Third councillor cleared in store wars planning battle

A Sheringham councillor has been cleared of failing to declare her role as local cafe owner as a prejudicial interest during a controversial supermarket planning debate in the town.

Julia Moss, who runs the Mulberry Tea Rooms off Station Road, as well as being a human resources consultant, appeared at a standards committee - and became the third of three councillors to be cleared of wrong-doing over their conduct during the debate and vote on rival stores.

Mrs Moss's involvement in the discussion and vote at North Norfolk District Council's development committee back in March about planned Tesco and Waitrose stores was queried by a member of the public.

Investigating officer John Chinery reported she had breached the councillors code of conduct by failing to declare her business involved as a prejudicial interest.

There were marginal potential impacts - both positive and negative - on her business from both the Tesco and Waitrose schemes.

It was a question of whether the public would think the interest was big enough that it was likely to prejudice her judgment.

Officers had advised her to follow a safety first line and that it would have been 'wiser to withdraw'

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Mrs Moss was a substitute for Patricia Ford at the March 4 development control meeting and felt 'great pressure' to attend as the only possible Sheringham councillor available on that day.

She had sought advice, but there was dispute over whether she had been clearly told there could be a prejudicial interest.

Mrs Moss said she listened to both sides of the argument during the debate, and said there were wider issues than the impact on her and other cafes, as 'the lifeblood of the town was at stake.'

She old the hearing she was experienced in public service as a governor at Easton College and Norwich University College of the Arts, as well as her role on the district council, and adhered to upholding proper conduct which 'does not threaten local democracy and restrict free speech.'

Mrs Moss felt advice given to her by the council's standards solicitor Elizabeth Smith was 'anti democratic and tantamount to gagging'

After an hour of deliberation standards committee chairman Marilyn Evans said they had found there was no breach of the code of conduct because the impact on Mrs Moss's business was 'so minute that it would not be reasonable to view it as something that would affect her judgment in acting in the public interest'.

Her contribution to the planning committee meeting had also been 'minimal and unbiased.'

Afterwards Mrs Moss said she was relived by the outcome adding 'I really do care about Sheringham, and my considerations were altruistic.'

She is the third councillor to have been cleared of alleged breaches during that planning meeting - one of which recently attracted criticism from local MP Norman Lamb who felt the standards system was turning into the 'thought police.'

?Sheringham will stage a parish poll this Thursday in a bid to gauge public support for the two rival plans. The Waitrose store, part of a Greenhouse Community Project on Weybourne Road, was approved back in March but officers, who recommended refusal, wanted to check the soundness of the decision. Tesco, which has been battling for 13 years to build a store on the Cromer Road, has submitted new plans. Both schemes will go back before the planning committee on October 14.