“Woman” in this case is Councillor Jess Bailey, and this is leafy West End West Hill and Aylesbeare ward. Since this is next to Ottery St Mary, Owl is surprised the monitoring officer did not order her to be “Tarred and Feathered”!
Daniel Clark www.devonlive.com
A councillor has been ordered to make a public apology for stopping trees being cut down.
Cllr Jess Bailey, who represents West Hill and Aylesbeare on East Devon District Council, had stood on a public verge under an oak and beech tree and then parked her car under them in January 2021 when a developer attempted to cut them down.
Her actions protected the trees until a Council tree officer attended and served a Tree Preservation Order on them.
But property developer Robert Compton had complained about her actions, and a standards investigation carried out in Cllr Bailey’s actions upheld a complaint that she did not conduct herself in a manner or behave in such a way so as to give a reasonable person the impression that you have brought the office or the Council into disrepute.
As a result of not following the police request to leave the scene, Cllr Bailey has been directed to make a public apology – but she has said that she was doing what she thought was right and in the interests of the community she was elected to represent.
The incident happened on Saturday, January 16, 2021, during England’s third national lockdown, and because she introduced herself when she arrived as the councillor for West Hill, it was accepted that she was acting as a councillor and not a private individual at the time.
Jess Bailey in front of the protection oak and beech tree in West Hill (Image: Jess Bailey)
Cllr Bailey said: “I started to receive worried phone calls from residents, I quickly went to Oak Road, West Hill to see what was happening. The woodland village of West Hill has been blighted by developers pre-emptively felling trees over the years and I am always concerned about this controversial practice. It particularly worried me that this felling was happening on a Saturday during lockdown.
“A large birch had already been felled and an oak and beech were soon to be removed. These formed part of a highly prized avenue of trees formally recognised as a ‘valued view’ by the community in the Ottery St Mary and West Hill Neighbourhood Plan, a planning document which has been voted on by residents.”
She added: “Despite my best efforts and a series of frantic phone calls to Council officials I could not get a tree officer to attend at the time to protect the trees. The Council has in the past declined to protect these very trees with a TPO on the basis that they were not under immediate threat. Yet on the day when the trees were under immediate threat no one from the Council was available to protect them.
“I was at a loss to know what to do and therefore felt I had to take direct action to save the trees. I was determined to save the wonderful trees and so I stood on the public verge underneath them which prevented further work. I was not alone in being concerned about what was happening – other residents were equally dismayed.
“I have the utmost respect for the police who I’m certain were only trying to do their best in the difficult situation that was lockdown. They were however unclear on their power to send me home – which was not surprising given the constantly changing rules and laws at this time. I believed (and still believe) that I was lawfully present within lockdown rules.
“When talking to the police I felt hugely conflicted between staying to protect the trees and leaving as the police indicated I should. After a while of engaging and explaining their views to me the police became more insistent that I should leave or I would be issued with a Covid fine if I did not. I duly left and went home without any fine being issued. When I left, my car remained parked for the weekend on the verge, still under the trees.”
The oak and beech tree in West Hill protected by Cllr Jess Bailey (Image: Jess Bailey)
Cllr Bailey added: “As a result of my actions the trees are still standing, and had I not taken the action I did – including not leaving immediately on the arrival of the police – I have no doubt the trees in question, and possibly others, would have been removed.
“It is incredibly common for developers to suddenly fell beautiful and mature trees to make way for development and in most instances no one can do anything about it. This time because of my intervention I am pleased that a mature oak and beech that form part of a beautiful avenue of trees were retained.”
The report of East Devon District Council’s monitoring officer dismissed the majority of the complaints made by Mr Compton, saying that taking videos / photos of the scene is not a breach of the code of conduct and would not be generally unacceptable, nor was requesting a TPO.
And he said that while unpalatable to some and of course to the complainant, he did not consider that her behaviour, where she stood under one of the trees to prevent it being felled and organised for a car to be parked under the tree for the same purpose, from an objective standard, was sufficient to amount to causing disrepute to the role of councillor or to the Council.
The report said: “The land in question is public highway and had the complainant wished to prevent anyone from exercising their lawful right to ‘use’ the highway when the works were to be undertaken, then there are mechanisms to secure a temporary suspension of those rights which would have precluded anyone from being able to stop the works in the way that happened.”
But the report did conclude that as a councillor, not leaving when requested to do so by the Police, who were concerned from a Covid and unauthorised gatherings perspective, particularly given the sensitivities and concerns around Covid, does not set a good example to others in terms of respecting authority and would reduce public confidence in the role of councillor.
It said: “I consider that this conduct and behaviour is such that it would give a reasonable person the impression that Cllr Bailey has brought her office into disrepute and as such is a breach of the code of conduct.”
Cllr Bailey said: “I am disappointed that the Monitoring Officer has found me to have ‘brought the office of councillor into disrepute’, when trying to protect trees. I was doing what I thought was right and in the interests of the community I have been elected to represent.”