Councillor who backed mine had free trip

A VETERAN councillor has been accused of a serious conflict of interest after he chaired a meeting which approved plans for a coalmine after accepting an overseas trip worth hundreds of pounds from the developer.

Protesters who oppose the Dalfad opencast mine near Cumnock were angered last month when East Ayrshire Council's local planning committee recommended the project for approval despite serious concerns lodged by environmental experts.

Labour councillor Jimmy Kelly, a former miner, stepped up to chair the committee after SNP planning chairman Drew Filson and councillors Barney Menzies and Kathy Morrice opted out of the debate over the mine, proposed by Scottish Coal, citing personal interests. It is understood that one of the councillors has a family member working for Scottish Coal while another rents a house from the company.

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But documents on the council's website reveal that Kelly, councillor for Ballochmyle for almost 20 years, accepted a three-day junket to Spain in 2008 from the mining company, with a free hotel room, flights and tickets to the Barcelona v Celtic Champions League football match.

The same year, he also received a Christmas hamper from the firm, which wants to build the mine on a peat bog which environmentalists claim is essential for natural carbon storage. Last February he was the guest of the company at a fundraising dinner in Cumnock Town Hall.

The application goes before the full council for approval this week. Greta Roberts, secretary of the campaigning Mining and Environment Group Ayrshire, said she believed Kelly should have informed attendees at the meeting of his interest in the firm - and followed his colleagues in stepping aside.

"It is just not right," she said. "He accepted hospitality from the company and is then chairing a planning committee making an important decision about their development. The other councillors realised the fact they have links to Scottish Coal was enough that they should declare an interest - why did he not do the same?"

Scottish Coal says it will mitigate lost habitat at Dalfad on another site, but environmental experts claim the offer is not sufficient to compensate for the peat bog loss. "Why should such an ecologically valuable area at Dalfad be sacrificed?" Roberts asked. "The main beneficiary is Scottish Coal and its shareholders - the losses are East Ayrshire's."

Duncan McLaren, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: "It's unfair that in East Ayrshire a councillor who has previously benefited from the coal industry should chair a meeting to consider an opencast mine. We do not believe that councillors should be disqualified from participating in decisions as long as they clearly declare any relevant interests, but we do believe that the system should treat the interests of developers and communities fairly and equivalently. At present it does not, and the result harms communities and the environment."

Kelly said he had officially declared the Spanish trip at the time - but admitted he had been warned by council officials that it could be seen as "going overboard". He added that he had since made a concerted stand to turn down similarly lavish gifts.

"I have no links with Scottish Coal," he said. "I thought as long as I declared anything officially, I was OK [to chair the committee]."

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He added that he had followed recommendations from council officials over all mining applications in recent years. "If a development comes up and officials recommend it for approval, I vote for it because I want jobs for East Ayrshire."

A spokeswoman for East Ayrshire Council said Kelly had acted within regulations. "On this occasion, both council officers in attendance at the Southern Local Planning Committee when one of the items was chaired by Councillor Kelly have confirmed that they are satisfied that all due process was followed."