'Hell in a handcart' York councillor did not breach code of conduct

City of York Council's West Offices with, inset top right, Cllr Tony Fisher and bottom left, Chris Steward
City of York Council's West Offices with, inset top right, Cllr Tony Fisher and bottom left, Chris Steward

A York councillor who claimed he would “go to hell in a handcart” before approving a planning application on the greenbelt said he was “relieved” after an investigation found he did not breach the council’s code of conduct.

Cllr Tony Fisher, then chair of the planning committee, made the comment after abstaining on a vote to approve a plan for 83 homes in Dunnington in October.

He was criticised by Labour councillors, who said his words could pre-determine his attitude to future planning applications and risked opening the council to legal challenges.

But it was ex-councillor and former council leader Chris Steward who submitted the standards complaint against Cllr Fisher.

Cllr Fisher, who represents Strensall ward, claimed the complaint was politically motivated, but Mr Steward said the idea was “absurd”.

Cllr Fisher said: “In his report the investigator has made a clear conclusion that ‘the behaviour of Cllr Fisher was at all times perfectly civil and appropriate, and I cannot see that his behaviour could in any way be construed as something which would be bringing the council into disrepute’.

“However, I am concerned by his comment in the report that ‘I cannot entirely discount the fact that as an ex-councillor of an opposing political party the complainant may have had a political motive in seeking to undermine Cllr Fisher’.”

Cllr Fisher pointed out that the standards process is not meant to be used to “conduct political attacks".

“This investigation has wasted several thousand pounds of council taxpayers’ money, which could have been far better used on more constructive things,” he added.

Mr Steward, who represented rural west York until 2019, said of the “hell in a handcart” comment: “Evidently a majority of the panel believe this a fair statement on complex planning balance rather than a prejudiced example of thinking.

“The idea I had a political motive is absurd. This is the first such complaint I’ve ever made and at City of York Council there has been vast opportunity.

“The investigator even told me by email he didn’t think I had any wrong motive so I’m unsure why he didn’t correct his report.

“My complaint was three meetings and months after the comments, clearly plenty of time for Cllr Fisher to correct the record.

“My concern is only standards on a crucial committee where decisions matter and legal challenge would be very costly.”

Mr Steward also called into question the independence of the external investigation process.

Councillors on the joint standards assessments sub-committee agreed with the finding of the investigator and said no further action was needed.

Cllr Fisher said he was calling for a further investigation into how the details of the confidential standards process complaint were made public via the media.