Cllr Troman’s referral of the East Devon Business Forum (EDBF) to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee on September 27 2012 is very timely.
Many informed residents of East Devon are concerned that the District Council is unduly influenced by the EDBF especially in the preparation of the controversial Local Plan which proposes massive development in the district including more than 15000 houses and over 180 hectares of industrial/ business parks with the consequent loss of agricultural land and parts of our Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
A detailed study which we have conducted of publicly-available documents relevant to the forum has confirmed the grounds for serious concern. We believe that a radical overhaul of the EDBF is imperative for five reasons:
1. EDBF acts as a powerful lobby for businesses which have interests in property development.
EDBF’s claim to represent all businesses in East Devon is refuted by an analysis of attendances at their meetings.
Companies attending more than half the meetings held since 2007 (total 40 meetings) were;
FWS Carter and Sons (36) and their associated companies, Greendale Business Park, Greendale Investments, property development
Crealy Park, (32) (Chris Down) Amusement Park , industrial farming and property development
Worldwide Trading (30) (Cllr Philip Skinner) Import, export, property development
AE Stuart and Son (22) (Roy Stuart) Hill Barton Business Park, property development
Ex-councillor Roy Stuart is vice-chairman of the Forum.
The chairman Cllr Graham Brown runs a planning consultancy, Grey Green Planning, and a building company, Brown Builders, according to his Register of Interests Form.
In 34 out of 40 meetings since 2007 planning and development issues were raised to the evident frustration of at least one member- not himself a property developer- who wondered if other matters like education and training could be discussed.(1)
Unsurprisingly, the thrust of EDBF pressure for years has been to persuade the council to relax planning controls for big developers and to decrease the protection for greenfield and AONB areas. After all, the Forum commented in 2011, only 1% of East Devon was developed! (2)
Smaller businesses dependent on town centre commerce and quality tourism fear that excessive expansion of business parks in greenfield sites could damage their interests. These businesses however, clearly have significantly less influence on EDDC policy than the property developers. Two former chairmen of chambers of commerce have said they felt unwelcome at EDBF meetings. (3)
2. EDBF influence controversially increased the amount of development proposed in the Local Plan and has facilitated large-scale development since 2007.
The Forum proudly admits its crucial influence on the council’s targets for ‘employment land’ in the draft Local Plan. (4)
The contribution of Cllr Brown in his dual role as EDBF chairman and councillor (5) was critical in changing the outcome of an independent report on employment land (industrial land). He and the EDBF managed to secure significantly higher levels of employment land in EDDC’s Local Plan.
In 2007 a Forum committee chaired by Cllr Brown challenged the findings of the Atkins Report ( which recommended the allocation of a moderate amount of employment land) and said much more was needed.
He then persuaded the Council to set up a Task and Finish Forum, on Employment Land which he led where presentations were made by EDBF members with large land-owning interests, who lobbied for extensions to their industrial estates.
At the Corporate Overview Committee of November 22 2007 Cllr Brown led the debate on employment land and got agreement for EDDC’s Local Plan policy to be changed to significantly increase the amount of industrial land proposed. Corporate Overview Committee agreed that planning policy on industrial land should be changed immediately because there was an ‘undersupply’ in East Devon, despite the independent Atkins Report finding evidence to the contrary.
The Corporate Overview Committee of October 23 2008 of which Cllr Brown was a member confirmed the ‘urgent need’ for more ‘employment land’, and recommended Greendale Barton, Hill Barton and Exeter Airport Business parks for expansion (all EDBF members).
From 2008 planning applications from EDBF members for large extensions to their industrial estates were approved as a direct result of this change in policy in 2007.(see part 5)
Throughout the formation of the Local Plan, EDBF was a privileged interlocutor with apparently more influence on the Council than independent consultants like Atkins (2007) or Roger Tym (2011), both hired at public expense, and whose conclusions were largely ignored.
The employment land allocation in the local plan has been widely criticised as excessive. (6)
3. The unique, confusing, status of EDBF risks conflicts of interest for councillors.
We have not been able to find another business forum in Britain with the same dual nature as the Forum. While it acts as an influential business lobby at the same time it seems to be regarded as part of the council.
It is subsidised and housed by the council and serviced by council staff. Its minutes are housed on the council website under the title “East Devon District Council – Business Forum”.
And of course, the chairman is a councillor with business interests.
A group of councillors, some very senior, regularly attend EDBF meetings. (7) Some specifically as representatives of their businesses, but all take advantage of the opportunity to network with other business people. Often they express support for the development agenda of the forum and sometimes for the expansion plans of particular members.
This close identification with the aims of the forum must surely put these councillors in a difficult position when they are required to act as community representatives to consider planning matters impartially.
Take the example of a councillor, founder member of the EDBF, who has attended 27 meetings of the Forum, and has completely identified himself with its aims
In October 2010 he sat on the Development Management Committee to consider a very controversial major planning application from a member of EDBF.
A few months before the applicant had addressed the forum and said how vital this planning application was for his company’s future. Councillors at the meeting were sympathetic.
The application was approved by the Development Management Committee without the councillor in question feeling it necessary to declare an interest in the Business Forum.
No wonder some eyebrows were raised! (7)
4. EDBF enjoys privileged access to EDDC officers
Forum members enjoy exceptional access to officers to inform themselves of council thinking and policy, and to influence it. No other interest group could expect such treatment.
Betweeen 2004 and June 2012 there were 130 officer attendances at EDBF meetings.
Karime Hassan, Corporate Director, attended 17 EDBF meetings between 2005-11.
Kate Little, Head of Planning, spoke to the EDBF six times in 2011-12
EDBF expects to be told in advance of important developments.
The Head of Finance at EDDC provided the Forum with his budget proposals for their comments.
In February 2010 members expressed concern that the Chief Executive had not informed them in advance of his decision to job share with South Somerset District Council. Mr Williams was invited to address them to justify his move , which he did in August 2010.
In July 2011 an EDBF member with interests in property development asked for the Forum to be updated on the proposed EDDC relocation from the Knowle
The aspirations of developers and district planners increasingly coincide.
As EDDC Head of Planning, Kate Little said to EDBF on 15th December 2009: “The planning system had been taken apart to serve the needs of the customer” (EDDC regards the customer as the applicant) and was moving from a more “landscape focus to a more economic one”.
Lobbying pressure from EDBF, combined with the changed policy of EDDC planners since 2007 seems to have created a development juggernaut. (9)
5. Controversial planning applications by EDBF members have raised questions.
A rush of controversial planning applications by EDBF members since 2007 has been approved, despite strong opposition from town and parish councils, statutory consultees and residents. These applications have often breached existing planning policy, and have often involved major developments on greenfield sites including designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Some observers have commented that the success of such applications seems a “foregone conclusion” (10)
The confusing role of the Economic Development Manager, Nigel Harrison
Like Councillor Brown, Mr Harrison is in the difficult position of attempting to reconcile two conflicting interests.
As Honorary Secretary, since 2005, he plays an important role in the Business Forum, not just organising meetings but in discussion and in the formulation of policy. In May 2008 he stoutly defended the Chairman against the attempt to sack him by the then Leader of the Council, Sara Randall-Johnson.
Mr Harrison told EDBF members that ‘he looked forward to continuing to work with Cllr Brown as chairman of the forum’. He is an important facilitator for Forum members. In February 2010 when Crealy Park were having problems with a planning application for staff housing he wrote to Kate Little to try to ‘remove a number of barriers’ In 2012 he was tasked with helping to produce the Forum’s response to the Local Plan. He has a record of loyal service to the Forum.
BUT as Economic Development Manager, Mr Harrison acts as consultee for major planning applications with economic significance. These include the controversial ones by members of the Forum whom he knows well. He wrote long statements of support for most of these applications. In most cases the applications were acknowledged to be contrary to planning policy but their approval was justified by a ‘lack of employment land within the district.’
The public perception of a monumental clash of interest cannot be ignored.
In the interests of healthy local democracy the status of the EDBF needs radical reform. There is an ethical problem when one pressure group has easier access to decision-makers than others. This undermines the fairness and transparency of the democratic process. A council must be seen to be a neutral arbiter between interest groups making its decisions for the common good.
1. William Casely, Otter Nurseries EDBF Minutes 10/4/2008
2.EDBF minutes 13/10/2011
3. For example, on 28 July 2012 Fred Wells wrote on Cllr Wright’s blog:
“I have been unhappy with East Devon Business Forum for a long time and in particular their relationship with EDDC. It is interesting to note that when I was Chairman of Axminster Chamber of Commerce and Industry, I was invited to the Forum but as soon as I started making waves about the Cloakham Lawn development, I was no longer asked to attend!”
4 “Members noted that the work the Business Forum had done on the Atkins Report had made an enormous difference to the final report prepared by the Employment Land Issues Task and Finish Forum. …..This had been accepted by the Executive Board. The report was now being used by the Development Control Committee as a base when considering planning applications for employment land” EDBF minutes 31/1/ 2008
5 In 2006 Cllr Ron Mudge, former chair of EDBF expressed his wish that the next chairman should not be a councillor. EDBF Minutes 26/1/2006
6. “the only piece of evidence relied on by EDDC( to justify the employment land figures) is …a report from EDBF. It therefore seems likely that the views of landowners and developers on EDBF led directly to these proposals”. Cllr Claire Wright’s Response to Draft Local Plan Consultation, January 2012
Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce concluded that the EDBF “grossly underestimated” the amount of land already available, for example it missed many vacant commercial premises.
Response to Draft Local plan Consultation, January 2012 and “Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce said it had identified ‘serious flaws’ in EDDC’s calculations, something the council has denied. It said had the ‘correct’ numbers been used, the employment land allocation across the district would have about 20 hectares less, and Sidmouth would have only had one hectare rather than five.
The chamber wants EDDC to revisit employment land in the Local Plan, adding: “We conclude that the process by which employment land allocation in Sidmouth has emerged is very seriously unsound, a shambles in fact.” Sidmouth Herald 20/6/2012
In Dorset County Council’s consultation response, (to the EDDC draft local plan) senior planning officer Gill Smith said the 180 hectares of employment land proposed “considerably exceeded” both county and region-wide requirements of 100 hectares….She also criticised plans for 650 homes and eight hectares of employment land at Axminster, saying neither proposal had been clearly explained, and impacts on schools, traffic and roads had not been considered. Western Morning News 23/8/2012
7 Councillors who have regularly attend EDBF meetings and the number of their attendances since 2004:
Graham Brown, Chairman, 50
Philip Skinner (World Wide Trading and Taylor Catering Foods) 31
Paul Diviani 27
Graham Godbeer (Coombefield Vets) 23
Bob Buxton (Honiton Development Trust) 21
Peter Halse (Halse of Honiton) 18
Malcolm Florey 12
Sara Randall-Johnson (Flybe) 11
8. see EDBF minutes 10/6/2010 and planning application 10/0816/MOUT
9. see also:
Planning Policy manager, Matt Dickins told the Forum on 29th April 2011: “EDDC has a new approach and attitude to encouraging development within the district …..if planning policy is a barrier to development, then consideration should be given to changing this policy” EDBF Minutes 29/04/11
Corporate Director, Karime Hassan on 3rd February 2011 reported to EDBF before leaving for Exeter and expressed his relief that it was becoming easier to engage with groups like EDBF “supportive of development” rather than just with residents’ groups who opposed it. He recognised the “greater weight given to business since the establishment of the Business Forum” especially over such issues as the lack of business land.”EDBF Minutes 3/2/2011
10 .EDBF members’ planning applications approved since 2007 include:
a) Crealy Park (Chris Down Application for 30 holiday lodges, lake etc. on a greenfield site (07/3218/MFUL)
b) Stoneleigh Holiday Village (M2 leisure) 17 new residential units, upgrading of bar and pool. (08/2558/MFUL) in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
c) FWS Carter. Retention of concrete batching plant at Greendale Business Park (08/2936/FUL) – Contrary to adopted Local Plan.
d) FWS Carter 15.5 acre expansion of Greendale Business Park: (09/1195/MOUT) – Contrary to adopted Local Plan
e) May Gurney Expansion of Greendale Business park into agricultural land for offices parking etc. (09/0410/MFUL) – Contrary to adopted Local Plan
f) Clinton Devon Estates 12.5 acre extension to Liverton Business Park (09/2533/MOUT) – Contrary to adopted Local Plan
g) AE Stuart Extension to Hill Barton Business Park of 18.75 acres (09/0282/MOUT) – Contrary to adopted Local Plan
h) Crealy Park (Chris Down) Approval for waterslide and associated works ((10/0070)
i) AE Stuart for Housing at Westclyst, Old Park Farm up to 450 homes (10/0641/MOUT) – contrary to adopted Local Plan
j) Ladram Bay (FWS Carter and Zoe House) expansion of caravan park to new field. (10/2287/MFUL) or 38/00027 in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
k) Axminster Carpets Cloakham Lawns (10/0816/MOUT) – Contrary to adopted Local Plan.
l) Devon Cliffs (Bourne Leisure) Expansion of caravan Park (10/1210/MFUL
m) M Taylor of Taylor’s Catering Foods 15 houses at Barton Orchard Tipton St John (11/2172/MFUL) in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
l) Chris Down (Crealy Park) Conversion of Enfield Farm to industrial units – contrary to planning policy
NB. Future developments? The Draft Local Plan allocates a 12-acre industrial/commercial site in the AONB at Sidford. The applicant is a member of EDBF.
A proposal for ‘Greenbrook’, a joint project for 1000-1500 dwellings by Greendale Investments and Crealy Farms has been put to the Council. Both applicants are leading EDBF members. LDF Panel Meeting Minutes 30/8/2011