AN investigation has been launched into the leaking of confidential documents after a private briefing between the ruling group of councillors and council officers.

The first meeting of Darlington Borough Council’s new Cabinet saw the Tory-run authority’s leader Councillor Heather Scott announce that an inquiry was under way into the incident.

Members heard the leaking led to unpublished papers, including a slide from a PowerPoint presentation featuring a map, and even an audio recording of the briefing “freely circulating among residents”.

The briefing, held two weeks ago, saw officers explain their latest position on the forthcoming Local Plan, which will set out planning policies, identify how land will be used and determine what will be built where.

Following consideration by the public, councillors and the Government, the Local Plan will be the council’s bedrock for decision-making for the next 20 years.

The Local Plan includes 55 policies, such as transport and protecting historic interests, but some of its most controversial elements include blueprints for sites the council considers would be best for housing developments.

Opposition councillors said the incident potentially stood to send confused messages about the Local Plan and undermine trust between council officers and leading councillors.

The Cabinet meeting saw the council’s Labour group leader councillor Stephen Harker, ask Cllr Scott if she was aware of how the information had been leaked.

He said: “I had a number of residents contact me over last weekend asking about certain documentation, asking was it on the council website, where could we get more information?

“It transpired that  somehow someone got information and two residents in particular ended up rather embarrassed because they thought the information had been legitimately released and were freely circulating it, and then realised it had been leaked.

“They hastily issue some emails to people apologising . It is absolutely right that you have briefings meetings with officers there, it’s what I would expect to happen, but I was surprised to see some of that information leaked out.”

The council’s Green Party leader, Councillor Matthew Snedker, added he had also been contacted by residents following the leak.

He told the Cabinet meeting while such briefings were “vital for democracy” it was disturbing that details from it had been leaked.

Cllr Snedker said: “I was also made aware of a recording made of the briefing. I was very concerned that someone had made a recording of the briefing and then made that public.

“I was wondering if you could expedite the investigation into how those documents and recordings got into the public domain, just so we can reassure ourselves about how properly the council is being run, so that residents can have certainty about how decisions are made.”

Cllr Scott said the inquiry would seek to identify the source of the leak and the conclusions of the inquiry would be released.

She added: “I have been assured by all  of our group members that it did not come from our group. There certainly was not a recording by any of our group members.

“I agree that obviously it is unfortunate and the information will be in the public arena and I really don’t know why it was leaked.”