• East Devon resident’s battle for transparency on office relocation project

    16th April 2014 | News | Claire
  • My first formal request for the full unredacted Minutes of all the ‘Relocation Working Parties’ was made to the District Council on 27th November 2012: It was turned down by legal officers on 13th May 2013.

    I contacted the Information Commissioner (ICO) asking for my complaint to be pursued on 19th May 2013. The ICO case officer decided on 10th March 2014 that the unredacted Minutes should not be released but that the full reports from consultants Davis Langdon should be made available.

    The ICO case officer said:

    In reaching a decision on where the balance of the public interest lies in this case, the Commissioner has attached particular weight to the fact that no formal decision had been made at the time of the request, the need to avoid any impact on the decision making process by premature disclosure of the requested information, and the lack of compelling public interest arguments in favour of disclosure.

    EDDC decided to appeal against the ICO’s Decision Notice on 13th March – ie, to go against request from the ICO to release the full Davis Langdon reports.

    I have been advised by the ICO to contact the Tribunal which will be considering the EDDC appeal – that I should ‘join as a party to the appeal’ at the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights). However, I have been advised that the Tribunal is unlikely to meet before early August – which will be after the full EDDC Council have voted Yes to buy the land at SkyPark at their June meeting.

    It is my contention that, although my FOI request was made before a ‘formal decision had been made’ back in November 2012, a decision has clearly been made to relocate since then:

    7th July 2013: District Council Cabinet: EDDC Office Accommodation – key decision

    (1) that Council agree that the costs of maintaining, refurbishing or building new offices on the Knowle site are not sustainable and EDDC must therefore look at alternative locations for a new headquarters;

    (2) that the Deputy Chief Executive – Development, Regeneration and Partnerships be given delegated authority to enter into formal conditional negotiations on the acquisition and/or development of a suitable site for EDDC’s new offices;

    (3) that a future recommendation be made for consideration by Cabinet and determination by Council that EDDC relocate from the Knowle to a new location and premises subject to a satisfactory and financially viable proposition;

    (8) that a New Office Project Executive Group be set up comprising selected Cabinet members, senior officers and Project Manager to oversee project progress;

    (9) that wider engagement with members be sought through a Leader’s Think Tank on Relocation.

    This was followed on 24th July 2013 by the full Council’s adoption of the resolution: that the Cabinet’s minutes be received and the recommendations approved. 

    It is clear from the minutes that the Cabinet is ‘determined’ to relocate; moreover, it has decided to enter into formal conditional negotiations on the acquisition and/or development of a suitable site. I would claim that this does indeed amount to a ‘formal decision’ to relocate.

    Furthermore, to add to the difficulty of discovering which decisions have made and by whom, there has been a proliferation of further working parties: a New Office Project Executive Group and a Leader’s Think Tank on Relocation.

    5th February 2014: District Council Cabinet:
    The preferred option of Skypark was unanimously supported by the Cabinet.

    New Office
    (a) that the order of site preference advised in the report and the Office Accommodation Executive Group’s recommendation to decide between Clyst House, Winslade Park or Skypark be noted;

    (b) that a preferred site and acquisition costs of Skypark- £986,000 (site) be recommended to Council and for detailed negotiation to begin. (Costs include Stamp Duty Land Tax but exclude VAT);

    (c) that, subject to Council agreement, officers be instructed to take forward the agreed option under the continued guidance of the Executive Group, with key future decisions being subject to Cabinet and Council approval;

    (d) that formal approval to proceed with the purchase be referred to Cabinet and Council – reports to this effect are anticipated for considered around July 2014;

    (e) that, as an immediate action, a marketing exercise be conducted to engage developer interest (for a amount which was disclosed at the meeting) and ascertain the values and variety of proposals for development on the Knowle and Manstone Depot sites; http://www.eastdevon.gov.uk/cabinet_mins_050214.pdf

    The District Council disagrees that a decision has been made:
    Whilst Members have expressed a preference in terms of their preferred location, this in no way renders the project complete. The matters under discussion remain very much ‘live’.

    Paragraph 31 of the decision notice makes clear that the project is unlikely to reach a conclusion until 2016.

    I would assert that, whilst the project is not ‘complete’, very clear decisions have been made: to relocate from Knowle [17th July 2013: District Council Cabinet] and to relocate to SkyPark [5th February 2014: District Council Cabinet]. This is not simply a matter of ‘expressing a preference’.

    I have made a further FOI request asking EDDC which Officers or Members took the decisions to refuse my original request and to appeal against the ICO’s decision: