Move after Ombudsman's rebuke on planning row

COUNCILLOR Dick Walsh, the former leader of Argyll and Bute Council whose reputation as an autocrat led him to be called Dick Tator, was last night facing a coup to topple him from his remaining power base.

Seventeen councillors have called a special meeting of the authority next Monday, to try to take chairmanships and other council appointments away from the outspoken former leader, during whose reign the Independent-led administration was known as Albania and Bute.

If the action is successful, Mr Walsh, a milkman, could lose his chairmanship of the influential policy and resources committee, which carries an accompanying #10,500 allowance, chairmanship of the prison visiting committee, his appointment as a representative at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and his nomination as an ex officio Justice of the Peace.

The special meeting follows a stinging rebuke from Local Government Ombudsman Frederick Marks - revealed in The Herald last week - over Mr Walsh's role in a planning dispute.

It is understood Mr Walsh rejected the opportunity given him by colleagues to resign voluntarily from the posts.

At a meeting last week, the council decided to pay a compensation award of #500 suggested by the Ombudsman to the objector at the centre of the row.

An insider said: ''A group of councillors contend that Dick should have grasped the situation and stood down from the appointments.

''As he did not do so, the issue of his conduct is now being taken further on an official footing. Some of us believe that, with the council taxpayer having to fork out the #500 and the severity of the complaint, he quite simply got off too lightly.''

Mr Walsh, who has represented Auchamore and Innellen for 20 years, was rebuked by the Commissioner for Local Administration for his undeclared personal interest in the planning application.

Mr Marks conducted an investigation into a complaint that Mr Walsh's friendship with the applicant resulted in the proceedings being influenced, and concluded that maladministration occurred.

The dispute arose after the applicant, referred to only as Mr C, who was at school with Mr Walsh, sought permission to convert an outbuilding into a house in a village on the Cowal peninsula.

The objector, called Mr R, complained that the applicant was a non-resident and that the outbuilding had no roof and was in a ''ruinous'' condition.

Mr R did not receive any notification and when he sighted the proposals for the conversion he found his house was omitted from the site plan.

When the local planning officer suggested to the applicant's agent, also a friend of Mr Walsh, that the application be withdrawn, Mr Walsh wrote to the senior area planning officer: ''I would hope that the planning department would support this application and I should advise you that I have given the application my full support.''

When a second application was submitted, Mr C's agent asked Mr Walsh if he had any knowledge of the property. He replied: ''I personally can confirm that this property was occupied as recently as 15 years ago.''

A report prepared by the planning department said, however, no documents had been offered of rates being paid in recent times, no evidence existed of any resident being on the electoral roll, and no corroboration confirming when the building was last occupied.

During an interview with the commissioner's deputy, Mr Walsh recalled that his last memory of seeing people in the property was probably 1978-79, and agreed this conflicted with the information supplied earlier.

He denied he had ''railroaded the application through''.

Mr Marks concluded that the investigation brought into sharp focus the role of elected members in the planning system, whose decisions must be free from bias caused by personal interest.

The Commissioner stated: ''Mr Walsh assumed the role of advocate, declaring his own support for the proposal and canvassing the support of officers, steering it over apparent obstacles in its path and providing vital information on occupancy, information which he has subsequently conceded was inaccurate, which the applicant himself was either unwilling or unable to supply.''

Last night, council leader Alison Hay said of the meeting on Monday: ''It is a question of confidence in Councillor Walsh. We are responding to members' disquiet.''

Mr Walsh declined to comment.