A HIGH-LEVEL investigation has been called for after a senior councillor voted in favour of developing land owned by a fellow Tory, without declaring their friendship.
Conservative Wendy Goodwin supported Castle Point’s new local plan, which designated 13 areas of land as major house building sites.
One of the sites – Reeds Hill Farm, in EssexWay, Benfleet – is owned by Jill Reeves, Conservative county councillor for Hadleigh, and her husband, Richard Reeves, 67.
An Echo probe has discovered Mrs Goodwin, a cabinet member, voted in favour of the local plan – and development of the land owned by Mrs Reeves – without making officials aware of their friendship.
Neville Watson, Canvey Island Independent Party councillor, has now demanded an urgent investigation by council officials following the vote at Castle Point’s full council on January 14.
He said: “Without a doubt, this should be properly investigated.
“The rules are there to ensure correct protocols are in place and if one of us did it, our feet would not touch the floor. It is conduct not becoming a cabinet member and there needs to be more than just a ticking off.”
The Echo asked Castle Point borough councillors who took part in the vote if they knew the owner of the site after being made aware it was owned by Mrs Reeves and her husband.
Clear conscience: Jillian Reeves
Mrs Goodwin said: “I do know as I am a friend of the person. I would have declared it if it was just about the one site, but felt that we were voting in general for a draft strategy, so it did not need to be declared.”
Mrs Reeves, who is on the county council’s planning committee, and her husband, from Vicarage Hill, Benfleet, are set to profit from the five-acre green belt land after Linden Partnerships were given an option to buy it if planning permission for 35 homes there is approved.
Green belt land usually fetches £5,000 to £10,000 per acre, but last August the site, referred to as “land off the Glyders” in the plan, was valued at £1.5million, according to Land Registry deeds.
Andrew Smith, council monitoring officer, said Mrs Goodwin should have declared her interest and not taken part in the vote. After being advised by the Echo of the non-declaration, he said he warned Mrs Goodwin it should have been declared and she should now declare it at any future votes and not take part.
However, he denied it would have affected the outcome as it was won by a Tory majority of eight.
He also said he would only investigate further if an official complaint was made.
The Echo contacted all 41 borough councillors by e-mail asking if they knew who owned Reeds Hill Farm.
About 15 commented. Mrs Goodwin was the only one to admit she knew before the vote.
Nothing to declare? Wendy Goodwin
Mrs Reeves said her conscience was clear.
The Tories have traditionally opposed any building on green belt, but recent changes by the Government have made it easier for developments on protected land to take place.
Mrs Reeves claimed she still held with the Conservative philosophy of safeguarding the countryside. She said: “I have fought to save green belt before.”
However, she argued the farm was “surplus to requirements”.
She said: “It has been put forward to the local plan since 2001.
This land has been in our family since the Sixties, it is of no use to us. We need to look where new homes can be built and if some starter homes can go on there that is all well and good. It is just a small piece of land.”
She understood why the public could be cynical about local politicians seeking to develop in their area, but said: “My conscience is clear.
“I am not on the borough council and have declared everything I have to to the county council.”
Asked for the tenant farmers’ view of developing the land, she added: “I don’t have the faintest.
He is probably pleased.”
Referring to the option deal with the developer, she added: “You will have to speak to my husband, he has been dealing with that.”
Meanwhile, residents have set up a group to fight development on the land.
Residents Against Glyders Expansion will hold a public meeting at the Moorings on the corner of High Road and Essex Way, Benfleet, on Thursday, at 7.30pm.
Robert Baily, chairman of the group, said the land had been left to grow and had created habitat for wildlife.
He is also concerned utility services in the area are stretched.
Some residents want more transparency over the local plan process in light of the revelations over ownership.
Karen Robinson, from Essex Way, said: “Perhaps it is worth people investigating who owns the other sites identified on the local plan and stands to benefit from the sale and development. I think this is in danger of becoming a real conflict of interest.”
Fellow Conservative councillors said they did not know who owned the land.
Tory councillor Tom Skipp said: “As far as I can recall, I am not aware of the ownership of the land in question, but I am confident that I do not have a prejudicial interest which would result in a conflict of interests that would make it impossible for me to take a balanced view.”
Tory council leader Pam Challis said: “Councillors were not made aware of any specific site owners.
“I have no interest to declare regarding land off Glyders.”
Conservative Eoin Egan added: “I do not know who owns this piece of land.”
Cabinet member Norman Smith, also a Tory, said: “Of course I know Jillian, but didn’t know it was her land.
“If I did I am still not sure I would have declared it, because it would not be prejudicial as I would not stand to gain from it.
“How far do you go with this?”
Tory cabinet member Ray Howard added: “I have known she had that land for years but did not declare it because I could not take part in the vote because of an interest I had to declare on the nursery.”