The investigation by the local government ombudsman into Bedford Borough Council is only the second time that Masonic links in a local authority have been proved to have resulted in maladministration.
The case is part of a rising number of complaints alleging misuse of Masonic influence in local authorities; there are around a dozen such cases each year, compared with one or two in the early Nineties. But many complaints are impossible to prove, or are mistaken, and only in one previous case, in Castle Point, Essex, last year has maladministration been proved.
The increase is thought to be partly a result of greater public awareness of Freemasonry and partly because councils have begun to interpret the guidance on Freemasonry more strictly, ensuring that Freemasons declare their interest. The Code of Guidance says that Freemasonry might be something that needs to be declared.
The Bedford case concerned an application for planning permission by a local company, given the name "Diatek" in the ombudsman's report, which was seeking to relocate to the town. The application was turned down and it later emerged that another company seeking to move to the site eventually succeeded.
Diatek complained to the ombudsman that Bedford's development control committee had deferred its decision in order to allow the second company to buy the site. In particular it complained about a meeting held between representatives of the company and a group of councillors which included Nigel Sparrow, a Freemason.
Mr Sparrow, who is no longer a councillor, was in the same Masonic lodge as the company's directors and failed to declare his interest. Jerry White, the ombudsman, found Mr Sparrow guilty of maladministration, saying, "knowing that a councillor and a planning applicant are ... members of the same lodge" would lead the public to "think that such a private relationship might influence the member to such an extent he should not take any part in the planning process". In fact, Mr Sparrow went to a Conservative group meeting where he lobbied to have Diatek's application deferred. He also went to the development control meeting although he was not a member of the committee. The ombudsman also criticised Mr Sparrow for failing to declare an interest over the fact that he lived near one of the application sites.
Mr White decided, however, that the council would probably have reached the decision in any case, and therefore no injustice had been suffered by Diatek.
In the Castle Point case, Mr White found that three Tory councillors - two Freemasons, William Sharp and Ron Sweeting, and the wife of a Freemason, Betty Wood - had failed to declare their interest and withdraw from meetings which gave planning permission to developers who were also Freemasons, some in the same lodge.