearly demonstrated these policies are woefully inadequate to deal with serious complaints from members of the public.

Fourthly, it's evident that if, as in this case, the investigation is inadequate, the findings are also likely to be inaccurate. And because (at present) the role of Fylde's Standards Committee is chiefly to determine any sanction to be applied if wrongdoing is established by the investigation, Fylde's Standards Committee must accept the results of inadequate investigations. They currently have little or no locus to become involved in or question the investigation themselves.

As a result, readers will see it was quite right for Fylde's Chief Executive to tell the police that - 'in essence, there had been no wrongdoing' - because that's what his investigation had found.

It was right; but it was not correct.

By accepting these flawed processes and policies, and by acquiescing in the findings of incompetent investigations, we believe Fylde's Standards Committee cannot be said to be fit for purpose as it presently operates, and it should urgently review the arrangements under which it is responsible for determining that Fylde's Standards meet those which we have a right to expect, and which Government has set out for compliance by Councils - especially with regard to complaints made by members of the public.

Finally for this article - which, barring any unforeseen events, is likely to be our last on this topic - we re-make the point that we still hold there are grounds to believe that a Disclosable Pecuniary Interest was created by the easement payments.

We believe that even one-off payments made to Councillors can easily be seen to be encouraging favour in the minds of some people, and we can see nothing in the legislation that requires payments for the use of land or property to be ongoing on order to require registration.

We readily accept that the scale of the crime - if such it is in this instance - is relatively small. A reported 150 or so is not a sum of huge significance, but the underlying principles and processes are important - as is the inability of the Council's current processes to discover the truth about what happened.

It should not be the case that the scale of a crime should be the determinant of guilt or otherwise.

The scale of a crime should determine the severity of the sanction applied, not whether the matter is right or wrong.

We were criticised by some after our last article for saying 'We suspect some of our readers might now better understand how influential people in Rochdale and elsewhere might not have been brought to book at the time for things they did that have since been shown to be improper.'

That statement should not be read that we intended to imply any similarity between the nature of what might have happened in Fylde and in Rochdale. We did not seek to imply this.

But what it was intended to illustrate (and we believe it still does illustrate), is how influence can sometimes be thought to ride above the rules applied to those of lesser standing.

It also shows that Fylde's investigative process into complaints made against councillors by members of the public is little short of a pantomime.

And to us, that's what seems to have happened here.

Whether anything further will come on this matter is unclear.

We think it unlikely, and we believe that further loss of trust will be the real outcome of this sorry saga.

Dated:   21 May 2015


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