A Hawick councillor has been cleared by a watchdog of colluding with SNP colleagues on Scottish Borders Council’s planning committee before giving the green light to two controversial wind farm developments in Berwickshire.
Alastair Cranston (SNP, Hawick and Denholm) was one of six members of that committee who stood accused of breaching the councillors’ code of conduct.
But Stuart Allan, Standards Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland, has concluded after an investigation that the councillors have no case to answer.
The probe focused on complaints against Mr Cranston and four fellow SNP councillors – Stuart Bell, Donald Moffat, Jim Brown and Joan Campbell – along with Lib Dem member Vicky Davidson.
It was launched shortly after the 13-strong committee voted in April this year to approve an application for 14 giant turbines, each 126 metres high, at Quixwood farm, near Grantshouse.
Conservative Simon Mountford, supported by his party colleague Jim Fullarton, moved that the application be refused, while Ms Davidson, seconded by Mr Cranston, moved for approval. The vote was locked at 5-5 before Mr Brown, standing in for committee chairman Ron Smith, used his casting vote to support the development.
The complainant, who has not been named but is understood to oppose further wind farms in Berwickshire, also cited a planning decision in August 2012, when the committee voted 8-4 to approve a three-turbine project near Cockburnspath.
On that occasion, former Borders Party councillor Nick Watson, seconded by Tory Michelle Ballantyne, moved to reject the proposal, while Mr Moffat, seconded by Mrs Campbell, moved to approve.
The complainant alleged that, rather than giving independent opinions based on solid planning grounds, the six councillors “appeared to be using spurious and irrelevant arguments, making statements unrelated to proper planning guidelines and working in concert to pervert the decision-making process”.
Although there was no explicit reference to the SNP Government’s ambitious renewable energy targets, the complainant claimed both decisions were “influenced by party political considerations”.
In his determination, Mr Allan states: “As regards the central allegations of political collusion and predetermination…despite extensive inquiries involving the complainers, witnesses suggested by them, the six respondents and senior officers of the council, there was simply no evidence to support these claims.
“Each respondent described how they approached the consideration of planning applications and their differing accounts…lend credibility to an absence of group – political or otherwise – involvement.
“Neither were there patterns of voting which suggested collusion…nor did the criticisms of individual members amount to contravention of the councillors’ code of conduct.”
Responding to the watchdog’s decision, Councillor Bell told the Hawick News: “We were accused of conspiring together to pre-determine the outcome of specific planning applications and we all considered this a very serious accusation.
“I think we were all disappointed the complainant chose not to accept the findings of an internal investigation by the chief executive [Tracey Logan] and senior law officer [Ian Wilkie] of SBC which exonerated us.
“And we were dismayed that, without presenting a shred of substantial evidence, the complainant appealed to the Standards Commission. I am very pleased we have now been fully exonerated following a very thorough investigation process.
“However, the experience of a process which has dragged on for six months has left me and my colleagues feeling disillusioned because we were put under this strain on the flimsiest of evidence.
“I remain deeply concerned at the illegitimate pressure such an unsubstantiated complaint puts on elected representatives.
“Undermining the democracy of the council’s decision-making would leave all Borderers worse off.”
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