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Leader of borough council steps down after report from external lawyers on planning issues

A report by a law firm has led to the resignation of a council leader over planning issues.

Castle Point Borough Council’s Conservative leader Norman Smith stood down as a  councillor after the report by law firm Wilkin Chapman raised concerns about his conduct in relation to planning applications lodged by his son and a personal friend.

A council statement said: “Due to pressing business demands requiring his full and undivided attention which meant he was unable to carry out his responsibilities as a councillor and leader of the council, Councillor Norman Smith has today resigned as councillor representing the Boyce Ward and leader of the Castle Point Borough Council.”

Castle Point in April 2019 received a peer challenge report on planning that found “a widespread perception concerning weakness in probity in relation to planning decision making”.

That report highlighted evidence of collusion among some councillors on planning decisions and this consequently became a sensitive issue for Castle Point.

“How planning applications like Luke Smith’s were dealt with by the committee related to what was at the heart of those concerns”. Wilkin Chapman said.

Mr Smith’s son Luke Smith had submitted a planning application to replace a house on a Green Belt site with a larger one.

A planning officer recommended refusal and the development control committee agreed with this but some councillors later complained that Cllr Smith had “attempted to encourage support” for his son’s application.

The second planning application was a residential one on Canvey Island from Bernard Litman - who owns a property in Barbados where Mr Smith often holidayed. The report said he was “well known to have used the villa”.

A planning officer refused this application under delegated powers but Mr Smith sought to persuade another Conservative councillor Charles Mumford to call the matter in.

The report said Cllr Mumford believed this was because Mr Smith wanted to help  Mr Litman, against whom there is no suggestion of impropriety.

It found it was “evident that Councillor Smith spoke to the chief executive regarding this application and also to the planning officer” and that since he had a non-pecuniary interest in his son’s project “by lobbying members and officers he attempted to confer on or secure an advantage for his son…that lobbying was improper”.

There was also a non-pecuniary interest in Mr Litman’s application because of the friendship between the two men, and lobbying in that case was also held to be improper.

David Marchant, who was the council’s chief executive until his death in February, told the law firm during its enquiries that he “had been very concerned about” Luke Smith’s application and although he had not attended the planning committee meeting in question he had watched a webcast which he found “very uncomfortable viewing, especially the second webcast where some members had clearly behaved in an extraordinary way”.

Mr Marchant had been chief executive for 16 years and said he had never previously experienced “so many members of the controlling group had gone forward and expressed their concerns about the pressure they had been put under to support a planning application”.

After Mr Litman’s application was turned down Mr Smith approached Mr Marchant and asked “can you see if there is a middle way through this for me please, David”.

Mr Smith was though found not to have compromised the impartiality of a planning officer or to have breached the protocol on councillor/officer relations.