Director dismissed over claims she used council staff to work on her private vineyard

By Tim Lethaby

22nd Jan 2022 | Local News

Clare Pestell Was A Senior Officer At South Somerset District Council. CREDIT: Liam Trim/ South Somerset District Council. Free to use for all BBC wire partners.
Clare Pestell Was A Senior Officer At South Somerset District Council. CREDIT: Liam Trim/ South Somerset District Council. Free to use for all BBC wire partners.

A senior council officer in Somerset was dismissed following allegations that she used council staff to build glamping pods, lay turf and remove a dead pig from her Dorset vineyard.

Clare Pestell joined South Somerset District Council in 2012, eventually becoming its director of commercial and income generation and at one point was in line to become the new interim chief executive.

Following a letter from a whistleblower in April 2021, an independent investigation was conducted into numerous claims that council money and resources had been misused by Ms Pestell.

Ms Pestell, who vehemently denied the allegations, was summarily dismissed in October after the Appointments Committee of the council met to discuss the findings of independent external investigator Richard Penn.

Ms Pestell, who had already resigned and was serving out her notice, appealed the decision but the decision was upheld by the council's appeals committee. She left the council in October.

In his confidential report that has been seen by the Somerset Local Democracy Reporting Service, Mr Penn ruled: "My conclusion is that, taken as a whole, the cumulative conduct of the Director amounts to gross misconduct.

"I conclude that there is evidence that CP has abused her position as a council director and has failed to ensure that the correct information was documented and declared.

"CP has also disregarded government guidance and paid council employees who were in receipt of furlough payments as part of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme for work which could be seen as enabling benefit fraud and a reputational risk to the Council and the spirit of the scheme to preserve employment.

"CP has been negligent to the council in that she failed to take the appropriate steps to ensure that employees were not working for her and using council resources at the same time as being paid by the council, thereby resulting in a loss to the council."

Although the council has not released the report, we believe there is a strong public interest in reporting the dismissal of the senior officer who was in charge of the authority's commercial investment programme and who had been lined up as interim chief executive.

We also believe that the public has a right to know that that dismissal came after an independent investigator found she had breached the council's code of conduct on numerous occasions and had risked bringing the authority into serious disrepute.

Who is Clare Pestell?

Ms Pestell began working for South Somerset District Council in 2012 as a development and valuation manager, before being promoted in 2017 to become its director of commercial and income generation. This put her in charge of the council's commercial investment programme – under which the council invested millions of pounds of taxpayers' money in commercial properties, such as offices and retail outlets, with the rental income serving as a long-term funding source for front-line services. Under her watch, the council made a large number of commercial investments – including a battery storage facility on the outskirts of Taunton and purchasing the Wilko and Marks & Spencer outlets in Yeovil town centre. Outside of her official duties with the council, Ms Pestell runs Melbury Vale Winery near Shaftesbury in Dorset, which she purchased with her brother Glynne in December 2003, according to its official website. She declared this business as an interest, as well as declaring that some off-site meetings or training for the council had been held at her premises. Ms Pestell originally worked full-time for the council, but her working week was reduced to four days a week in August 2019 on agreement with the then chief executive Alex Parmley, with the decision being shaped in part by the demands on her Dorset business. She was the council's original choice to succeed Mr Parmley as interim chief executive, with the council's appointments committee confirming her appointment on May 4. However, she dropped out in June 2021 for "personal reasons" before she had formally taken up the post – with the committee meeting in July to appoint her replacement. She left the council on October 21, 2021.

When did the investigation start?

On April 22, 2021, Mr Parmley and leader Val Keitch received a letter from an anonymous whistleblower. The letter – which has not been made public – alleged Ms Pestell had breached the council's code of conduct by failing to "declare conflicts of interest between her official duties for the council and her private business, her personal relationships and other interests." Following an initial "fact-finding" investigation by the South West Audit Partnership (SWAP), the council commissioned Richard Penn in July to conduct a full, independent, external investigation. Mr Penn – who spent ten years as chief executive of Bradford City Council – interviewed numerous members of staff, including Ms Pestell, and delivered his final, damning report in September. This report was not released to the public but has been seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

What did Mr Penn's report find?

Mr Penn has ample experience of holding public figures to account, having spent ten years as commissioner for standards for the National Assembly for Wales between 2000 and 2010. He concluded Ms Pestell had breached the council's code of conduct numerous times, identifying several occasions where she used council employees to carry out work on her Dorset winery, and recommended she should be subject to a disciplinary hearing for gross misconduct. She failed to declare that council staff had been used (on council time) to build glamping pods, strim grass, lay turf outside her cottage and – on one occasion in February 2020 – remove a dead pig from her land, his report found. According to the report, she sent a message to an officer on February 24, 2020, asking them to take the pig to the Frome Vale livestock dealer near Maiden Newton. The officer (who is not identified in the report) responded: "I can be with you no later than 10am and will bring everything we need (rope etc.). If you say where we need to get her to, then you can leave it with me." The glamping pods were granted planning permission by the then-North Dorset District Council in May 2018, before the current Dorset Council unitary authority was formed. Ms Pestell also failed to declare that one of her relatives was appointed to the council's commercial services and income generation team, having been recruited out of the council's normal recruitment processes through an external agency – which charged the council for its services. Mr Penn also concluded she had "risked bringing the council into serious disrepute" by paying council employees cash in hand or in kind for work done on her winery. Some of these employees were shielding under the government's coronavirus restrictions, and were already in receipt of furlough payments through the coronavirus job retention scheme. Mr Penn said Ms Pestell's actions represented a "serious misuse of council resources" – including repairs carried out to her own tractor and other vehicles at the council's official Lufton depot on Artillery Road in Yeovil during work hours.

How did Ms Pestell respond to the investigation?

When interviewed by Mr Penn, Ms Pestell "consistently denied" all of the allegations laid before her, according to his report. She acknowledged that the code of conduct had been breached and council resources had been misused, but "blamed other managers in her directorate for allowing this to happen" – claiming that she would have taken "corrective action" if such things had been brought to her attention, the report said. Mr Penn said: "Clare Pestell has consistently claimed that she had no knowledge of SSDC employees carrying out work at her premises in working time, or that she knew that any of this work was carried out using council equipment, plant and fuel. "She has not denied that this may have been the case but she has also consistently blamed others – those who organised the work and those who carried it out – for any improper use of council resources or for working at her premises in working time when they had not taken leave. "As she said in response to my question about her responsibility as director: 'If some staff have taken advantage of this situation and not been honest then they will need to answer for their actions'." Responding to the cash in hand claims, she stated during interviews: "I think that people are entitled to do what they want to do in their own time and it is above board. "I think it would be naïve to think that these trades do not do this in their own time. "To say that I am not aware would be wrong, but I cannot manage my own business alone and therefore use various people and trades that do work in their own time. "To my knowledge I have declared everything I need to declare and as far as I am aware, the work had not been done in council time or using council equipment." Mr Penn said that there was "sufficient evidence" from both managers and employees within the commercial services arm of the council that the misuse of council resources "was known" by Ms Pestell – and that she had commissioned the work herself "in a number of instances". When asked what the public would think about her conduct, Ms Pestell said she "doubted the public would be interested in what council employees do in their own time as self-employed individuals" and "would be more concerned about their bins not being collected". She added that she had "never missed a deadline, never not responded, nor not delivered for the council in nine years", and that her work for the local authority had generated "substantial income to cover known council revenue shortfall", ensuring front-line services could still be delivered. Ms Pestell was approached by the Local Democracy Reporting Service but did not respond to requests for a comment.

How has the council responded?

Following Mr Penn's investigation, the council's appointments committee met on October 15 to discuss its findings. The committee ruled Ms Pestell should be dismissed, with these findings being confirmed in writing on October 21 – a decision which Ms Pestell appealed. The council released an initial statement on December 14. Elected members were informed a few days later. It said: "Thiswasa complex and difficult investigation.Wethank all thoseinvolvedfor their diligence, and also express our thanks to all colleagues who have participated in the process. "This has been kept confidential to date to ensure that the appropriate evidence was gathered and any disciplinary proceedings resulting from the investigations were fair and legal. "It was always the council's intention to inform elected members, staff and the public appropriately at the right time. It would not have been appropriate to comment on this matter publicly during the investigation to respect all of those concerned." The council did not respond to suggestions that information surrounding Ms Pestell's conduct had been kept from the appointments committee when it met to appoint her in early May. The spokesman added: "We have a proud reputation for going above and beyond to support our communities, and it is vital that we follow our code of conduct in all the work we do, which sets standards of behaviour and conduct that we expect from all of its employees. "The investigation has also highlighted a number of actions that we need to undertake to ensure lessons are learned. This will include but will not be limited to reviewing our training offering and the implementation of our financial policies, and these will be implemented as a matter of urgency. "Please be reassured, as this has demonstrated, we take all allegations of misconduct and gross misconduct very seriously, so that we protect our residents, partners and our staff."

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