Troubled council suspends third officer

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The Independent Online
The Planning Director of Doncaster Council has been suspended following allegations of improper relations between the council and developers.

David Ellis, the Planning Director since 1987, was the third officer to be suspended by the beleaguered council after allegations of misconduct by both officers and councillors emerged in February this year in a district auditor's report. Mr Ellis's suspension on full pay follows a similar move taken against his assistant, Graham Raynor, last week.

Five councillors have also been suspended by the national Labour Party as well as the local district party at the end of last month in what has become known locally as `Donnygate'.

The suspension of the district party means that council candidates for next May's elections will be selected by the national, rather than the local, party. Events in Doncaster are a continuing embarrassment to the Labour Party which has sought to avoid the type of sleaze which engulfed and ultimately destroyed the last Tory government.

Although the district auditor initially focused on overspending on lunches and trips abroad by councillors, more recently a series of complaints about the council's planning department has emerged. Councillors have been alleged to have supported planning applications for developers against officer's advice, and an officer is also accused of having written a developer's planning application.

Council officers in the planning department have complained of interference by councillors seeking to push the interests of particular developers. The council has been criticised several times by the Department of the Environment for breaching guidelines on developments in the green belt. A 1995 letter obtained by The Independent from the local regional Government office to Mr Ellis says that civil servants were "concerned that the green belt issue does not appear to have been adequately addressed in a number of committee reports" including several major developments.

The planning chairman, Peter Birks, was one of the councillors suspended after allegations that he failed to declare he was living in a pounds 175,000 house owned by a developer but now the focus of the investigation has moved to the officers themselves. A council spokesman said yesterday that "it was only fair that the two council officers should be suspended to enable inquiries to be conducted in line with the council's disciplinary procedures".

Council leader Peter Welsh and deputy leader Ray Stockhill resigned their posts soon after the scandal emerged, and chief executive Doug Hale was suspended at the end of April and then took early retirement. John Smith, the finance director, was also allowed to leave early.