FORMER Dorset County Council leader Spencer Flower contravened the Localism Act by failing to declare a pecuniary interest in Synergy Housing Association at a full council meeting, a district judge has found.

In a landmark case heard at Bournemouth Magistrates' Court, judge Stephen Nicholls recorded that Flower, 72, of Aggis Farm, Verwood, should not have participated or voted in a meeting on the East Dorset core strategy document, even though he stood to make no financial gain, as he was a non-executive director of the company.

Synergy Housing had been negotiating with developer Wyatt Homes over Wimborne's Cuthbury Allotment site.

The document discussed at the February 2013 district council meeting led to a change of status of land owned by Synergy, which in turn led to a benefit for the not-for-profit charitable housing association.

Developers want to build 192 dwellings at the site.

Flower had denied failure to comply with the Act, telling the court that he had been "devastated" after learning of the decision to prosecute.

He is thought to be the first person to be charged with an offence under the Act.

When asked in court whether he knew he should not have voted at the meeting and whether he knew of Synergy's Wyatt Homes agreement, Flower responded "I did not" to both.

But the district judge said: "There was a positive duty upon the defendant not to participate [and not to] vote."

In mitigation, the court heard that Flower is a man of previous good character for whom the conviction presents an "extraordinary blemish on an otherwise impeccable record".

He was sentenced to a six-month conditional discharge and £930 prosecution costs, as well as a £15 victim surcharge.

No sentence was handed down in relation to his role as a councillor.

Mr Flower said: "I am surprised and disappointed that the court has found for the prosecution this morning on a technicality.

"The decision was a conditional discharge for six months - the lowest possible penalty."

He added: "The Act is not intended to criminalise people who put themselves forward for public service, but to deal with fraud.

"I'd like to thank my family, friends and many colleagues for continued support."

Flower said he would not be making any further comment.

Detective Inspector Neil Devoto said: “This was a meticulous and impartial investigation into allegations under section 31 and 34 of the Localism Act 2011 following a referral from the East Dorset District Council (EDDC) Monitoring Officer. The Localism Act 2011 is relatively new and I believe that this is one of the first offences trialled under this legislation.

Dorset Police is duty bound to consider evidence and investigate all allegations of criminality. In conjunction with the CPS a decision was made to bring charges. It was decided that charging Mr Flower was in the public interest. It is important that the public have confidence in local representatives and local politics and can trust that due process takes place.”

A Dorset County Council Spokesman said: “The county council requires the highest standards of probity and compliance from its members, and takes such matters extremely seriously.

“The Localism Act 2011 protects communities and individuals. It ensures that the work we do is transparent and is in the best interest of Dorset residents.

“The court has allowed Cllr Flower to remain an elected member and he can continue as a valued member of the county council."

Cllr Flower remains both an East Dorset district councillor and a Dorset county councillor.

He was leader of Dorset County Council until December when he was replaced by Councillor Robert Gould following a special meeting of the full council.

He was also the leader at EDDC before taking over at County Hall in 2013.

His wife Councillor Toni Coombs is also a member of East Dorset District Council and Dorset County Council where she is cabinet member for education. 

Chief executive defends decision to supply character reference 

Dorset County Council chief executive Debbie Ward has defended her decision to supply a character reference for Cllr Flower in his court proceedings.

Ms Ward vouched for the former leader of her authority in a written statement to the court last week.

In her statement she described Cllr Flower as a "clear and committed county councillor."

She explained to the Daily Echo: "I was asked for a character reference in respect of Spencer Flower and, as I only have experience of working with him at Dorset County Council, I limited my factual statement to this."

Asked if she thought it inappropriate to supply such a reference, in light of the nature of the charge, the fact it related to a meeting of East Dorset District Council and in her position as DCC's chief officer, she added: "It would have been inappropriate only if I had made reference to his role in East Dorset or any of the charges he faced."

Other people supplying character references on Cllr Flower's behalf also included former Dorset County Council leader, now Lord Lieutenant Angus Campbell.