I’ve written a lot about the case of ex-Council Leader Keith Barrow’s resigning as chairman of the council-owned trading company ip&e and his subsequently standing down as a Shropshire councillor, as an example of how standards in public life can slip it is an object lesson.
Shropshire Council has a Code of Conduct which all councillors are expected to follow and there is a range of sanctions for breaches of that Code. Unfortunately, a surprising number of councillors view the Code as guidance open to individual interpretation rather than what it is, “the law”. A Code of Conduct establishes the minimum standards expected of a public servant, it should not be subject to spin!
I’ve written a lot about the case of the bungled police investigation into Keith Barrow when he was Leader of Shropshire Council, but there is both a prequel and a sequel to that sorry tale, and as sequels go whilst this one may not have sex and murder it does have more than its fair share of conspiracy theories, threats, and intimidation, all of which would have come to light if either of two police investigations had been more thorough.
As explained in the very first blog article [see #1. Standards In Public Life: Is it all a matter of perception?], certain issues came out of my 2015 Code of Conduct Complaint that had to do with the ownership of a company called ‘Peakfast’, specifically the relationship between Keith Barrow, Leader of Shropshire Council and Tony Mathews, principal partner in DRE, a firm of accountants based in Oswestry who had been appointed external auditors for the council-owned company, ip&e, that Keith Barrow was chairman of.
My Code of Conduct complaint did not involve Peakfast directly but had to do with the probity – in accounting terms – of DRE’s appointment as external auditor because DRE dealt with Keith Barrow’s personal and business accounts, a relationship that the Auditing Practices Board (APB) guidelines proscribed.
At the time of my complaint, Peakfast’s ownership was incidental, in fact I had assumed that Declarations of Pecuniary Interest had been routinely declared which, had that indeed been the case, for the purposes of my complaint made DRE’s appointment even more surprising given that everyone involved in the decision would have been aware of the APB’s guidelines on the appointment of external auditors, had they not been aware then they had no business serving as directors of a limited company!
What I didn’t know at the time of my 2015 complaint was that Peakfast and Keith Barrow’s part-ownership of it had featured in formal complaints five years earlier, in 2010.
Some people might be surprised that “things” were allowed to progress for as long as they did but in effect, where internal audit by Shropshire Council was concerned, scrutiny to any degree was virtually absent, not helped by Keith Barrow moving ip&e’s operations out of Shirehall and into separate premises.
I genuinely believe that moving the business into separate premises was not in itself a conscious attempt to ‘hide’ ip&e’s activities from scrutiny, it was simply that the ‘hiding’ was the consequence of the move and allowed for the more “relaxed” (less constrained by protocol) management style for which Keith Barrow was known.
Out of sight and very much out of mind in terms of close scrutiny (as a formal report to Shropshire Council Cabinet made clear in April 2016), the situation was made even more problematic by much of ip&e’s normal business transactions/minutes of meetings being labelled “commercially confidential” by the ip&e board.
The earlier 2010 complaint had been made by two individuals, but I’ll concentrate on the one individual who was better placed than anyone else to make a judgment on Keith Barrow’s activities, being a solicitor with Bachelors and Masters degrees in law; a Doctorate of Philosophy; a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (Town Clerks), who had also been the Solicitor and Monitoring Officer to two councils and Chief Executive of two.
He took his concerns about Peakfast and Keith Barrow’s failure to declare the nature of his relationship with Peakfast – his intimate relationship with a business he stood to profit from – to the police. The police failed to prosecute on the basis of insufficient evidence.
Incredibly, given the impeccable professional pedigree of the person making that 2010 complaint and the peripheral involvement [see below] of some prominent Conservative Members, Shropshire Council’s own Standards Sub-Committee dismissed the complaint as ‘malicious’. If the Universe can be considered to be full of mysteries, that decision must count as one of the more mysterious.
All of which explained why the informant who supplied me with the background information that prompted my own (2015) Code of Conduct Complaint had been told, when he offered the same information to the Leader of the Labour Group AND, on being rebuffed, then to a prominent member of the Liberal Democrats at Shirehall, that as it had already failed in 2010 it was hardly worth the effort trying to resurrect it five years later.
The reluctance on the part of the police to prosecute can be explained by their perception of a “crime” against the civil Standards Code of a Local Authority not being a crime in their eyes; it simply doesn’t fit with their culture of prosecuting “criminality”.
A breach of a Local Authority Standards Code might indeed be a criminal act in the literal sense (under the Localism Act 2011 it most definitely is), but to the police it registers as little more than a “domestic”, especially if there have been no “aggravating” factors, in other words, what has happened hasn’t actually COST anyone anything. (Significantly, that was one of the defences subsequently alluded to by Keith Barrow in the press coverage of his leaving the Council.)
That earlier complaint and the way it had been handled made it an object lesson in what I’ve called “benign corruption”, the sort you can point a finger at but not put a finger on unless you can get close enough to lift a few corners of the carpet it’s been swept under.
‘Transparency International’ in their paper: ‘Corruption in UK Local Government, the mounting risks’ (First published 2013), says:
In England, this leaves the police as the main body able to investigate. Yet there are serious reasons to doubt that the police will devote resources to investigating possible violations or that the Crown Prosecution Service will consider it worthwhile to prosecute.
This appears to be the default situation in Shropshire and is hardly surprising given the “civil” nature of the type of offences passed to them.
The police may not be able to justify an investigation as a good use of their limited resources. One senior local government expert described the likely lack of will to investigate on the part of the police as “the main hurdle to this [new offence] being effective”. The police’s capacity to investigate fraud and corruption has in general declined considerably in the current era of spending cuts. Moreover, the magnitude of corruption and fraud at the local government level involves financial amounts that the police often consider insignificant. If the allegations are severe, the potential crime is likely to be a more serious one, such as bribery or mal-administration.
When you read that you can sympathise with the police’s adopted position with regard to Shropshire’s own: “… financial amounts that the police often consider insignificant”.
What isn’t so deserving of sympathy though is not just the failure to investigate but the subsequent attempts to cover up that failure.
Had what came out of my complaint been an isolated incident and the first of its kind then you might just manage to rustle up a bit of sympathy for a cash-strapped police force…
Detective Inspector Mark Glazzard said: “Following receipt of a complaint in November 2015, a thorough and detailed investigation was conducted into an alleged offence under the Localism Act 2011. This investigation has concluded, and no further action will be taken into this matter.”
… but the investigation in the second case hadn’t actually “concluded” but had rather been closed down because of “lack of evidence”. That DI Glazzard had been closely involved in the earlier 2010 case is – what’s the word I’m looking for – “disappointing”. It’ll have to do.
When the details of the 2010 case came to light I was shocked on a number of counts, not least the fact that on the basis of what is out there the police consistently make a habit of marginalising issues that, in their (and bugger the Localism Act 2011) view, have no “aggravating factors”, by which they mean no one lost out financially.
Back in February of this year (2019) I had a lengthy discussion with a senior police officer in which I tried to explain that as a Local Elected Member for a constituency with a population of 3,600 it was expected of me that I would place a greater emphasis on maintaining, upholding, and promoting ethical standards than someone who did not consider themselves answerable for their actions. He did concede the point.
As an example of the “benign corruption” that can go on, that earlier 2010 case had as many sinister undertones as eventually came out of my 2015 complaint, in fact they were arguably “darker” because they went deeper into the fabric of the Shirehall Establishment.
In October 2010 David Roberts was the Conservative councillor who tabled a question to the then Leader of the Council (Keith Barrow) at a Council meeting and was asked by another Conservative councillor to withdraw it because the complaints made against (both) Keith and his wife Joyce Barrow – and the subsequent police actions – had led to severe stress for another Conservative Councillor, Aggie Caesar Homden, whose husband was a local police Inspector. There is no proof that Inspector Homden was involved in the Keith Barrow/Peakfast investigation, but his wife, Cllr. Aggie Caesar Homden was at the time a member of the Keith Barrow Cabinet at Shirehall.
Also a little creepy, was the activity of Keith Barrow’s solicitor, Adam Kerr, which prompted an email from the 2010 complainant about actions that bordered on intimidation…
Thank you for your letter. I note that your client is Keith Barrow who is known to me. I do not understand your references to the Data Protection Act and as I am an expert in such matters consider that the reference to such in your letter is misplaced and misdirected. I do not consider it appropriate to engage in any communication with you as you will appreciate any matters in which the police may have an interest are matters which the proper authorities need to comment on and respond to. I am sure on reflection you will come to the same conclusion and allow the police to conclude such work as they may need to do without either you or your client making any approaches to other people who may be witnesses or whatever in such a case. I am not sure whether your letter at this stage is seeking to influence either me or any witness in such a matter which would be wholly inappropriate and therefore for the avoidance of any doubt I will pass your letter to the police so that they are aware of your interest.
It’s instructive to look closely at Peakfast because its activities back then highlight the problem of unravelling the complexities of relationships within Shirehall, complex because not all written down, the informal network of connections being more significant than the formal.
To refresh… Together with Tony Mathews, Keith Barrow was a director of Peakfast. Tony Mathews was a principal partner in accountants DRE of Oswestry who had been appointed as external auditors of the Shropshire Council-owned company ‘ip&e’ which was chaired by Keith Barrow. My Code of Conduct Complaint was concerned with the probity of DRE’s appointment given Keith Barrow’s close association with the company’s principal partner.
According to Keith Barrow’s testimony to the Code of Conduct investigation, Peakfast existed solely to own a ransom strip controlling one of two possible accesses to a 69-house development plot at Morda near Oswestry. For me, this revelation came as a complete surprise because I was concerned exclusively with the probity of DRE’s being appointed as external auditors to ip&e; for me, Peakfast was just another link between Barrow and Mathews, but had no significance beyond that, in fact I asked the investigating solicitor if she could tell me WHY Keith Barrow had even mentioned Peakfast’s activities in so much detail. She didn’t know.
Unbeknownst to me, because separate and instigated by someone with whom I had no close connection at the time, the details of that ownership and the way in which those details were presented to the North Planning Committee of Shropshire Council (by both Keith Barrow and his wife Joyce Barrow) were what formed the basis of a separate police complaint, the one I reported on earlier, where I quoted from this:
The salient part being…
Detective Inspector Mark Glazzard said: “Following receipt of a complaint in November 2015, a thorough and detailed investigation was conducted into an alleged offence under the Localism Act 2011. This investigation has concluded, and no further action will be taken into this matter.”
Like the earlier 2010 case, that “detailed investigation” had ground to an inglorious halt because of the failure of the West Mercia Economic Crime Unit (ECU) to take the complaint seriously, resulting in the Crown Prosecution Service having too little time to consider the case for prosecution once it was handed to them.
The case was being considered under the Localism Act 2011 which is time-limited, which is why the CPS could not have completed their review in the time left to them.
That in itself was bad enough, but what became the matter of serious public concern were the subsequent efforts by some VERY senior police officers to minimise the fall-out from the consequent train-wreck.
As alluded to in my opening comments, what few people will know is that there was a hell of a lot more going on that a “thorough and detailed investigation” would have turned up.
Peakfast existed solely to manage a ‘ransom strip’ controlling one of the potential accesses to a potential housing development site in Morda, a village to the north of Oswestry. That was what surprised me and the question I asked of the investigating solicitor was why would Keith Barrow, Leader of Shropshire Council, the Local Planning Authority (LPA), admit to owning a ransom strip that was valueless unless and until the land whose access it controlled got planning permission off the LPA?
The original planning application was for a development with two accesses coming off Weston Road to the south and Kingfisher Way to the north, the ransom strip controlled access off Kingfisher Way.
An application was made to vary an original planning condition – Condition 12 – to a single access off Weston Road only, avoiding Kingfisher Way and the ransom strip.
The variation had planning officer and Highways support and was unanimously supported by the residents of Kingfisher Way who were concerned about the creation of a rat run under the original condition.
Having so much support from all the consultees involved, the application to vary the access met all the conditions for the application to be decided under ‘delegated powers’ by planning officers.
Instead it was called in to committee, a decision made by the Chair of that committee.
The committee refused the application to vary Condition 12.
Unfortunately for the reputation and good standing of the Shropshire planning system there were a few salient facts that cast a shadow over that outcome, giving rise to an allegation of ‘political interference’, an allegation that was the basis of a formal complaint (separate to any of the complaints referred to earlier) to the police by the aggrieved landowner applying for the variation.
In earlier blogs I’ve talked about the incredibly strong bonds that are formed within the constituency associations of political parties. If you are a member of a constituency association and your neighbouring councillors, business associates, friends and family are also members, it is likely that you will mix socially not just across your constituency but into neighbouring constituencies of the same political persuasion. That’s a support network that is incredibly reassuring and supportive. The bonds thus formed are incredibly strong.
In blog #27, ‘The power of patronage’, I end it by saying:
Patronage plays an incredibly important part in the formation of the power groupings, it’s power magnified by the social cohesion created by political party constituencies exercising their power and influence. It isn’t just about financial and back-office support, it’s the moral support they offer through the social functions that draw like-minded people together, confirming bias, the groups thus created forming the bonds that bind; break the bond and you threaten the cohesion of the group. Dare to do that and you’re dead – politically and socially. To a member of any mainstream party that’s the end of the civilised world.
In an earlier blog article I gave examples of how close those political, commercial, and social bonds are (some of the roles and functions attributed to individuals may have changed, but they are still indicative of how close the relationships can get)…
Keith Barrow – Business partner with Tony Mathews in Peakfast Ltd, owners of the ransom strip at Morda; close friend of Clive Knowles, owner of the British Ironworks Company, Oswestry, with whom he and his wife spent two weeks on a Caribbean cruise, together with Chris Schofield, Chairman of North Shropshire Conservative Constituency Association and Chair of the Finance & General Purposes Committee of Oswestry Town Council. Barrow is also election agent for the North Shropshire MP Owen Paterson who provided him with a disallowed character reference during the Code of Conduct Complaint process that ended his tenure as Leader of the Council in 2015.
Cllr Robert Macey – Conservative Member for the Gobowen, Selattyn and Weston Rhynelectoral wards of Shropshire Council and currently Portfolio Holder for Planning and Housing Development; formerly Co-Director of Furnish UK Ltd along with Keith Barrow and his daughter Kirsty Walmsley (nee Barrow). Company dissolved 13th September 2011; Director of Politics UK Ltd, former directors of which were Keith Barrow, James Robert Barrow, and Kirsty Walmsley.
Tony Mathews – Director of DRE & Co Accountants, business associate of Keith Barrow via Peakfast Ltd and part owner of the ‘ransom strip’ at Kingfisher Way, mentioned in the Code of Conduct complaint regarding the appointment of DRE & Co as external auditors for IP&E (Shropshire Council-owned company – dissolved in 2016 – chaired by Keith Barrow) whilst personal accountants to Keith Barrow; also accountants for DS Fabrications (Mid Wales) Ltd whose director, Daniel Skilton, set up Skelly Fabrications Ltd that provided services that were part-funded by an £80k grant from Shropshire Council to TNS FC (see below).
Lady Harlech – Family home was Brogyntyn Hall; received substantial discount on the subsequent purchase of Shrawardine Farm, the Brogyntyn Shoot Secretary was Tony Mathews who in turn employed Annabel Mason, a friend of Lady Harlech, who attended the DRE & Co pitch for auditing the Council’s private company ip&e which was chaired by Keith Barrow.
J Ross Developments Ltd – Oswestry-based. Purchased Brogyntyn Hall from the Harlech family, the subsequent development receiving £860,000 Community Infrastructure Levy exemption (CIL is a developer contribution to mitigate the impact of a development on a community’s infrastructure), an exemption approved at the 10 June 2015 Shropshire Council Cabinet meeting chaired by Keith Barrow, despite J Ross Developments refusing to reveal the purchase price for the viability assessment on which an exemption is based; Owned by the Pickstock family who are business associates of Michael Harris, owner of The New Saints Football Club (TNS FC).
Michael Harris – Owner of TNS FC, Oswestry; business partner of one of the directors of J Ross developments Ltd (John Roland Pickstock); employed Keith Barrow when he stood down from Shropshire Council in 2015.
Cllr Mathew Lee – Conservative Member for Llanymynech electoral ward of Shropshire Council; Employed by Michael Harris at TNS FC since November 2016; Former chair of Oswestry Rural Parish Planning Sub-committee; former member of Oswestry Town Council planning committee.
On a general note, the current Leader of Shropshire Council is Peter Nutting, Leader of the Conservative Group at Shirehall who also serves on Shrewsbury Town Council and is its current (2019) mayor and therefore Leader of the Town Council.
Based on Shropshire Council’s own figures, central government funding going to schemes in and around Shrewsbury and North Shropshire is ten times more than in the south of the county.
Shropshire Council’s Labour Party elite are also members of Shrewsbury Town Council (the mayor before Peter Nutting was Labour’s Jane MacKenzie).
Vast sums go into Shrewsbury’s infrastructure at the expense of places like my own rural constituency of Highley, serving to maintain the election base of both Conservative and Labour councillors in very urban Shrewsbury.
And what benefits Shrewsbury Town also benefits those immediate neighbouring constituencies held by Conservatives and Labour, making for an interesting mix of unlikely bedfellows united in a common cause – their own.
It’s a complex old world.
Many, many more political, commercial, and social connections and all perfectly innocent.
Well you might say that but I couldn’t possibly comment.
Knowing something is not proving something.
But it is easy to see how misconceptions arise.
Immediately preceding the planning meeting that was due to consider that variation to the planning condition at the Morda development, three of the planning committee members, two of whom were close friends of the Barrows, were seen by the applicant in conversation outside the room in which the planning committee was about to meet. The third of those three was Joyce Barrow. All perfectly innocent.
On the basis of what had been witnessed by the applicant, given the unexpected outcome of the meeting, a formal complaint about “political interference” was made by the applicant to Shropshire Council. The Head of Legal & Democratic Services quite properly passed that complaint to the police who, incredibly, given the sensitive nature of the case and the personalities involved, interviewed everyone on the “defence” side but spoke to no-one on the complainant’s. It was passed back to Shropshire Council as no case to answer because at every stage of the process the record shows that “Declarations of Pecuniary Interest” were made at all the committee stages that required such a declaration.
I asked the Head of Legal & Democratic Services about that police response, her reply: “The police did not do Shropshire Council any favours”.
So hardly an investigation in the accepted sense of the word, but then I’ve explained why that might have occurred in my opening spiel.
I’ve been doing this for long enough now to have reached the conclusion that the Establishment depends on the public’s not understanding the complex obligations that are known as Declarations of Pecuniary Interest (DPI) and the responsibility a DPI places upon councillors to be open and transparent – in fact just plain accountable!
So what’s the problem?
OK, so the application seeking to vary the planning condition controlling access to the Morda site – Condition 12 – failed. Need it have ended there?
The landowner could have applied for a judicial review of how and why the committee had made its decision. He didn’t and time for an appeal in relation to that application expired. At the time, to those of us familiar with the case, that failure to appeal was incomprehensible, literally beyond belief, because on the face of the ‘evidence’ the odds of the appeal succeeding were massively in favour of the applicant.
Allegations were made regarding whether the planning committee had been influenced in reaching their decision.
That the Leader of the Council happened also to be Leader of the Local Planning Authority understandably heightened sensitivities about the matter. This connection was known about, in fact could not have been otherwise given the influence that Keith Barrow exercised over all activities of Shropshire Council at the time and, as I said above, appropriate declarations of interest were made when the planning application was being determined.
However, such were the serious concerns about the potential impact of such a contentious decision on the public perception of the Council’s planning regime that it was seriously suggested that Shropshire Council should consider using powers to revoke the original outline planning permission which would have taken it all back to square one. In fact so serious was the consideration of that move that I actually phoned the applicant and advised him to hold back on “signing anything away”.
Uppermost in all our minds at that time was that, whilst the Council has the power to revoke, it would generally only exercise it in exceptional cases, which of course depends on how one interprets the term “exceptional”. Revocation is a very significant step to take, not least because compensation is payable to any person interested in the land if a permission is revoked, and no one on our side had any doubts that Peakfast would challenge revocation when they saw a quarter of a million pounds slipping away.
At the time it was decided that on the basis of what was known there was not enough substantive evidence of any “injustice” which would have justified a revocation of the original planning permissions and the conditions attaching to the original planning application.
The question subsequently was, with the wisdom of the hindsight afforded by emerging evidence (although known by some of us at the time), whether revocation should have happened?
On the balance of probabilities the answer is yes because despite what I said earlier…
At every stage of the process that led to the failure of that application to vary that planning condition relating to access to the Morda site, the record shows that Declarations of Pecuniary Interest were made at all the committee stages that required such a declaration.
…there were serious doubts concerning the veracity of some of those declarations, it was those serious doubts that prompted the (separate) complaint to the police in November 2015.
But apart from the concerns over the subsequent police cover-up, which was bad enough, our concerns about the failure of the police to investigate under the time-limited Localism Act, and Shropshire Council’s failure to push for the allegations to be investigated as ‘Misconduct in Public Office’, which is not time-limited, come out of our knowing what WOULD have come out if the investigation by the police Economic Crime Unit had not fallen apart at the seams.
The owners of the ransom strip were pressurising the landowners to sign the contract to take the option on the purchase of the ransom strip, increasing the purchase price by increments of thousands of pounds with each refusal to sign. Incredibly, they also threatened the landowners with “legal action” for defamation if they reported the pressure that was being applied to them to the police. Despite my urging the landowners to bring the whole murky business out into the open, they were by then terrified of the consequences.
The cases that came out of the Morda “situation” highlighted failures in the system, especially in the system’s apparent inability to exercise basic checks and balances: checks to ensure compliance whilst an equitable balance between the public and private interests is maintained.
As I’ve said elsewhere and as the Head of Shropshire Council’s Legal & Democratic Services keeps reminding us, where standards in public office are concerned, “perception is all”.
I and others involved in what has been a seemingly endless process of lifting the corner of the carpet Shropshire Council brushes its dirt under understand the obligation placed on Elected Members to maintain the highest standards in public office, but the reality is that to the public the membrane separating public/private interest in a Declaration of Pecuniary Interest is pretty damn permeable.
That’s not good enough.
Hands up all those who think it is.
Thought so, my faith was not misplaced.