Conservative councillor responds to backlash over private employment

Conservative councillor responds to backlash over private employment

Cllr Ross McWilliams

A Conservative councillor who faced a backlash over a potential conflict of interest in relation to a contentious Maidenhead planning application has said that his decision on the plans was made 'in the best interests of residents'.

Last Wednesday’s meeting at Maidenhead Town Hall saw plans put forward by developer CALA Homes, who were trying to push through proposals for 80 new homes on land to the south of Ray Mill Road East.

The plans were controversial due to their location on the flood plain, with planning officers recommending them for refusal, with last week being the third time they had appeared before the planning committee. 

At the meeting, Councillor Ross McWilliams (Con, Cox Green), proposed that the application be deferred to the council's head of planning - subject to referral to the Secretary of State - to approve the plans, citing a need for affordable housing in the borough amid its full housing waiting list.

This was pushed through after four votes for and against, with Cllr Leo Walters (Con, Bray) abstaining and the casting vote resting with Cllr Phil Haseler (Con, Cox Green), who passed it. 

Pictured above: The open land to the south of Ray Mill Road East, Maidenhead, where the 80 homes are proposed

However, after the Tory councillor had raised his motion, opposition colleague John Baldwin (Lib Dem, Belmont) asked if Cllr McWilliams' current private employment with consultancy company BECG should have been declared as a major interest, potentially influencing his vote. 

This is because the firm was appointed by CALA Homes to deal with its communications.

The council's monitoring officer, Emma Duncan, confirmed at the meeting that it is ‘up to the member themselves’ to decide whether they have a prejudicial or pecuniary interest.

She added: “Cllr McWilliams has looked and made that assessment himself, which is what we suggest members do.”

Ms Duncan also reminded councillors that if they do have an interest of this type and they participate in a meeting, this would be classed as a criminal offence.

When asked by Cllr Baldwin if Cllr McWilliams sought advice from Ms Duncan on the matter, she said she has been in contact with him over ‘other issues’, but ‘not that particular one’.

Cllr McWilliams – who did not declare an interest at the start of the meeting – said at the town hall that he has previously requested advice on this with his employer, as well as the clients he works with, and was ‘happy’ to share his employment contract with Ms Duncan.

Speaking to the Advertiser after the meeting, Cllr Baldwin said: "Cllr McWilliams did not declare an interest on the evening, and then supported the application against officer's advice and proposed the motion.

"As soon as that motion was seconded, that was when I felt it was appropriate to bring what I considered to be a conflict of interest to light.

"The monitoring officer made it clear that it was up to members to declare an interest or to recuse themselves from voting."

He added: "What I do not understand is why an intelligent, young, ambitious politician like Cllr McWilliams would not just have recused himself.

"If a member of the Liberal Democrat group had such an interest, our leader has already confirmed that he would not have allowed them to sit on the panel.

"Cllr McWilliams has allowed a situation to exist from which a reasonable person could infer that something was amiss."

Speaking this week, Cllr McWilliams said that he has already declared his employment with BECG.

He added that, while he perhaps should have mentioned this at the start of the meeting, he had consulted with the monitoring officer when his firm was first appointed by CALA.

"She was clear that since I derived no personal benefit, there was no conflict of interest. I do not work on any projects relating to CALA or within RBWM," Cllr McWilliams said. 

"In the first instance, I have declared my employment with BECG. The second thing to say is that my priority will always be the people of Cox Green and the Royal Borough, and everything I do will be focused on doing the best I can for them. That is my absolute focus.

“I made a decision with an open mind and what I thought was in the best interests of residents.

"Unfortunately, some of my opposition colleagues have tried to turn my employment into a conspiracy theory.

"The truth is rather more mundane - I voted in favour of the application to support the delivery of affordable homes." 

The Cox Green councillor added that his employment with BECG is available in the public domain within his register of interests. 

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