#1. Standards In Public Life: Is it all a matter of perception?

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As the result of a Code of Conduct Complaint submitted by me, Keith Barrow was found guilty of a serious breach of Shropshire Council’s Code of Conduct. He was ordered to make a public apology, make a formal apology to full Council and resign as Chairman of the council-owned company ip&e. A week later he resigned as a councillor, ending his tenure as Leader of Shropshire Council.

I’ll give you some of the back-story on that because it has significance for everyone in Shropshire.

The electorate of Shropshire have a justifiable expectation that their elected representatives are seen to promote and maintain the highest values of public office by observing standards in their business and private life that are, by any measure, beyond reproach.

Keith Barrow is a partner in Peakfast, a company that owns land immediately adjacent to development land in Morda, just outside Oswestry. That information, whilst always in the public domain (because Peakfast was a registered company) was never going to be generally known unless someone either had reason to know or had made the effort to go looking for the information on the website of Companies House.

As a direct result of my publishing letters and articles commenting on ip&e, I was contacted by Mr Len Evans of Oswestry who gave me the information that established a direct connection between Keith Barrow and accountants DRE of Oswestry: Keith Barrow was a partner in Peakfast with Tony Mathews, a principal partner in DRE, a pecuniary interest Keith Barrow failed to declare at crucial times during the process that led to DRE being appointed as independent auditors of ip&e, a failure that breached Shropshire Council’s Code of Conduct. Significantly, that breach was only discovered when documents relating to the establishment of ip&e were made available to the solicitor investigating my complaint, until then the documents had always been held to be “commercially confidential”.

Also of considerable significance was the subsequent testimony to the investigating solicitor by directors and senior council officers involved in ip&e that, despite Keith Barrow’s failing to declare his connection with DRE and Tony Mathews, they insisted that Keith Barrow had never “influenced” the process that led to DRE being chosen over the other three candidate firms for the contract. They are asking us to accept that they were ignorant of the distinction between a sin of omission and a sin of commission.

In his statement to the investigating solicitor, Keith Barrow referred to the land owned by Peakfast as a ‘ransom strip’, a conventional term meaning that potential development land is subject to the constraint placed upon it by that ransom strip, the utility in the development land consequently denied to its owners unless a negotiated sum (“ransom”) is paid to the owner of the strip, in this case Peakfast, to allow passage across it.

A ransom strip can only ever realise its value if planning permission is granted for the development of the land held ransom. Whilst the legality of this practice was never in question – it is after all a legitimate commercial practice – what was questionable was the involvement of Keith Barrow, Leader of the Local Planning Authority with the power to make decisions that directly affected the value of the company in which he had a direct financial interest.

As a council-owned company underwritten with taxpayer’s money and operating in direct competition with private companies who enjoy no such support, ip&e and everyone associated with its management needed therefore to be subject to the closest scrutiny to ensure it operated not just within the letter of the law – which no one is above – but within what most people would consider the spirit of the law. Subsequent events proved that neither applied.