• EDDC call in police over “Browngate”

    12th March 2013 | News | Claire
  • In what was a highly charged meeting, peppered with heckling, barks of derisory laughter and groans of disapproval, chief executive, Mark Williams confirmed that he police had been called in to investigate the issues surrounding Cllr Graham Brown’s appearance in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph.

    The news comes as secretary of state, Eric Pickles concedes laws may have been broken over councillors lobbying privately for planning applications in their own district council areas.

    Mr Williams told councillors and around 90 members of the public and around a dozen councillors present, at the East Devon Business Forum (EDBF) scrutiny committee, that the issues raised by the Daily Telegraph expose of Graham Brown, had prompted the council to refer the matter to the police under the anti-bribery and anti-fraud policy.

    The move would appear to conflict with the statement issued yesterday by the council, which appeared to imply that Cllr Brown had done nothing wrong.

    Mr Williams also confirmed that he had pulled his officers, Nigel Harrison and Chris Lane, from engaging any further with East Devon Business Forum.

    Chris Lane was this evening taking minutes, however, Mr Harrison, was notably absent, as was almost every member of EDBF, including the chair, Cllr Brown and vice-chair, Roy Stuart.

    By way of explanation, the chief executive confirmed that he had advised Mr Harrison not to attend the EDBF scrutiny meetings because of the investigation that had now begun, into the activities of Cllr Graham Brown.

    Councillors, however, Mr Williams advised, were still free to attend EDBF meetings. 

    I asked if EDBF meetings should be suspended while the investigation was ongoing but the chief executive said that this was up to non council EDBF members.

    The meeting started with the most passionate and damning set of speeches I have ever heard during my time as a member of EDDC.

    One member of the public after another came to the table and vented their anger on the council, which was largely directed at the chief executive.

    Sidmouth chamber of commerce chair, Steven Kendall-Torry, described the current situation as “distasteful” and asked how the public could believe that such a close-knit exclusive group could have no influence.

    Jeremy Woodward argued that planning should be brought back into the committee’s scope.  He said that the local government ombudsman wouldn’t investigate because it was only interested in matters of personal injustice.

    Tony Green gave an electrifying, passionate and damning speech. He described the Telegraph revelations as “Browngate” and EDDC as a “Banana Republic.”

    He said people must think that “all you need to do at EDDC is hand over money.” He made a reference to Cllr Brown’s point to undercover journalists, about “getting on the phone to the economic development manager,” relating to trying to get planning applications approved.

    He angrily referred to all the times he and other members of the public had contacted the chief executive with their concerns about Cllr Brown and EDBF but had had them dismissed.  He alluded to a letter from the chief executive to MP Hugo Swire where Mr Williams had told Mr Swire that there was no substance in the allegations against EDBF.

    Mr Green said the chief executive had given “dubious legal advice” over the scrutiny committee not being allowed to include planning in their discussions and made accusations that Mr Williams had interfered with the scrutiny agenda, which he said was a very “serious constitutional issue.”

    He finished by demanding the chief executive’s resignation, amid hard clapping from the public gallery.

    Barry Curwen read out the letter from Mark Williams to Hugo Swire MP, where Mr Williams had described concerns over EDBF as “local differences of opinion, not of any substance”, and that there was no evidence to substantiate the allegations, and there was no evidence of undue influence.

    Mr Curwen said the letter was “farcical” and insisted that if there was “any hint of corruption” that the police should be involved.

    He criticised the statement by EDDC released in response to the Daily Telegraph story, which he described as “entirely predictable.”

    He added that the honesty and integrity of EDDC’s planning system was in “serious doubt.”

    Val Ranger said that despite nine requests, the chief executive, the monitoring officer and the Freedom of Information officer had not been able to provide her with any evidence to back up the legal advice given, related to planning not being allowed to be included in the EDBF scrutiny committee’s discussions.

    After Ms Ranger had spoken the chief executive was asked for his response to the points raised by members of the public.  He did not respond to the call for his resignation but repeated his previous advice on planning not being included.

    He added a further reason.  That the police were now involved.

    I proposed that planning should be included on the agenda, based on unprecedented circumstances with yesterday’s revelations, no evidence to back up the legal advice given and a clear remit which clearly existed for us as a scrutiny sub-committee that we had to look at such issues.

    I got a seconder in Cllr Steve Gazzard, who said he was “extremely concerned” with the role of the committee. He said a “huge can of worms” had been opened with yesterday’s Telegraph story.

    In a drawn out debate, with Cllr Allen backing the chief executive’s position and Cllr Troman clearly torn, he finally turned to the chief executive, who advised him that including planning against his advice would be regarded as “unreasonable behaviour,” and also because of what he saw as mine and Cllr Troman’s bias, in relation to EDBF.

    The next part of the meeting I thought, moved us forward considerably, with a roundtable discussion with chambers of commerce from across the district.  The general consensus was that chambers felt disconnected from the council and EDBF, left out, and did not like EDBF’s focus on planning.

    There was general agreement that there should be an independent business body set up and that a joint body was not appropriate….. a consensus that is, except Greg Page-Turner, chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, who defended EDBF and said in his view, it should remain a joint body and continue to be publicly financed.

    On the subject of how Mr Page-Turner managed to communicate successfully with over 1000 small businesses across the district he said there were newsletters and email updates and he held events to try and engage with local small businesses. 

    But it was clear there that he was frustrated that he didn’t seem to be getting very far in his efforts, which to me, and everyone else, neatly summed up the problem of one man attempting to represent over 1000 businesses on a committee that only seems to care about one thing.  Planning.

    Cllr Troman pointed out that FWS Carter representatives were on the attendance list three times.  Why was this necessary he wanted to know. 

    But because there was no proper representation from EDBF in the form of a chair or vice-chair, no one was able to answer.

    I proposed that the committee draw up a set of rules on transparent lobbying, to give businesses guidelines to follow and members of the public confidence in the system, which is so obviously terribly broken.

    It feels to me right now that EDDC is probably at the most significant turning point it has ever faced. 

    The council must now make every effort to clean out its stables before refreshing the hay.  Actually, it is the only thing it can do.

    BBC Radio Devon reporter, Sophie Pierce was present along with Fran McElhone from the Express & Echo and David Beasley from Archant newspapers.