Councillor absenteeism: never apologise, never explain

In last week’s paper (The St Andrews Citizen & The Herald), Cllr Karen Marjoram was being a tad disingenuous when defending her no-show at the meeting of the North East Planning Committee when the controversial application for the new retail park beside Tesco in Cupar was determined.

While all councillors are indeed equal (in many senses), and are required to act in a quasi-judicial capacity on planning committees, ward councillors are in practice accorded a special status when applications in their patch are on the agenda.

Typically, it is ward councillors who lead the scrutiny of the application, and propose motions or amendments, particularly for refusal. This is because they are the first port of call for neighbours and community councils who may have concerns about an application, and the rest of the committee will rightly assume they are best informed about their locality.

None of this is written down, and it doesn’t always happen, but this is the usual practice – which the community council in Cupar and others concerned about the retail park application were perfectly entitled to expect from their local elected representatives.

It is a great shame Cllr Marjoram wasn’t at the meeting because I together with a number of my colleagues might have benefitted from her greater knowledge of the site, its application history and the concerns it had generated among her constituents.

I was not the only councillor there who would have refused the application if only we could have found robust material planning considerations for doing so. (In the absence of these, and in the light of an approval for a very similar application on the same site a year ago, any refusal by the North East Planning Committee would have been a fruitless and expensive gesture, as it would end up being overturned at appeal, with expenses awarded against Fife Council).

When Cllr Marjoram says about the planning committee, “no one has the right to complain about councillors who are there or aren’t”, I think voters in Cupar will be flabbergasted. Of course they are entitled to complain when their local representatives don’t show up to do the work they are elected and paid to do.

In any other occupation, people apologise when they miss something important at work.

When I was first elected, I called for Fife Council to publish records of attendance at committee meetings for individual councillors, as, for example, the declared interests of each councillor are listed against their entry on Fifedirect. This was in part a response to a notorious case in Kirkcaldy where an SNP councillor had attended no meetings for two years after his election before it was discovered he had moved abroad. The Labour and SNP administration rejected my call as unfair to councillors.

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