Masonic rites and municipalwrongs

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The Independent Online
Local government corruption often follows the same pattern as Westminster sleaze: a planning authority, a councillor with close connections in business, Freemasonry.

It is this last that sets the local government scandal apart. Membership of the shadowy organisation all too often seems to be a prerequisite for anyone handing out council grants, awarding planning permission, issuing service contracts, offering jobs.

The daddy of local corruption scandals, the Poulson affair, was riddled with Freemasonry. Poulson flapped his apron and rolled his trousers at the local lodge as did many of his associates.

Freemasonry and backhanders, of course, do not necessarily go hand in hand. But secrecy and extensive membership lists mean suspicion is always present.

In 1992, in a survey of his Sunderland constituency, Chris Mullin MP found 29 lodges with a membership of 1,597. Lodge 5,841, the civic centre branch, was located just 100 yards from the headquarters of the borough council and had 62 members.

Looking through the pages of the Masonic handbook, Mr Mullin came across every channel of civic influence in Sunderland: the former chief executive of the borough council; a former Tory council leader; former directors of housing and architecture; policemen and magistrates.

Only last month, elections on the Isle of Wight were rocked by the resignation of a planning chairman from the council and Tory party because he could no longer take the pressure from a Masonic cabal on the council. Albert Annett claimed that 12 of the 18 ruling Tory group on Medina council were Masons. "You do not sit there for five years as committee chairman without knowing what is going on," he said. "It really came home to me when I was told that the local lodge had informed people not to vote for me because a decision had not pleased them."

In another south of England shire council, 34 of the 39 Tory members are Freemasons.

There is nothing wrong with that - provided it is all open. The days of secrecy may be ending, however, as Lord Nolan has indicated that his inquiry into standards in public life will look into the Masons and a requirement that membership be disclosed. Local politics will never be the same.