Councillor denies wrongdoing as fresh questions emerge over employment links

Shay Bottomley
Conservative councillor breached Royal Borough Code of Conduct, says report

Cllr Ross McWilliams

A councillor has affirmed his ‘innocence of any wrongdoing’ after fresh questions emerged over his links to companies involved in a controversial planning application.

Last month, the Advertiser shared details of an independent report which found Cllr Ross McWilliams (Con, Cox Green) had breached the code of conduct by bringing the council into disrepute after he ignored the monitoring officer’s advice not to participate in the planning panel.

The report was commissioned following multiple complaints regarding Cllr McWilliams’ involvement in the planning panel vote, despite being employed by BECG (Built Environment Communications Group) – a company which did communication work for applicant CALA Homes.

The plans were approved on the night, but have since been withdrawn.

Since that meeting, Cllr McWilliams has taken up a different role with another company which was involved in the controversial application.

According to his register of interests, Cllr McWilliams started a new role as a senior account director at consultancy firm Grayling Communications on April 1 this year – four-and-a-half months after the contentious planning meeting.

Following the November approval, Grayling shared a post on LinkedIn, which stated: “The Grayling Engage team [part of the same company] are thrilled to announce that CALA Thames’ application for 80 new homes, has been approved by the Maidenhead Development Management Committee!

“The team have supported CALA on this exciting application over the last 18 months.”

Deerswood Meadow, Ray Mill Road East

Cllr McWilliams has also previously been employed by Four Communications Group – a company which was involved in a separate, near-identical application for Deerswood Meadow by CALA Homes.

Four Communications Group provided public affairs services for the application (19/01140/FULL) which was refused permission by the Maidenhead area development management panel on February 19, 2020.

Cllr McWilliams, who was employed by Four Communications between December 2018 and January 2021, was present at the meeting as a non-voting member, according to the minutes on the council’s website.

Cllr McWilliams said he could not comment on the investigator’s report prior to a sub-committee meeting into whether he breached the council’s code of conduct later this year.

However, Cllr McWilliams re-affirmed his ‘innocence of any wrongdoing’ when contacted by the Advertiser about his links to companies involved in applications for the site.

“I believe that I have at all times acted properly and professionally in the best interests of the council and within its rules, as well as in the best interests of the residents of Maidenhead and the whole borough, as was and is my duty to them,” said Cllr McWilliams.

“I have also scrupulously kept my professional and political lives entirely separate.”

Timeline of events: 

February 2020: An application for 80 homes at Deerswood Meadow is refused at a planning panel. Cllr McWilliams is noted in the minutes as a non-voting member.

January 2021: Cllr McWilliams leaves Four Communications Group, a consultancy firm which would submit documentation with all three Deerswood Meadow planning applications. He then begins employment at BECG (Built Environment Communications Group).

April 2021: In a tweet, Cllr McWilliams, lead member for housing, describes the Ray Mill Road East application as a ‘big opportunity for new borough-owned affordable housing’. The independent report says it is not ‘unreasonable to infer from this comment that he was supportive of the application’.

May 2021: According to the independent report, Cllr McWilliams informs monitoring officer Emma Duncan ‘that BECG had submitted a bid for the CALA account’. She advises him to ‘stay as far away as possible from the bidding process’. Ms Duncan ‘heard nothing further on this particular issue’ until the November planning panel, at which she heard BECG had secured the CALA account.

July 2021: Cllr McWilliams is appointed vice-chair of the newly formed Maidenhead development management committee.

August 2021: After a forty-minute delay to the start of the meeting, and objections to Windsor-based councillors acting as substitutes, a second 80-home application for Deerswood Meadow is withdrawn by CALA Homes during the meeting.

September 2021: A third 80-home application is submitted by CALA Homes.

November 12, 2021: Monitoring officer Emma Duncan is alerted by the head of planning over an email sent by Cllr McWilliams to himself. The monitoring officer advises Cllr McWilliams against participation in the meeting, which he ‘sought and received confirmation’ that this was advice and not direction.

November 17, 2021: Cllr McWilliams participates in the meeting, and proposes to defer and delegate approval to the head of planning against officers’ recommendations. Cllr John Baldwin (Lib Dem, Belmont) raises an objection to this, although Cllr McWilliams’ motion passes on a split decision.

January 2022: 19 complaints are submitted against Cllr McWilliams. The Cox Green councillor resigns from the planning panel ‘without third party involvement’.

February 2022: The Borough Local Plan, in which Deerswood Meadow is exempt from development, is adopted by councillors.

April 1, 2022: Cllr McWilliams starts employment at Grayling Communications, a consultancy firm which was involved with the approved Deerswood Meadow application.

April 13, 2022: The 80-home application is ‘called in’ for review by the Secretary of State.

June 7, 2022: CALA Homes withdraws their application, citing a lack of compatibility with the BLP as a major reason.

June 20, 2022: The Advertiser reports that an independent individual has found Cllr McWilliams in breach of the code of conduct for bringing the council into disrepute. He is cleared of failing to disclose an interest – which was already on his register of interests – in relation to his employment, and cleared of improperly using his position ‘to secure an advantage for himself or others’.

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