EDDC’s scrutiny committee last night was alive with accusations over conflicts of interest, influence over planning policy, and there were questions raised about the number of successful planning applications by business forum members, that were contrary to the adopted local plan.

Some councillors expressed concern over what members of the public had to say about the business forum, but others were defensive and claimed concerned comments were nothing more than ‘innuendo and slur.’

Before the scrutiny committee began its debate it heard from 11 members of the public.  These were:

Tony Green and Graham Cooper, Sidmouth residents who had outlined concerns set out in their report (set out in a blog earlier this week) to the scrutiny committee, including:

Tony Green told the meeting that there needed to be a ‘firewall’ between the business forum and the council and called on EDDC to ‘urgently reform’ the forum.

Graham Cooper wanted to know what involvement EDBF had in, influencing the Local Plan.  He also asked whether a business forum member planned with EDDC officers for the hotly disputed five hectares of industrial land at Sidford.

Barry Curwen, a Sidmouth resident and business owner, said there was ‘insufficient separation’ between EDBF and EDDC.  He added that the reputation of both groups had been damaged and emphasised that ‘major surgery’ was the only option, and any business group needed to be independent.

Steven Kendall-Torry, chair of Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce said:  “Members of EDBF have unprecedented access and influence with EDDC.  He said that Sidmouth Chamber and other East Devon chambers were ‘almost completely ignored’ by the leadership at EDDC.

He asked why EDDC seems to ‘walk over hot coals’ for EDBF, especially when it ‘has so much baggage.’  He argued that there needed to be ‘new names and new faces,’ adding that the forum had been ‘publicly and credibly damaged.’

Former Sidmouth Chamber chairman, Richard Eley told the meeting that a task and finish forum should be created for EDBF and it should be debated ‘calmly and ‘sensibly.’

Mr Eley said that attendance at EDBF meetings was ‘very poor’ and there were often less than 10 businesses at any meeting.  He added that EDBF ‘did not enjoy the wider confidence of the public.’

EDBF Vice-chairman and ex-councillor, Roy Stuart addressed the meeting.  He said the way the forum worked was what the Government wanted, adding: “The forum is not decision-making.  What we do is overseen by Nigel Harrison,” (EDDC economic development officer). 

Mr Stuart claimed that the forum fully represents all sizes of business in East Devon and all the work EDBF members did on the Atkins report (independent employment land report in 2007), was checked by council officers.  He claimed that the forum “acted entirely in accordance with its constitution.”

EDBF member, Val Baker, addressed the committee.  She told the meeting that she had been a member for the forum for a number of years and she represented 200 small businesses in the Blackdown Hills.

EDBF member, Chris Lorimer, director of enterprise at Bicton College, said he had attended EDBF meetings for a year and a half and it was a “fantastic way of engaging with businesses.”  He said a good example was the rural growth network, helping to achieve growth in rural areas.  He added that it was not easy to engage with chambers.

EDBF member, Greg Page-Turner, from the Federation of Small Businesses, said he represented 58 pubs and inns, 14 hairdressers and had backed the A303 dualling as it would be of benefit to the business community.

Next to speak was David Henley, Principal of Bicton College.  He said he had been attending forum meetings since 2009 (around 12 meetings since) and he viewed EDBF as a very useful opportunity to listen to views of businesses.  He said he was ‘puzzled’ about the comments over planning applications as he had never seen any discussions on this.

David Hinchelwood was from the Business Information Point Enterprise Agency.  He said he had been invited by Graham Brown to be a member of EDBF about two years ago.  He claimed that EDBF acted as a “valuable vehicle.”

Following the speeches, Cllr Graham Troman, who brought the issue to the scrutiny committee, kicked off the discussion.

He said he had asked for a full report on EDBF for the scrutiny committee and was disappointed with the short (less than one side of A4) submission from the economic development officer, Nigel Harrison (EDBF honorary secretary) to the committee. 

Cllr Troman said he supported all businesses – large, medium and small, and had asked the local business community for their comments about the forum and had received feedback, including it: 

• wasn’t transparent enough
• had no direction
• was too informal
• the chairman should be independent

Cllr Troman then proposed that a committee be set up to look at a number of aspects including its representation of businesses and influence over planning issues.

Cllr Peter Bowden said there were ‘serious questions’ that might be right or wrong and he would support a committee being established to see exactly what EDBF does.

Cllr Graham Brown said the forum had never discussed individual planning applications and people who were invited didn’t come. 

He said:  “I show my anger at insinuations over the integrity of Nigel Harrison.  No one could find a man of greater integrity.” 

Cllr Brown claimed the Atkins (independent consultant report on employment land in 2007) was flawed.  He said he welcomed the TAFF (task and finish forum committee), and claimed the business forum was “totally independent.”

He emphasised that EDBF members had visited and reported on every piece of land submitted in the EDBF report on employment land (that was agreed by EDDC in 2007).  He dismissed ideas about scrapping and reforming the forum, as “nonsense.”

Cllr Tim Wood said it would be “mad” not to maintain links with business and he supported the concept of a TAFF, continuing:  “There is a significant degree of worry.”  He said that some modifications may be needed in the council’s relationship with business.

Cllr Ray Bloxham said he was a member of the corporate overview committee, chaired by David Key in 2007 (which agreed EDBF’s recommendations on employment land in place of an independent consultant’s).  He claimed that most of the land referred to by Atkins was in the ‘west end,’ (near junction 29 of the A30).

Cllr Bloxham then claimed EDBF had not submitted evidence to Local Plan Panel meetings (that we were both members of last year and part of this year).  All new evidence was provided by Roger Tym independent consultants, he claimed.

Cllr Mike Allen claimed that concerns expressed over the business forum were nothing but “innuendo and slur unsupported by facts.”

He said EDBF had: “Absolutely no influence on what went on in Local Plan Panel meetings,” adding “Graham Brown and Nigel Harrison have done a fabulous job in involving many businesses in EDBF.”

Cllr Eileen Wragg said that members of EDDC were at EDBF meetings representing businesses, listed as councillors, which she had concerns about. 

Cllr Wragg added that a businessman said at an EDBF meeting she attended that he had a planning application and she felt uncomfortable.

Then it was my turn to speak.  I said I felt a bit like I felt at the full council meeting on 25 July when I lodged a motion to withdraw the funding from EDBF.

Members of the public with real concerns had just had them rubbished. 

I urged EDDC members to read the minutes.

I said that no one had ever said that EDBF had influenced individual planning applications but the forum had influenced planning policy, which led to influencing applications.

To Ray Bloxham I said that EDBF DID influence the Local Plan and Graham Brown and Philip Skinner came along to Local Plan Panel meeting last year, which he (Cllr Bloxham) would not remember, as he was on holiday at the time.

I then read out a paragraph from a set of EDBF minutes in 2008 which boasted how much influence the forum had over the independent report on employment land.  The chairman (Cllr Graham Brown) was quoted as saying EDBF had had a “huge influence” on the work.

I then got part way through the report put together by the EDBF on employment land, before chairman, Cllr Stuart Hughes, stopped me to move the meeting on.

Cllr Philip Skinner said:  “All I hear from detractors is planning, planning, planning, I am getting sick of the criticism.”  He added:  “Chairman I don’t fear a TAFF and EDBF doesn’t fear a TAFF.”

Cllr Graham Godbeer claimed that because he was still listed as a vet (he is now retired) on the paper submitted by Sidmouth residents Tony Green and Graham Cooper, he had decided not to believe anything else in the report.

It was then time to vote on whether scrutiny committee members wished to set up a committee (task and finish forum).  It was agreed.  Next it was time to decide on the members. 

Cllr Brown asked if EDBF could be on the committee but was informed that this would not be the case.  EDBF would be called as witnesses so that committee members could ask questions.

The committee members are:
Graham Troman (chair) (Con)
Mike Allen (Con)
Steve Gazzard (LibDem)
Claire Wright (Ind)
Peter Burrows (LibDem)
Vivien Duval-Steer (Con)

The meetings will be held with the press and public present.