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Welsh councillor who started coffee shop and wine bar without planning permission found to be in “serious breach” of code of conduct

A Vale of Glamorgan councillor who sits on the local authority's planning committee has been found in breach of its code of conduct after establishing a cafe without first securing planning permission.

Cllr Leighton Rowlands, who has been a member of the planning committee since 2017, was suspended for a month for what the standards committee called a "serious breach" of the code of conduct that brought the council and town council into disrepute.

The councillor and a business partner opened the coffee shop and wine bar named The Watering Hole in June 2019. The building was previously a shop and therefore a change of use planning application was required for the building to be used as a cafe.

Cllr Rowlands applied for planning permission but decided to open the establishment before the council decided on the case. At a Standards Committee meeting held late last month (January 26), the councillor said he had limited knowledge of planning law when asked to explain his decision. 

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He told the committee: "Like most new councillors who sit on the planning committee we have training but they are always a whistle stop tour […] and I would say I had difficulty in understanding the planning law like any member of the public would, even with the training."

He added that he had "limited or confused knowledge of planning".

In addition, he told the committee that he had not known about the breach before opening. He said: "Planning and licensing rules are very complicated. I'm not a solicitor; I'm not a Planning Officer, and when I did ask for advice from the planning officer, it was very grey. In hindsight, I should have asked the monitoring officer for more advice - I don't know why I did that."

Representatives from the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, which had previously investigated the case, relayed the investigation's findings to the committee.

Sinead Cook, Assistant Investigation Manager for the Ombudsman, told the committee: "The establishment required the change of use of planning permission, and Cllr Rowlands was aware of that at the time. And the Senior Planning Officer has given evidence to say that they told Cllr Rowlands and his colleague that, although it was not illegal, if the business did open, it would be in breach of planning control, and there was a risk of enforcement action".

Once the Monitoring Officer raised the issues concerning the planning breach with Cllr Rowlands, the councillor quickly moved to close the business down. Although he was unsuccessful in shuttering the business, he eventually resigned, withdrew the planning application and took no further part in the business and planning process. As a result, he also lost his investment in the company.

The standards committee was satisfied that he was aware of the consequences of opening the cafe before a change of use planning permission was implemented and the potential breach of planning control.

Mrs Cook later added: "The Ombudsman concluded that Cllr Rowlands' conduct in failing to consider his situation appropriately or seek advice about his role or position in advance of the decision to open the establishment suggested a significant lack of judgment and had the potential to impact on the mutual relationship of trust that exists between the council, the town council, its elected members, and members of the public.

"The Ombudsman determined that the evidence supports a finding that Cllr Rowlands' actions brought his office as a councillor and the council into disrepute and are suggestive of a breach of paragraph 6 1 a of the Code of Conduct."

Cllr Rowlands accepted that he breached the code of conduct and said that he was "naive" in doing so.

Richard Hendicott, chair of the Standards Committee, said: "The standards committee is of the view that this is a serious breach, especially of a councillor who is on planning. It brought the council and indeed the town council into disrepute. It's certainly not a case where no action should be taken”.

He added: "This was a single incident. Once you knew about it or once you knew the significance or the seriousness of it, Cllr Rowlands, you took steps to try and extricate yourself from the position. But you, being on planning, you have a duty to uphold the high standards which are expected of you. In the circumstances, we think a suspension is appropriate and we are going to suspend you for one month."

Adam Carey

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