• Business forum scrutiny cttee is not allowed to debate planning

    12th December 2012 | News | Claire
  • The meeting – possibly one of the most controversial ever staged at East Devon District Council – was quite bizarrely almost completely devoid of conservative councillors, save the three serving on the committee and a further three who were observing proceedings.

    Not a single member of East Devon Business Forum (EDBF) appeared to be present either.

    Around 50 members of the public attended but the absence of EDBF and almost all the 43 members of the ruling group, including the chairman, leader, deputy leader, and most of the cabinet, gave the distinct impression of a mass boycott.

    Public speaking
    Five members of the public spoke:

    First was Sidmouth businessman, Barry Curwen, who said there was insufficient separation between EDDC and EDBF to allay fears and the reputation of both had been damaged as a result. There needed to be a replacement body which was entirely separate from EDDC and meetings needed to be open to the press and public.  “Radical surgery”, was the only option, he said.

    Alan Durrant from Save Our Sidmouth campaign group, said he had spoken to hundreds, if not thousands of people who were worried about the influence of EDBF.  The council was not held in high regard and needs to do something to regain the trust of electors.  The scope of the committee needed to be widened, he added.

    Paul Newman from Westclyst near Pinhoe said the scope of the TAFF appeared to be in favour of East Devon Business Forum.  He then made a number of references to an ombudsman investigation in 1990 into current EDBF vice-chair, Roy Stuart’s involvement in a planning decision on his own land, which was the creation of the Hill Barton Industrial Estate.  At the time Mr Stuart was an EDDC councillor and vice-chair of the planning committee.

    Mr Newman informed the meeting that the matter was so serious that the ombudsman had contacted the Director of Public Prosecutions.  Cllrs Stuart and Brown resigned together over the incident. 

    He explained that at Westclyst in 2010, that Mr Stuart applied to build 450 houses on grade 1 agricultural land.  The Local Development Framework Panel councillors (LDF Panel) asked for an early application to be brought forward, for a decision, ahead of finalising the LDF and the application at Westclyst was approved in December 2010.  Cllr Brown was chairman of the LDF Panel at the time the committee agreed to bring the land forward.

    He said he had raised this as a complaint with EDDC but it was denied. However, the minutes of the LDF Panel (previously secret) proved otherwise, once published in 2011.

    Mr Stuart is vice chair and Cllr Brown, who runs a planning consultancy and a building firm, is chair, of EDBF, Mr Newman advised the meeting.

    Sidmouth resident, Tony Green congratulated Cllr Graham Troman for pushing for an inquiry into EDBF and said that it may allay some suspicion about the forum.

    He said the draft scope excluded two key concerns, including debating undue influence on planning policy and clarifying the confused legal status over the status of EDBF.  Mr Green added that the set up risked compromising councillors and officers as there was a “minefield of conflicts of interests.”

    It was painfully clear from the beginning, said Mr Green, that a key objective of EDBF was to lobby the council and the council had eased planning restrictions as a result.  He gave two examples quoting from EDBF minutes, which he said backed up this statement.

    He said EDBF has an ‘insatiable appetite’ for employment land, and made references to Cllr Brown’s claims that the forum was ‘completely independent’ when it receives funding from the council.  Mr Green said he had two awkward questions. 

    Firstly if EDBF was independent why are councillors part of it.  Secondly, if it is part of the council why does EDDC support spending so much time lobbying itself?

    Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce member, Steven Kendall-Torry, said that he looked forward to the opportunity to look into the activities of the forum.  He said that EDBF was trying to show it had a range of interests other than planning.” 

    Mr Kendall-Torry then made a number of remarks about the restrictions that applied to the membership of small businesses, such as the Federation of Small Businesses and businesses that had less than 10 employees were not even allowed to attend until recently.

    The draft scope must be amended to be allowed to touch on planning issues, he said.

    The first and most important, as well as controversial item on the agenda was ‘The Scope.”

    The scope is basically the subjects that the committee are allowed to discuss … and not allowed to discuss.

    The draft scope was, in my view, an attempt at shoehorning the committee into discussing the general subject of business in general in East Devon, with EDBF only getting a passing glance.

    The scope insisted that we weren’t allowed to talk about planning issues at all. 

    This was despite the fact that it is the public outcry over EDBF’s influence over planning issues that was the main driver in setting up the committee in the first place!

    And the list of people the committee could interview read like a membership list of EDBF … but only the more respectable non-developer members, such as Bicton College – although they are, in fact, wishing to develop part of their land for housing near Woodbury.

    Also, we were told, we couldn’t make recommendations because EDBF was a dual body, only ‘suggestions.’

    I had come along to the meeting armed with an alternative version of the scope.

    Before settling down to agree the scope, chairman of the scrutiny sub-committee, Cllr Graham Troman asked Mr Williams to outline his reasons on why planning issues were not allowed to be included.

    Mr Williams outlined why individual planning applications could not be included.

    He then outlined why it wasn’t appropriate to include the Local Plan in discussions.  This, he said, was down to the planning inspector, as the document had already been submitted to the Planning Inspectorate.  Mr Williams said that the proper route was for people to put their concerns to the inspector.

    Mr Williams also said that it was not appropriate for the scrutiny committee to debate planning policy, because it wasn’t independent.

    I said that the committee had already agreed that individual planning applications were not going to be discussed and the main reason the TAFF was set up was to discuss EDBF’s influence. 

    I added that, if the committee’s areas for discussion were going to be squashed from the outset then people would come to the conclusion that the exercise was a whitewash, before it had even started.

    Cllr Mike Allen said that he and I had sat on the Local Development Framework Panel.  He added:  “Regarding Claire Wright, her statements and the way she has managed to stir things up is regrettable. She had every opportunity to make her view about EDBF clear while she was on the panel, but chose not to.”

    The statement was such nonsense I didn’t bother to respond.

    Mr Allen continued by saying that every business had the right during the LDF Panel, to influence the Local Plan and comment and the only part of the community that didn’t for some reason, were small businesses.

    This was also complete rubbish as I remember reading and hearing many submissions from Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce during my time on the Local Development Framework (Local Plan) Panel.  Also Honiton Chamber of Commerce, among others, responded and objected to the 15 hectares of industrial land proposed at Heathpark Industrial Estate.

    Cllr Allen then told people who were concerned about EDBF’s influence on planning matters to go to the Standards Committee, if there were breaches of the code of conduct. 

    Cllr Allen claimed that there was a ‘legal defamation’ situation and if there was evidence of wrong-doing or maladministration it should be reported.

    I said that despite what the chief executive had told us I could still see no logical reason to exclude planning policy from the committee’s remit and made a proposal.  I said:  “On the basis that this exercise will be regarded by local people as a whitewash if planning is removed from the agenda, I propose that we include it, regardless of the advice of the chief executive.”

    But I could not get a seconder, so my proposal fell. 

    Cllr Troman, clearly in a tricky position, said that he could not go against the legal advice of the chief executive.

    We then started debating the rest of the scope and I proposed a series of amendments.  Most were agreed, including:

    The ‘Broad topic area’ was amended from the woolly: How the council engages with business.” 

    To:  “To produce an in-depth report on the East Devon Business Forum to include all business engagement and its relationship with the council.”(wording taken from revised minuted resolution to September 2012 overview and scrutiny committee)

    Specific areas to explore within topic area changed from another woolly set of words about business, to four broad areas relating to EDBF (planning unfortunately deleted from my list):

    1. EDBF membership and objectives

    2. EDBF relationship with EDDC and other organisations

    3. EDBF funding

    4.  The way forward

    Areas NOT covered by review areIndividual planning applications, individual contracts between the council and its contractors or suppliers and (quite wrongly) planning policy.

    Desired outcomes of the review – yet another wishy washy set of statements about how membership for EDBF can be increased and “suggesting topics for their agendas” (I ask you!) has been altered from wording similar (but not precisely) this:  “Recommendations on a positive and transparent way forward for EDDC to engage with business, that has the confidence of East Devon businesses and residents.”  (The chief executive said here that we were setting ourselves up for an unachievable objective because we may not come up with a proposal that residents like).

    The list of who should be consulted to obtain evidence got changed from the suggested list, which were largely EDBF members (the non landowner-developers), to the following: (note this may not be the final list)

    East Devon Business Forum chairman
    East Devon Business Forum vice chairman
    EDDC economic development manager/EDBF honorary secretary
    Member services clerk and minute-taker to EDBF meetings
    Chambers of Commerce representatives
    Local enterprise partnership
    Blackdown Hills Business Association
    Federation of Small Businesses
    EDDC monitoring officer
    EDDC planning policy manager
    EDDC leader
    Representative from Mid Devon Business Forum
    District auditor
    Members of the public
    Malcolm Sherry, local businessman (added by Cllr Troman)

    What evidence already exists remained the same, ie Mid Devon Business Forum and other forums nationally.

    I queried under experts needed to help with the review the appropriateness of including the economic development officer/honorary secretary.  I asked whether it might be considered a conflict of interest, given that a sub-committee of the scrutiny committee was looking into EDBF and EDDC’s links.

    But no one agreed with me on this and the view appeared to be that it was entirely appropriate for Mr Harrison to take this role. 

    Cllr Allen couldn’t resist another jibe.  He said:  “I am amazed that Claire Wright doesn’t want Nigel Harrison as part of the expert help, but I suppose that is in accord with her general views.”

    Meetings will be more frequently than in the draft scope (why would five meetings take until July?) so the committee’s work will probably be complete by around April 2013.

    Finally, but VERY importantly, the bizarre attempt to completely water down anything the scrutiny committee might come up with by claiming we can only make ‘suggestions’ and not recommendations, was clarified.  The committee will be making recommendations.

    Cllr Allen then asked a good question.  “What was the current legal relationship between EDBF and EDDC?”

    Mr Williams reply, after a few moments was: “A type of joint body.”

    “Does it only have an influencing capacity?”

    The chief executive said that EDBF “was one of the many bodies from which EDDC seeks intelligence.”

    Cllr Allen asked another good question. “Do any of the other bodies have an EDDC officer working for them?”

    Mark Williams gave the licensing committee as an answer.  I could not see the relevance of this at all. Licensing was quite a different issue as it is a quasi-judicial committee which has to meet for legal reasons.

    Cllr Allen asked a third good question.  “Is it appropriate that an EDDC officer should be lobbying on its behalf?”

    Mark Williams replied:  “As a general principle, no.”

    On the agenda item of Background information on EDBF, Cllr Troman said he was “very disappointed” with one page of A4 provided to the committee.  He asked why there was no constitution included in the papers for EDBF either, despite one being included for Mid Devon Business Forum.

    There was then a confusing discussion about who had written the background information paper included in both last night’s agenda papers, and in the papers for the EDBF item at the scrutiny committee in September.

    Economic development officer, Nigel Harrison said that he hadn’t written them. 

    Cllr Troman asked why Mr Harrison’s name was at the bottom of the paper.

    Mr Harrison said he wasn’t sure but the scrutiny officer (the name of Mrs Debbie Meakin was mentioned) had written the paper and then explained how EDBF had been set up.

    He said that the constitution was on the website and that there “was no mystery about it.”

    But the only reference to an EDBF constitution I can find online is three short bullet points on the EDBF minutes section of EDDC’s website.

    I said that I had received a copy of the constitution from Chris Lane (member services officer) and queried whether it was the latest version.  It was.  I then asked why three bullet points taken from the constitution and included with the agenda papers were different.

    The word ‘major’ had been inserted into the agenda papers version, in the following sentence:  “To act as a forum in which business organisations, major employers and the district council can meet on a regular basis ….

    The word ‘major’ did not appear in the adopted constitution.

    Also, at the end of the bottom bullet point in the agenda papers version was a sentence about putting together a ‘community plan.’

    This sentence did not appear in the constitution either, I pointed out.  Why were the two versions different, I asked?

    Mr Harrison repeated that he was not the author.  I asked him whether Debbie Meakin, the scrutiny officer had spoken to him before writing it. He said she did.

    He said that he had never been in any doubt about who his employer was.

    Cllr Allen got back on his favourite subject about ‘innuendoes’ and ‘residual innuendoes’ how important it was that the committee dealt with them – and that of bias – and made a reference to Tony Green.

    I asked why there were restrictions on membership, as outlined in the full constitution. 

    Mr Harrison replied that if the membership could be increased from the “20 or so souls” at the EDBF meeting on Thursday he would be very pleased.

    Steven Kendall-Torry put up his hand.  The chief executive was already shaking his head as speaking time was over, but Cllr Troman allowed him to speak.

    Mr Kendall-Torry referred to the ‘reputations’ of certain people involved in EDBF and asked that if the planning history is not allowed to be debated, how the reputations will be able to be debated.  This was important, he said, because public had a deep suspicion of EDBF and it was important that public perception and reputation issues were addressed.

    Cllr Troman said that the committee needed to look forward not back, but agreed it was important.

    Mr Kendall-Torry’s comments started Cllr Allen off (yet again) on “innuendoes” and evidence of wrong-doing, which should go to the standards committee, he said.

    I suggested that reputation issues could be addressed under the meeting when the committee discusses the relationship between EDBF and EDDC. 

    I added that Mr Kendall-Torry had made a good point and members of the public had no control over whether a complaint went to the standards committee, all they could do was lodge a formal complaint and it was up to officers to decide what happened to it. 

    Public perception was very important and an issue that needs to be addressed.  If we don’t address it we are not doing our job properly, I added.

    But, how can we do our job properly when the committee has been prevented from debating the most important subject of all?

    Residents are likely to be left wondering what EDDC has to hide.

    For an observer’s perspective, visit http://sidmouthindependentnews.wordpress.com/

    Read about the background to this committee being set up here – http://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/committee_to_investigate_east_devon_business_forum/