Yorkshire Post journalists saw a key investigation come full circle when two former councillors and a property developer were given prison
sentences in the ‘Donnygate’ corruption scandal.
The convictions at Nottingham Crown Court came more than four years after the paper first exposed bribery and corrupt planning dec- isions at Doncaster Council involving the trio.
Former Labour planning chairman Peter Birks and developer Alan Hughes were jailed for four and five years respectively. Former mayor and deputy council leader, Ray Stockhill, was spared prison because of ill health and received a suspended two-year sentence.
Hughes’s financial adviser, Gordon Armitage, was jailed for a year for aiding and abetting corruption. Birks’ lover, former magistrate Stephanie Higginson, was given a 160-hour community punishment order for the same offence.
The sentences, following a two-month trial, were reported on page one of the Post with a four-page special inside on "Donnygate: the betrayal of a borough", detailing the full extent of the corruption revealed by the paper in recent years.
The Yorkshire Post broke the first story in July, 1997, after a six-month investigation by reporters Nicola Megson, Andrew Norfolk, Angela Spencer and Simon Glover. They worked on leads from council insiders who will never be named.
Hours of searching through council files, planning applications and land registry records allowed the team to piece together evidence of local government corruption on a scale not seen since the infamous Poulson affair in the Seventies.
The eventual exposÅ½ led directly to the suspension of five senior councillors from the authority’s Labour group, the suspension of the entire Doncaster District Labour Party, and the suspension and dismissal of the council’s director of planning.
The stories told how the council was dominated by a caucus of immensely powerful members, the so-called Mining Community Group, which met secretly to decide council policy.
The scandal reached back at least to 1992, when the 10-year planning blueprint for Doncaster went out. Some councillors were discovered to be lobbying for housing to be built on agricultural and green-belt land specifically excluded from the plan, the Post revealed. Landowners in the affected areas stood to benefit by up to £58m.
The Post obtained a confidential memo revealing how officers tried to object. They had been ordered to find a way of getting the corrupt councillors’ version past the scrutiny of Government inspectors. The instruction was backed by veiled threats that their careers would be at risk if they did not comply.
In the 1998 Press Gazette Regional Press Awards, the Yorkshire Post team won Campaign of the Year for Donnygate. Competition judges called it "historic stuff that won’t be forgotten: an outstanding example of uncovering a major scandal of both local and national significance".
The paper’s head of content, John Furbisher, said: "We put massive time and effort into the inquiry because we thought it was the right thing to do.
"It’s nice when a judge’s comments and the jail sentences he dishes out show you were right."