• Inquiry into controversial East Devon Business Forum

    1st October 2012 | News | Claire
  • A task force is to investigate a controversial Westcountry business group, branded “a lobby for developers”.

    Critics of the East Devon Business Forum claim it has influenced council policy in order to secure planning permission to build in protected countryside.

    In a dossier handed to officials, they allege 16 of the most active members are involved in large-scale planning and development and point to “a rash” of planning applications approved since 2007.

    Conservative-run East Devon District Council has now agreed to set up a special committee to scrutinise the workings of the organisation.

    Graham Troman, chairman of the council’s overview and scrutiny committee (OSC), told members at an open public meeting that the forum had faced widespread criticism from the public that it wielded undue “influence”.

    Councillor Troman suggested the creation of a ‘task and finish forum’ (TAFF) committee to look into the claims – an inquiry he will now lead.

    Sidmouth resident and co-author of the dossier, Tony Green, told the heated meeting at the council’s Knowle headquarters that the forum had “relentlessly and successfully campaigned for more industrial land and less protection for the countryside”.

    The issue centres on a decision by the forum in 2007 to challenge the findings of the Atkins report – an independent study which recommended a moderate amount of employment land was needed in the district.

    A number of planning applications from forum members followed, which, according to the dossier, were on protected green-belt land or contrary to the previously adopted council plan.

    In the summer, councillors voted to designate 12 acres of open countryside north of Sidford – an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – as employment land in the Draft Local Plan.

    The beauty spot could become an industrial estate with 400 car parking spaces to “promote job opportunities” if the plan is rubber-stamped by the Planning Inspectorate.

    Forum chairman and Tory councillor Graham Brown defended the “integrity” and “independence” of the forum and said he was “extremely proud” of what it had achieved.

    He said he “welcomed” any investigation, adding: “We have never discussed an individual planning application – we are a totally independent organisation that goes to the council for funding.”

    David Henly, principal of Bicton College, said the forum was a “meeting of minds of people who have a shared interest in the wellbeing of the area”.

    Tory councillor for Honiton St Michaels, Mike Allen, claimed the criticism was a “great deal of innuendo and slur not supported by the facts”.

    Claire Wright, the independent councillor for Ottery St Mary Rural who has led the campaign to sever links between the council and the forum, called for a “rigorous” investigation, free from political influence.

    “What we need is a process in which the public can have confidence,” she added.

    “There is so much anxiety and suspicion in the debate and the committee must avoid accusations of this being a whitewash.”