WARRINGTON Borough Council has been fined and forced to apologise to a group of residents after a planning officer misled councillors.
Controversial plans to expand a day nursery in Birchwood were approved without objections from local residents ever being brought to planning committee members' attention.
An Ombudsman's report found the application for a single-storey extension at the nursery on Delenty Drive by-passed the borough council's planing committee because a planning officer misled Birchwood Town Council into thinking there was no opposition to the scheme.
An investigation by the local government watchdog found the borough council guilty of maladministration causing injustice and ordered it to pay £200 each to six residents.
Ombudsman Patricia Thomas criticised the planning officer, known as Officer A, for providing unreliable information to investigators - he falsely claimed he had not handled a planning application for a nursery before.
The town clerk of Birchwood Town Council told investigators the planning officer, who has since left the local authority, phoned him to say the only opposition to the plans was from the town council. The clerk agreed to drop the opposition and the application was passed under delegated powers, instead of falling under the scrutiny of councillors.
The clerk told investigators he had been misled.
The planning officer was accused of having a personal relationship with the female applicant.
He had sent an informal e-mail offering advice on how the nursery owner should address the parish council on the plans.
A reply from the nursery owner after the first application failed read: "You can't keep a good man (or woman) down . . . after the help and advice you gave me last time, would it be possible for you to become the case officer?"
The Ombudsman ruled there was not sufficient evidence to conclude there was an improper relationship but she criticised the officer's informal e-mails and said it was unprofessional of him to help the applicant with her planning forms.
A spokeswoman for the six residents, who have asked not to be named, said: "We are delighted with this verdict of maladministration by council officers in Warrington and look forward to receiving an apology from the council.
"Obviously we can never know if the planning committee would have refused the application but the planning officer clearly thought so - that must be why he prevented it going to committee."
Warrington Borough Council declined to comment.