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Fears voiced on democracy

A Welsh newspaper has begun a campaign against a “draconian” code of conduct that prevents councillors representing the public.

The Caerphilly Campaign has run the stories this week and intends to pursue the matter across the front page next week.

With a circulation of more than 50,000, the free weekly is highlighting the way Caerphilly councillors are unable to raise local concerns.

As soon as they speak out in public for constituents on an issue they are deemed to have a “closed mind” and cannot take part in a debate or a vote, editor Chris Mair said. They are also barred from receiving background papers.

He added: “I believe this is a major issue and touches on press freedom as well as freedom of speech.

“Since publication, a planning meeting concerning a housing proposal saw the three councillors whose ward the houses were proposed for barred from the meeting.

“A few days before they had attended a site meeting/inspection with other councillors and officers at which there was a residents’ protest.

“The local councillors sought to raise concerns brought to them by residents, and as a result Caerphilly council’s monitoring officer deemed that by raising these issues the councillors were opposed to the development and therefore had what is termed a closed mind to the planning application.”

The council heard the views instead from a member of the public on the opposition committee – even though the councillors could not attend, let alone address, the council.

“This is a draconian interpretation of the Code of Conduct which local councillors are bound by nationally. It seems to be an extreme intrepretation,” he said.

The code has been in force for many years and is designed to outlaw “sleaze” rather than prevent debate.

He said there were pecuniary interests, where councillors could have a financial interest in a matter, and non-pecuniary, where it might also be best to withdraw from the vote.

But Mr Mair said: “The way they are running their meetings means that if a councillor takes his children to play on a playing field he could not discuss the field at the council meeting.”

It has left councillors remaining tight-lipped in public for fear they could be barred from taking part in a debate.

Mr Mair’s newspaper claims developers and political groups are using the code to gag opposition views to projects where councillors have previously spoken out. Newspaper cuttings and meeting minutes are used to show when a councillor may have taken a certain stance.

He also said that the local MP, Don Touhig is to take up the issue, and ask why the code of conduct is acting as a barrier to democracy.

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