Veteran Tory councillor Bill Sharp is probed by Castle Point Council over harassment claims
14th March, 2017
A SENIOR councillor is being probed over claims he “bullied and harassed” the owners of a new restaurant in a row over planning permission.
Tory Bill Sharp has been reported to Castle Point Council’s independent investigator by businessman Mehmet Ali Deniz, who is currently renovating a former car showroom in London Road, Hadleigh.
The dispute broke out after Mr Sharp claimed Mr Denis and his business partner Razaman Unlu were carrying out work using out-of-date planning permission, which was granted in March 2010. The pair have refuted the allegation - which prompted a “furious exchange of texts and calls” between them and Mr Sharp.
Mr Deniz and Mr Unlu allege that in July 2016 Mr Sharp, a councillor for 30 years, attempted to use his position on the council’s planning committee to “solicit a bribe in return for his assistance” - a claim which has already been thrown out by the independent investigator.
The businessmen also allege that Mr Sharp “threatened to revoke any permission or licences the property might have or need.”
The councillor for St James’ ward will face a hearing at the Castle Point Council officers, in Kiln Road, Thundersley, on Tuesday.
Alex Oram, director of Ch&I Associates, which has been appointed to review the complaint, refuted claims a bribe was sought by My Sharp. He ruled that the councillor did, however, “enter the property uninvited” to urge the owners to halt work on the Turkish restaurant - sparking the harassment and bullying complaints.
In a report to the council’s review committee, Mr Oram said: “I have not upheld the most serious aspects of this complaint. In my view the evidence does not support the allegation that councillor Sharp either sought a bribe from the complainant or threatened to use his position to ensure that Mr Deniz and Mr Unlu did not get the necessary permissions and licences.”
He added: “Mr Sharp urged council officers on a number of occasions to take action against Mr Deniz for not having the necessary planning permission, suggesting that he would call in any planning application for consideration by the development control committee when submitted.”
Mr Sharp told the Echo: “The allegations are totally misplaced and will be strongly refuted by the review committee. I look forward to talking freely after the hearing.”
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Freemasons who sat on a council's planning committee have been found guilty of malpractice after a lengthy inquiry by the local-government ombudsman.
The investigation into their activities on the council at Canvey Island, Essex, began after complaints that they had given a fellow lodge member the go-ahead to build a leisure complex.
The ombudsman's report, which is due to be published next week, says eight members of the 16-strong committee were Freemasons and a ninth was married to a Freemason. Three of them were found guilty of maladministration.
The investigation into the Castle Point Borough Council, the Essex local authority which is responsible for Canvey Island, provides an unprecendented insight into the close relationships within a small town. According to the ombudsman's report, the links between the then ruling Tory administration and freemasonry were "extensive".
The complaints which prompted the ombudsman's investigations were made by two Canvey Island residents who said that councillors had failed to declare private or personal interests - particularly masonic links - while they dealt with consecutive planning applications for a leisure complex between 1991 and 1994.
They claimed that proper consideration of the development, which now overlooked their homes and had caused a drop in values, had been prejudiced.
Under the terms of the National Code of Local Government Conduct which councillors sign, members have to disclose significant personal interests in any matters and withdraw from a meeting where such an issue is discussed. According to the code, such interests include "associations with clubs, societies, and other organisation such as Freemasons".
The ombudsman says in his report: "Some members had little or no regard for the code they had undertaken to observe, in circumstances which could only fuel suspicion and mistrust of the way in which the council went about its business. "Freemasonry is generally viewed with suspicion among non-Masons not least because of the secrecy attached to the `craft' ... in my view, knowing that a councillor and a planning applicant are Freemasons and members of the same lodge, members of the public could reasonably think that such a private and exclusive relationship might influence the member when he came to consider the planning application."
The ombudsman's inquiries showed that eight members of the planning committee were Feemasons and one other was a mason's wife. Between 1991 and 1994 they dealt with three planning applications; the first was made by a member of the same masonic lodge as five councillors, while the next was made by another member of the same lodge and his business partner.
He in turn had let his home be used for fund-raising events for the Conservative ward of one of the other councillors.
As the investigations continued, other connections were discovered. Another councillor, who was not a Freemason, had a partner who was employed by one of the applicants.
One councillor, while a Freemason, said he did not belong to the same lodges as the applicants, but he had worked for one of them as a toastmaster.
The three planning committee members who were named in the report as guilty of maladministration - councillors Sharp, Sweeting and Wood - were singled out by the ombudsman because they failed to declare interests.
Bill Sharp had lived next door to one of the applicants, and had bought the land on which his house stood from another. Mr Sharp said that he would consider all three applicants to be friends as he would another 200 people in the area.
A second named councillor, Mrs Wood, was married to a Freemason who was also a councillor (but not a member of the planning commitee). She had attended lodge functions with her husband where she had met two of the applicants. The third named councillor, Mr Sweeting, was a Freemason for 25 years and in the same lodge as two applicants.
Since the ombudsman's investigation was completed, all three named councillors have left the council.
Yesterday Mr Sharp said: "I'm perfectly happy with my own integrity." Mr Sweeting commented: "The situation is awkward in a place like Canvey Island. Everyone knows everybody else and as I was a councillor for a very long time, people got to know me.
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Outspoken Bill Sharp, 62, has been found guilty of a long-running campaign of harassment and intimidation against top official Ian Burchill.
Mr Sharp, of Softwater Lane, Hadleigh, was also found guilty of backing a plan for a hotel by Benfleet’s Sadlers Farm roundabout, put forward by a developer friend.
Six months is the maximum a councillor can be suspended without being removed from office. Yesterday, the council's standards sub-committee was told Hadleigh councillor Mr Sharp had repeatedly undermined director of environment Mr Burchill.
James Findlay QC, for the council, said: “This is indicative of a campaign of intimidation against Mr Burchill. It’s the worst form of intimidation and brings Councillor Sharp into disrepute.”
Yesterday’s hearing found Mr Sharp guilty of five allegations: l Bullying Mr Burchill and treating him with disrespect l Undermining him professionally l Intimidating him by calling for his dismissal l Failing to accept advice which, by law, he could not ignore l Seeking an advantage for himself and others by pressing for the hotel plans to be included in a key council planning strategy document.
His friend and associate Brian White was behind the plan, the hearing was told.
Mr Findlay said: “He continued to lobby for a site in which he clearly had a significant interest.”
The panel heard there was a history of conflict and animosity between Mr Sharp and Mr Burchill, going back to the councillor’s time as planning chairman.
In her report, Karen Shorter, the official who investigated the allegations, said: “Matters were personalised and he was determined to undermine Mr Burchill’s professional expertise at every opportunity.”
Mr Sharp was not at the hearing, but later said: “I am not guilty. I think it’s much better to question, if you have an opinion. I believe I was doing what the electorate wanted.”
Last July, he was suspended for eight weeks for insulting Mr Burchill and breaching planning rules.
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