BBC2 cameras witnessed an extraordinary attack on the reputation of Cheshire West and Chester Council and its leader over the controversial student village scheme.
Even though he was not present for Thursday night’s debate, Cllr Mike Jones came in for strong criticism for the way he has handled an issue which has divided the city and his own party.
But his supporters hit back with equal force, saying that if critics have any evidence of wrongdoing ‘why the hell have they not had the guts to do something about it rather than slinging mud’.
Bell Developments' resubmitted application for a 2,300-bed complex and Sir Steve Redgrave sports institute was due to be decided at next Thursday's strategic planning committee.
Now the most it will be able to do is make a recommendation to the full council which will sit as a planning committee to determine the matter after members narrowly voted to change the constitution to allow the move.
Protesting outside the Cheshire West and Chester Council meeting at Winsford were several groups against various developments, including the student village, because it would be on green belt land between Blacon and Mollington.
People then moved inside for a lively meeting also attended by Bell director Dave Bell, accompanied by his legal representative, who argued strongly against the constitutional change.
The special meeting, which was filmed for the BBC2 Planners series, follows concerns over a shake-up of the strategic planning committee by Tory council leader Mike Jones who has declared a prejudicial interest because he is a friend of the Bells.
Cllr Myles Hogg was removed as chairman after he voted down the original application and was replaced by Cllr Howard Greenwood, a property developer, with past links to Bell.
Cllr Mark Williams was another controversial appointment to the committee because of his other role as Tory chief whip.
Cllr Jones stayed away from last night's meeting to avoid ‘any perceived conflict of interest’ but came under a ferocious attack from opposition members.
Rebel Conservative councillor Brian Crowe (Saughall and Mollington) who, with the backing of three fellow Tories and a Lib Dem, proposed taking the application to full council, told the meeting: “I don't believe this council is corrupt, nor do I believe any councillors are corrupt, guilty of sleaze, or guilty of manipulation or maladministration.
“But there is a perception of guilt by our people out there.”
He added: “Let's show people how we do our business in an honest, open and fair-minded way. Let's show the media there is no sleaze or scandal here.”
Fellow Tory Neil Sullivan, who seconded the motion, said public concern was sparked because some councillors had ignored officer advice by voting for the first student village application.
He believed the leader's removal of the only Tory member who went against the scheme caused ‘unhelpful speculation’.
He praised his fellow Conservatives for ‘standing firm’ against the pressure to withdraw the motion.
Blacon Labour Cllr Carolyn Graham ultimately supported the motion but would have preferred the application to be sent directly to the Secretary of State for a decision as it is contrary to green belt policy.
Giving her reasons, she said: “I don't believe the Tories wouldn't be whipped into voting in favour of it.”
Cllr Graham added: “The leader has or has recently had several interests with the developers of the application and has misused his position to court support for this scheme, including frequenting schools when Steve Redgrave visited.
“The leader has expressed his support on radio and in the press for a student village. He may not have specified this site, but given over the last two-and-a-half years this application on this site has dominated local headlines, it is disingenuous to assume the leader is impartial.”
Fellow Blacon Cllr Reggie Jones asked why the applicants had resubmitted instead of launching an appeal in the way ‘you would normally expect’.
He said the proposal was about restoring public confidence in the planning system because the reputation of the council had been damaged. If not, “public opinion is one that says ‘this is a scandal waiting to happen’”.
He added: “We know through the veiled language that members of the Conservative group are being intimidated, are being pressured and are being bullied.”
Tory Cllr Myles Hogg, one of the rebels, said: “The man on the top deck of the mythical Clapham omnibus might not know all the facts but he senses something is not quite right.”
Lib Dem Cllr Bob Thompson, who backed the motion, urged councillors to ‘remove the reputational stain that's spreading across the city’.
Labour Cllr David Robinson agreed: “Everywhere I go people are saying CWaC is bent. I feel ashamed.”
Labour leader Justin Madders said: “This council has allowed itself to get into a situation where the public perception is the process is being manipulated.”
He blamed the council leader's ‘arrogance’ and said he had ignored the chief executive's advice to back the student village application going to full council to ‘take the heat’ out of the situation.
“People will ask why would someone go to such lengths. I don't know what the answer to that is.”
He added: “This situation has become so toxic we do have to take a stand.”
Tory Cllr Gareth Anderson supported taking the application to full council to ‘restore faith and trust’ because he acknowledged the ‘perception of something untoward continues to grow’ even though he believed this was mistaken.
He said the motion had the ‘unequivocal support’ of Chester Tory MP Stephen Mosley.
Labour's Cllr Alex Tate told the meeting the resubmitted application was practically identical to the original which had not passed the ‘very special circumstances’ test required for development in the green belt.
It was ‘purely speculative’, not supported by the University of Chester and there was ‘no guarantee’ it would be occupied, making the viability for the purpose intended ‘therefore highly questionable’.
“We must be aware of the potential risk of an alternative use of the site were permission to be given,” added Cllr Tate, who was warned by the chairman not to discuss the application at this stage as she may bar herself from the planning process.
Tory deputy council leader Les Ford, who unsuccessfully called for an early vote before the debate had got going, could not agree with the critics.
He said: “Much aspersions have been cast on the integrity of the strategic planning committee and I cannot accept it for a moment. I think it's totally disgraceful.”
He said the extra cost of training every member and the ‘waste of paper’ could not be justified.
Tory executive member Cllr Mark Stocks said: “I understand there has been some controversy in the media in Chester around this particular application.
“I don't think the legislative process should be governed by what appears in the paper. There are stories that appear in the paper both local and national - they are not true, all the time.”
He added: “With reference to some of the allegations made, particularly against our leader, nothing substantial has ever been brought forward to those allegations. They are all hearsay, whispers, conjecture.
“The reality is, we, Cheshire West and Chester, have a robust planning system. It's been demonstrated since we started this authority.”
Fellow Conservative Cllr Eveleigh Moore-Dutton agreed: “I am disappointed that if people who have been casting aspersions, innuendo and making insinuations about honesty and integrity, why the hell have they not had the guts to do something about it rather than slinging mud?
“If they have evidence why has it not been taken to the proper channels?”
She added: “It's my understanding the application will go to the Secretary of State in any case so I have to wonder if this is all a charade.”
Executive member Cllr Lynn Riley said: “The strategic and regular planning committees have handled a number of highly contentious applications so we have worked well yet we are here tonight seeking to fix something that fundamentally is not broken.”
Conservative colleague Cllr Charles Fifield said there was ‘a good planning system’ in place, adding: “This motion is a de facto vote of no confidence in our strategic planning committee and I will not vote for it.”
Fellow Tory Cllr Bob Crompton said it was ‘not right’ to try and bring a premature end to the debate because all comments needed to be aired but he didn't agree with the motion.
“It is effectively dismissing all members of the strategic planning committee on both sides of this House. We are saying it's not capable of agreeing any planning application above a certain level and I don't think that's right.”
Members agreed by 32 votes to 30 to send the student village application to full council following training.
Several councillors, possibly including ward councillor Brian Crowe, may not be able to take part given past statements on the application because they are not considered capable of going into the meeting with an open mind in the eyes of the law.
Student village meeting could be held at Town Hall
Last night's decision will allow all 75 members of Cheshire West and Chester Council to consider the application as a planning committee.
Members also agreed to a suggestion from Blacon Councillor Carolyn Graham that required the special meeting of the council to be held in the city rather than the council chamber in Winsford.
Today (Friday) the authority was considering the possibility of holding the meeting in the Town Hall assembly rooms with video facilities to overflow accommodation in the former magistrates court.
And preparations were under way to ensure that all members of the council receive inductions training with regard to responsibilities involved in making decisions on planning issues.
Chief executive Steve Robinson: “The meeting will be held as soon as it is logistically possible, taking into account the issues of suitable location and councillor training.
“The application is to be considered at Strategic Planning Committee on September 19, but members will now decide whether they wish to make a recommendation to full council or defer a decision to that meeting.”