Harrogate councillor hits back at "conflict of interest" claim

Harrogate Valley Gardens Councillor Sam Gibbs.
Harrogate Valley Gardens Councillor Sam Gibbs.

The Harrogate councillor at the centre of conflict of interest allegations made by opposition members has slammed the claims as "complete nonsense".

Coun Sam Gibbs, who took over as the vice chair of the council's overview and scrutiny committee last month, rejected any suggestion that his new role on the body constituted a conflict of interest.

The Harrogate Valley Gardens ward member is employed by the Harrogate and Knaresborough Conservative Association, which is located next door to the headquarters of local MP Andrew Jones, where council leader Richard Cooper works.

The proximity of their workplaces led to Liberal Democrat head Coun Pat Marsh raising the situation at the council's annual general meeting last month.

"The workplace we are concerned about are connected by affinity of having a shared commitment to their workplace and their political group," Coun Marsh told the May 20 meeting.

"In the majority of cases, this is unlikely to give any rise to any issues for the council.

"However the potential for conflict of interest can arise or be perceived by others to arise."

However Coun Gibbs, who is in his first term as a Harrogate Borough Councillor, rubbished suggestions there was a conflict of interest arising from the situation.

He said claims that he worked under either Coun Cooper or Mr Jones, or that his actions on the committee could be influenced by the council leader, were "complete nonsense".

"It's a nothing story - it's frustrating," he said.

"(Claims have been made that) I work for Andrew Jones - I don't. That I work for Richard Cooper - I don't."

He said his role on the overview and scrutiny committee was an opportunity to ensure the Conservative-majority council was operated "as best as possible".

"My day job is to get as many Conservatives elected as possible," he said.

"Therefore it is in my interest that a Conservative-run council is run as best as possible."

Coun Gibbs added his appointment had been cleared by the council's chief executive Wallace Sampson.

Coun Gibbs, who is also the chair of the council's community and voluntary service committee, has been employed at the Conservative Association since 2014 as a campaign co-ordinator.

While the position's key roles include fundraising and increasing membership of the Conservative Party, Coun Gibbs is also tasked with working as an election officer during council and national elections.

The latter role includes working directly with the MP's office, although Coun Gibbs' stated his line manager and work conditions are all managed from within the Conservative Party itself.

Coun Gibbs previously made headlines last year for being elected to both Harrogate and Richmond district councils, before stepping down from his role on the latter.

The new chair of the overview and scrutiny committee, Liberal Democrat Coun Chris Aldred, said earlier this month that his party were "concerned...as a group" by the appointment.

However, he backed the committee to remain an effective scrutinising body.

"Personally I get on very well with Sam and we'll do our best to make the committee work," Coun Aldred said.

Lachlan Leeming, Local Democracy Reporter