When those councillors who voted in December to approve Viking Energy’s planning application to the government’s energy consents unit, they put themselves at risk of censure or worse under section 7.7 of their code of conduct; that much was clear and their actions immediately prompted an anonymous complaint to the Public Standards Commissioner. We await the outcome.
But that part of the code relates only to planning applications. According to section 5.18.2 of the same code, about declarations of interest, councillors who sit on outside bodies need not declare an interest if they have been nominated or appointed to that body by the local authority, so long as they have declared that membership in the register of interests. Of course it was as charitable trustees that members (just) voted to provide extra funds for Viking Energy on Wednesday and Roy Martin QC, who wrote the legal opinion for the trust on reform delivered in April, was explicit in stating that the trust needed to be reformed to avoid situations where councillor-trustees faced irreconcilable conflicts of interest.
And yet central to Mr Martin’s opinion were situations where the trust and the council were tugging in opposite directions, hypoethetically or in fact. At one point he states: “In the case of decisions on the part of the Trust through SLAP [the trust’s property arm] to lease premises to the Council, it would have been in the interests of the Trust to obtain the maximum rent whereas the interests of the Council would have been the direct opposite. The same would have been the case in relation to the sale by The Council to the Trust of shares in [Viking Energy Ltd].” Now, as Jonathan Wills pointed out this week, the council and the trust are pushing in the same direction and trustees are legally obliged to act in the best interests of the trust.
Perhaps, if it is not already being done, it is time to seek further guidance from the charities regulator OSCR through the thicket.