THE lengthy debate over whether Tesco should be allowed to build a supermarket, in return for a new town hall, in Darlington town centre ended in a most peculiar state of affairs last night.

A political wrangle developed over Conservative councillor Jim Ruck's claim that he had been banned from listening to the debate from the public gallery of the council chamber because he had previously spoken out against the proposal.

That led to a statement from the borough solicitor Catherine Whitehead that Councillor Ruck had not been banned but: "If a Member himself decides that he has predetermined an issue, my advice based on the Members' Code of Conduct is that he must withdraw from the council chamber and not take part."

Councillor John Williams, leader of the Labour-controlled authority, did take part in last night's debate even though he had publicly declared that the Tesco development was not right for Darlington.

Indeed, on the eve of the meeting which was formally to reject Tesco's offer, a press release was issued by Darlington Borough Council under the heading: "Council leader: Tesco rejection is right for Darlington."

The press release went on to say that the key messages from Councillor Williams were that Tesco should be rejected and that "no similar development should ever take place".

That sounds like a very clear case of predetermination to us yet the council leader justified his participation in the meeting on the basis that "the matter will only be determined when a decision is reached by the council".

It is, in our view, a dubious position to take. In fact, we think it is a load of old baloney.

This is, of course, a case of political point-scoring on both sides. After all, there has been a huge and impassioned public response to the Tesco proposal and there is a council election in the offing.

But there remains a need for urgent legal clarification to a question which is apparently important to local democracy: "Just what constitutes predetermination?"