Moray Council’s leaders were under fire last night after backing the new bigger budget for a controversial road scheme at a stormy meeting.
It took the casting vote of the chairman of the local authority’s economic development and infrastructure services committee to rubber-stamp plans to spend £11.8million on the Western Link Road through Elgin.
But that was only after a chaotic session in the council chamber which included an adjournment to let tempers cool and a pledge from the local authority leader to report himself to the standards commission over an e-mail sent to members.
Stewart Cree made the promise after Fochabers Lhanbryde councillor Douglas Ross revealed he had contacted fellow administration members soliciting support for the road’s revised design.
After committee chairman John Cowe and Forres councillor George Alexander – both administration members – started the meeting by backing the proposal, Mr Ross questioned whether the ruling group had “colluded” to ensure the scheme was forced through.
The Conservative member said: “I have come into possession of an e-mail sent by the leader of the administration asking all members within that group to confirm their continued support for the Western Link Road.
“Mr Cree asks that any member who has any difficulty in supporting this should contact him at the earliest opportunity.
“This e-mail was sent by Mr Cree last Monday – before members were able to view the plans – and I’m not sure this is entirely competent.
“It’s clear this decision had been made before the papers were even issued.”
Amid a flurry of raised voices a flustered Mr Cree left the chamber and an adjournment was called while order was restored.
The council’s principal solicitor, Aileen Scott, said Mr Cree had not behaved improperly – as his message contained “no language saying that members had to vote in favour of the plan”.
“That does not conflict with the code of conduct, and I think this has been raised in an appropriate manner”, she added.
But when the discussions resumed the council leader volunteered to undergo independent scrutiny to clear himself of any wrongdoing.
Mr Cree said: “It would not be appropriate to go into detail on this in the council chambers at the moment, but I will refer myself to the standards commission after this meeting so this can be judged independently.
“There is no whip in the administration, that has always been the case.
“I’m more than happy to let an independent body examine my actions.”
Mr Ross suggested that, in light of the revelations, members of the administration be barred from voting on whether to go ahead with the revised Western Link Road layout plans, but his motion received no seconders.
Buckie councillor Gordon McDonald proposed an amendment that the plans be stalled until more information available about how dualling the A96 through Elgin may affect the divisive project.
Committee members tied at six votes apiece on whether to back the new budget for the scheme, but, as chairman, Heldon and Laich member Mr Cowe cast the deciding vote in support of it.
Following the meeting, Mr Ross said: “It is very clear from the e-mail Stewart Cree sent that he wanted to ensure the administration had enough votes to force this issue through.
“Given the fact that all members voted to progress with the road, I will leave it up to the public to decide if there was no group decision by Independent councillors to support the Western Link Road.”
However, Mr Cowe last night dismissed talks of collusion, and stressed that he supported the Western Link Road for a string of economic reasons.
Mr Cowe said: “I had no idea how other members would vote, and to be accused of that is absolutely false.
“Mr Ross simply wanted to derail this project today, but he chose the wrong time and place to do it.”
Now that additional costs for the project have been approved, the planning application will go before the full Moray Council on Wednesday, November 11.
Protesters condemn council leaders
Protesters against the Elgin Western Link Road last night condemned local authority leaders for going ahead with the scheme.
And they predicted the “shenanigans” which dominated yesterday’s committee meeting would undermine public trust in the local authority.
Wittet Drive resident Caroline Webster, one of the leading opponents of the project, said: “I’m very disappointed in Mr Cree’s behaviour.
“If he has tried to make sure councillors vote for the plans before even seeing them that is just appalling.
“We will be paying close attention to how these councillors act over the coming months.
“But performances like this from the leader really haven’t done him any favours.”
Fellow campaigner Jim Wiseman added: “I think it’s right that these questions are asked, and hopefully answers will come in due course.
“These are our elected leaders and it’s good that there’s someone like Mr Ross in there questioning what they are doing behind the scenes.”
Convener of the Moray branch of the Green Party, James Mackessack-Leitch, added: “The debate on this crucial issue was overshadowed by a succession of procedural and legal shenanigans, which I fear will only further undermine trust in the council’s handling of this proposal.”
Earlier this year, some of the project’s fiercest critics discussed the link road scheme with Moray Council representatives as part of an attempt to fin ways of allaying some of their concerns.
The campaigners conceded that modified plans drawn-up as a result of the talks were more acceptable, although they remained opposed to the scheme.
Ms Webster added: “We were happy with the changes the council made to the plan, but we think they didn’t go far enough in addressing noise and pollution.
“We are still fundamentally opposed to the Western Link Road, and the increasing cost is a major issue in that.”