A COUNCILLOR reluctantly left a crucial vote over plans to build a mini-town alongside the A127 after it emerged he was Facebook friends with the prospective developer.

Tory Bill Sharp argued he should still have been able to take part in a debate over proposals to build 1,500 homes on the site, between the A130 and A127 behind the Blinking Owl Cafe, despite being advised to declare his connection to Benfleet businessman Ray Dove.

Following a tense exchange with Castle Point Council monitoring officer Andrew Roby Smith, he reluctantly agreed to step aside.

It has since emerged Mr Roby Smith spent two days before the meeting insisting Mr Sharp declare the friendship and not take part in the vote after being sent a tip-off about the pair’s online connection.

He was sent details of Mr Sharp and Mr Dove’s Facebook accounts which listed each other as friends.

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Hickfort, a company run by Mr Dove, 65, who also owns Benfleet’s Manor Trading Estate, are the developers behind the plans for the Blinking Owl site.

Mr Sharp argued he had not spoken to Mr Dove for five years, had no idea he owned the land, and “knew nothing” about the local businessman.

Mr Sharp told the council: “I am advised I have a personal interest.

“Evidently one of the people on my social media network group is known as supposedly a landowner, which I was unaware of, haven’t spoken to the bloke for five years. I just recognised the name and pressed accept.”

Mr Roby Smith said: “I am happy to explain my advice to councillor Sharp, which I had already given to him before the meeting, and also in writing.

“Councillor Sharp needs to disclose a non-pecuniary interest in the matter. On his Facebook site he has a friend who is a developer who has expressed an interest in developing that site and on February 14 this year the head of regeneration and homes held a meeting with the developer and that is a person who is known to councillor Sharp.

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“He needs to declare an interest under the code of conduct.

“My advice to him is he should leave the chamber and take no part in the debate.”

Mr Roby Smith said it gave the appearance to any resident that Mr Sharp’s decision making on the item could be influenced.

Mr Sharp replied: “I have been slated. Everybody now thinks I have a financial interest in something I don’t know anything about.

“I will leave the chamber which is great shame because I am very supportive of the motion.”

Following fierce opposition from many councillors the motion to consider the site for inclusion in a draft local plan for the borough for the next 20 years was approved.

Echo: Bill Dick

Followed on Twitter: Bill Dick

The debate prompted a series of tongue-in-cheek social media declarations from members.

Councillor Simon Hart was met with chuckles after saying: “I would like to declare a nonpecuniary interest that I do have a Facebook page and do know lots of people.”

Councillor Colin Riley said: “I have an interest as my name may be used on Facebook or Twitter and other social media sites in connection with landowners not known to me.”

Councillor Bill Dick added: “I might as well declare I have quite a few followers on Twitter and they might be landowners.”

Councillor Neville Watson joked: “I think we have all got an interest, but please come on mine, because I have only got one and a half friends.”

Councillors called for advice for social media sites following the fierce debate.

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Few friends: Neville Watson

Mayor Maryse Iles said: “Do you look at everyone’s Facebook page? I have about 800 friends on my Facebook page which I am very concerned about now.

“I only play online games with them, I do not have a relationship with them.”

Andrew Roby Smith explained Bill Sharp’s situation was different as he knew Mr Dove was a developer with an interest in land he was about to vote on. He added he had a duty to look into any allegations.

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He said: “If there is the name of someone you are aware of as having business interests you have duty to declare it. Madam Mayor, it is your Facebook account, you manage it, you know them, you admit them and you have a duty to manage that and identify any issues that may conflict with your council business.”

Mr Sharp said: “Has he spoken to Bill Dick’s 180 Twitter followers?

What about all these friends in here who are friends of mine on Facebook, presumably that makes them a friend of the other people. I am just concerned this social media problem may expand and get ridiculous.”

Councillor Norman Smith added: “Can I suggest with our officers we have training on this particular issue about social media? It is obviously something that has come up and councillors have got concerns about.”