A culture of secrecy and sexism has resulted in more local politicians behaving badly than ever before, just a year after legislation was introduced changing the way complaints about councillors are dealt with, according to town hall lawyers.
The scrapping of the Standards Board, the regulator that oversaw the conduct of parish, district and county councillors, was one of the most controversial aspects of the 2012 Localism Act. The watchdog was replaced with "light touch" regulation, with councils establishing their own codes of conduct. The then Local Government minister, Bob Neill, claimed the new regime would improve the reputation of local authorities and enhance freedom of speech.
However, a survey of readers of Local Government Lawyer magazine suggests the new rules are too weak, and have given many councillors the opportunity to act with impunity and allowed decisions over large sums of public money to be made behind closed doors.
The research found that 85 per cent of local authority lawyers and governance officers said current sanctions to deal with "member misconduct" were "too weak". Thirteen per cent said they were "about right" and 2 per cent "too tough".
One senior governance officer said: "There are no methods with which to deal with difficult members. With less teeth to the regime than before, any poor conduct is not complained about as there is little effect other than further deteriorating relationships."
Many were critical of the powers to compel councillors to disclose their financial interests. One lawyer wrote: "The law needs to be rewritten to be understandable to lawyers, let alone to members [of the council]." Another said it needed to "include where wider family members or friends are affected, not just the spouse".
Parish councils were particularly singled out for criticism. "Parishes increasingly feel they are only accountable to themselves and the district can't do anything, and therefore can get away with bad decisions that can't be pinned down to any individual," one lawyer wrote.
The appointment of "independent" members to councils under the new rules was widely welcomed. Widespread public dissatisfaction with councillors at Thanet District Council, Kent, for example, prompted independent members of the council's standards committee to write their own report on the situation. According to the independents' report, councillors were suspected of "secrecy and corruption".
Thanet's problems peaked last year when Sandy Ezekiel, a former Tory council leader, was jailed for 18 months after being found guilty of misconduct in public office. He used confidential council information over a Margate property deal, manipulating the purchase price and dishonestly using a proxy. He also improperly tried to bring enforcement proceedings against a person to persuade them to sell.
In addition, John Worrow, chair of the council's finance and audit committee, is currently on bail over allegations of sexual assault. When asked why he had been arrested, Mr Worrow said he has been subject to a sustained hate campaign designed to drive him out of the council. He told The Independent on Sunday: "I have been the subject of twisted allegations by a malicious accuser. There is no evidence; I am totally innocent."
Simon Moores, whose Thanet Life blog has covered the colourful goings on in Thanet, said: "Thanet is not that far removed from other councils around the country."
He added that the actions of Ian Driver, a Green Party councillor, who was reprimanded for breaching the code of conduct in October for photographing a bust-up between two councillors and publishing them, had added to Thanet Council's "dysfunctional meetings".
Mr Moores said: "Our meetings have been turned into public entertainment which makes it difficult for business that matters to people's lives to be conducted."
Sexist and racist remarks are often made in public by councillors. John Kerslake, chairman of the performance and resources committee at Brentwood Borough Council, was reprimanded last year when he referred to the "elegantly formed" posterior of a female colleague. The colleague, Jo-Ann Ireland, is the director of strategy and corporate services and the second most senior civil servant in the town hall. After he was reprimanded by a colleague, Mr Kerslake apologised for the remark – one of four complaints to the council deemed serious enough to warrant a sanction. Another referral concerned a debate that descended into pantomime when Keith Parker, a Tory councillor, was accused of calling Lib Dem Karen Chilvers an "ugly sister" in open council.
Ray Burston, a Dudley borough councillor, was warned 10 years ago after porn was found on his work laptop. Ten years later he has been caught doing the same thing. The former Tory councillor resigned the whip in September. He will stand down at this year's local elections.
In Berwick-upon-Tweed, Georgina Hill, the deputy mayor and a Tory town councillor, has begun a "crusade for greater openness and transparency", after discovering several important decisions using public money were being made in secret.
Her campaign began after finding out that the £100,000 the council received as part of the Government's "Mary Portas fund" to improve high streets was dished out in a closed session of the finance committee.
In a speech to the council last month, Ms Hill said: "I want to state categorically that my crusade is for greater openness and transparency, to ensure that all aspects of our decision-making inspire public confidence, and to bring us into line with the most current legislation and best practice."
She told the IoS yesterday: "What is quite often happening in town councils is a town clerk and a civil servant making decisions without the necessary checks and balances that you used to have. There is some extreme low-level corruption going on and people have been getting away with making decisions behind closed doors that you would never get away with in Parliament."
Ms Hill said she will continue to campaign for greater transparency, greater access and higher standards.