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New watchdog probes Borders councillors over wind farm voting  

Credit:  Border Telegraph | 26 Jul 2013 | www.bordertelegraph.com ~~

Scottish Borders Council is again at the centre of an alleged breach of the code of conduct which governs its elected members.

The office of Stuart Allan, the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland, confirmed to the Border Telegraph that a complaint has been referred to the watchdog Standards Commission.

It was that independent body which, after a hearing earlier this month, ordered the three-month suspension of Councillor Ron Smith from any participation in planning matters.

It concluded the Lib Dem had breached the code of conduct by not declaring an interest in a Hawick planning application while chairing a meeting of the planning and building control committee last year.

He has since voluntarily stood down from that committee and given up his role as executive member for planning and the environment.

Although SBC is declining to comment on the new allegations, it is understood they involve six members of that same committee who voted in favour of wind farm proposals in Berwickshire.

It is believed the complaint emanates from a strong anti-wind farm lobby in that part of the region.

The planning committee is an autonomous, quasi-judicial body, comprising 13 councillors from across the political spectrum who are charged to consider all planning bids strictly on their merits.

On at least two occasions this year, that committee has voted to approve wind farm developments in line with the recommendations of SBC planning officials, despite high levels of public opposition.

It is understood that, underpinning the complaint currently under investigation, is an allegation that the votes of some members of the committee, including its SNP contingent, were politically influenced.

It is a claim strenuously denied although those cited in the complaint have been given strict instructions not to make any public comment.

However, the forensic scrutiny of councillors by anti-wind farm activists has already resulted in committee members being briefed by senior legal advisers at the council and cautioned as to the way they conduct themselves at meetings.

Allied to the sanction handed out to Mr Smith, many councillors are said to be uneasy at the involvement of the Standards Commission.

One SBC insider told us: “Ron Smith played a ridiculously high price for what was essentially a technical misinterpretation of the code of conduct and now other elected members are having their integrity challenged by anti-wind farm activists whose own vested interests are never questioned.

“It does not bode well for the democratic process when councillors are inhibited in what they say and how they vote for fear of disciplinary action.”

After the recent hearing into Mr Smith, the chair of the Standards Commission panel stated in a press release: “The requirement on councillors to declare interests is intended to produce transparency in regards to interests which may influence, or be thought to influence, their actions as a councillor.”

Ironically, there was little sign of transparency when the Border Telegraph sought clarification of the new complaints.

Asked to comment, an SBC spokeswoman said: “The matter is with the Standards Commission and you would need to contact them for further information.”

A spokesman for Mr Allan’s office told us: “I can confirm that the Commissioner has referred the matter to the Standards Commission. It is not our practice to comment further.”

Source:  Border Telegraph | 26 Jul 2013 | www.bordertelegraph.com

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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