Campaigners against a proposed opencast mine have claimed councillors are being silenced on the issue.
Councillors on the Planning Committee have been told by Caerphilly County Borough Council’s Legal Department not to speak about the Nant Llesg Opencast Mine but the United Valleys Action Group claims this contravenes the 2011 Localism Act.
Campaigners cited the act after being told by some councillors they won’t openly support their cause for fear of being accused of predetermination prior to voting on the proposals.
Chris Austin, Secretary of United Valleys Action Group, said misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the law appears to be endemic in the council.
In a letter to Caerphilly County Borough Council addressing “councillor’s apparent lack of understanding of the current planning law”, he said: “I have recently been communicating with councillors serving on Caerphilly County Borough Council, both on the planning committee and not.
“Without exception all the councillors I have had contact with were convinced that they were constrained by strict planning laws that precluded them from speaking about, attending, or taking part in the Nant Llesg opencast coal mine discussions and campaign, and in fact, any live planning application.”
Cllr Carl Cuss received a petition from campaigners at a recent protest against the mine, but does not sit on the Planning Committee.
He said: “Members of the planning committee have had strict legal advice, they are not allowed to say anything because they would be barred from voting.
“The campaigners are raising concerns that they’ve made quite clear and now need to wait for the decision.
“I have spoken publicly against the application, obviously they can raise their concerns with me but I can’t speak for other members.”
UK Government advice on the law suggests it was made to allow debate and the freedom for councillors to pursue their election pledges.
The advice states: “The Localism Act makes it clear that it is proper for councillors to play an active
part in local discussions, and that they should not be liable to legal challenge as a result.”
However, councillors have claimed this only allows them to observe meetings and not take part in proceedings and the council have not fully accepted Mr Austin’s interpretation of the law.
Mr Austin added: “The communities of the Upper Rhymney Valley are facing the most awful proposal of their generation – 15 years of opencast coal mining at Nant Llesg in Rhymney.
“This would blight the future of the valley and the local communities of Rhymney, Pontlottyn and Fochriw.
“They have been campaigning largely without the support of their elected representatives because of the councillors fear of predetermination and possible legal action.
“We hope that, with this clarification of the law, the councillors will now stand-up and be counted in the communities that voted them in, and support them in their campaign.”
Cllr Gaynor Oliver, who represents Pontlottyn, said she hadn’t requested or received advice from the legal department.
Cllr Oliver said: “It’s my personal choice not to give an opinion until I am asked which way I am going to vote.
“I am not prepared to speak on it before the planning committee just in case anyone says I can’t, but I am a person of the people and listen to my constituents. I haven’t made my mind up on the exact way I will vote and won’t until I hear the case.”
A Caerphilly County Borough Council spokesperson said: “All elected members have been briefed on the Member Code of Conduct and the Localism Act 2011 and its relevance to decision making.
“Participating in a decision and failing to declare interests whether personal or prejudicial, in accordance with the Member Code of Conduct could result in a referral to the Ombudsman.
“Participating in a planning matter, having predetermined the application, could provide grounds for a legal challenge.”
Cllr David Carter, Chair of the Planning Committee, said: “I hope to make it possible for a special planning committee to be held to debate the whole issue.
“I will ensure on fairness and equity for all parties. The council’s legal advice is to make no further comment at this junction.”
The planned mine would be located north of Fochriw and west of Rhymney and developers say up to 239 jobs could be created with up to six million tonnes of coal extracted over 17 years and £12.9 million will be invested annually in the local area.
Developer Miller Argent said it had undertaken in-depth studies as part of its planning application.
In response to the claims made by Mr Austin, its Managing Director Neil Brown said: “Miller Argent is proud of the potential benefits that the proposed Nant Llesg scheme would bring to the area. These would include hundreds of new jobs, a multi-million pound community benefit fund and much needed investment into the local economy.”
“We have undertaken extensive local consultation on our plans for the proposed Nant Llesg scheme in order to ensure that the scheme can bring as much benefit to the local communities as possible, as well as minimising potential impacts to neighbouring businesses and residents.
“As part of our planning application, we have undertaken in depth studies into potential environmental, health, economic and social impacts, to ensure our scheme meets the stringent standards required by government organisations.”
No date has been set for the application to be discussed but Caerphilly Observer understands the Planning Committee will vote on the proposals later this year.