Officers told the committee that the incidence of complaints in East Devon was “way higher” than in other councils, from conversations with colleagues elsewhere.
Since October 2013, 23 complaints have been submitted to EDDC – largely against town and parish councillors. Five complaints are against district councillors.
Two complaints have been referred for investigation and 12 are still being assessed. The remainder have either been closed with an informal resolution, or there has been no case to answer.
Cllr Susie Bond asked whether circulating the guidance to town and parish councils on Probity in Planning might help with the understanding on the rules on private meetings with developers.
Independent/external member, David Mason suggested that senior officers meet with those town councils where complaint levels were highest. A senior officer replied these meetings had taken place.
Officers were asked their views on town and parish councils meeting privately with developers. A senior officer replied that it was “appropriate” for town and parish councils to meet with developers privately at an early stage, before a planning application was submitted.
It could be “spun” that a meeting is “underhand and secret” but the officer said she didn’t accept that. The code of conduct guides councillors, she added.
The officer said that notes of such meetings could made available to the public.
To two questions from Cllr Roger Giles on fettering discretion and the appropriateness of councillors giving a view to developers in such a private meeting, a senior officer replied that councillors should “caveat” any comments along the lines that any view was an instinctive reaction and an acknowledgement given, that the detail of the application wasn’t yet known.
The officer added that she didn’t wish councils to be “hamstrung” and unable to operate with a “democratic hat.”
Cllr Frances Newth said that Sidmouth Town Council had had meetings with developers, purely to “give a presentation.” She said that the developers took on board any comments. She said that councillors were told not to “prejudice” themselves but could give opinions.
Cllr Newth added that she wouldn’t advise any councillor to meet a developer alone, but in front of the town council it was acceptable.
To view the agenda papers for today’s standards committee meeting, see this link – http://www.eastdevon.gov.uk/combined_standards_agenda_210114.pdf
The meeting was recorded and should be available in a few days time.