The next meeting of a group of East Devon business leaders, many of which were former members of a heavily criticised business collective which disbanded six months after its disgraced chairman resigned and after members deemed its objectives “unviable, has been cancelled.
As previously reported by the Echo, in July, the East Devon Business Forum announced that it had re-launched in a bid to make a “fresh start” and the first meeting of the East Devon Business Group took place.
But a subsequent meeting to appoint a chairman was cancelled and instead, following a series of meetings over the summer, business community members resolved to disband the group.
It was identified that although there are several well established and successful member organisations, such as chambers of commerce, that well represent smaller businesses, in the absence of the forum, there isn’t an umbrella organisation that looks after the interests of larger businesses.
Although the message of the forum was that the group was all-inclusive and sought to represent the needs of all businesses both large and small, in reality members since decided that it is unviable for a single umbrella group to adequately cater for the needs of such a broad spectrum of businesses.
Bigger business leaders across the district had planned to meet this November and discuss how to proceed, including the option of maintaining some sort of group.
But East Devon businessman Roy Stuart, who was the former vice chairman of the forum and called the meeting, has confirmed that he has pulled-out as the chair of the meeting due to personal health reasons.
As yet, no one has come forward to take his place meaning there is no group working in the interests of East Devon’s big businesses and providing a linchpin to East Devon District Council.
The forum was initially set up to “improve communication” between businesses and East Devon District Council, to meet and agree “so far as possible” a common approach.
But the forum’s relationship with the council was criticised by residents and councillors throughout the district due to the perception it had “significant influence over how much land is developed in the area”.
A task and finish forum was set up to look into the workings of the forum, branded a “lobby group for developers”, and its relationship with the council.
In March, forum chairman and Feniton and Buckerell councillor Graham Brown resigned both posts after he was caught on camera boasting that he could secure planning permission in his role as a planning consultant.
It is not illegal for councillors to work as paid consultants but Mr Brown subsequently became the subject of a police investigation into whether he had committed a criminal offence.
Previously the group received about £5,200 of officer support from the district council, which was withdrawn by council chief executive Mark Williams after the revelations.
“Any wrong doing of Graham Brown or the forum is yet to be found,” said Mr Stuart. “The forum did an excellent job and this is disappointing. I am interested to see how the district council will consult with bigger businesses across East Devon, which are not represented.”
This summer independent auditors scrutinised East Devon District Council’s governance procedures at the request of the Audit and Governance Committee. The audit looked at the procedures and checks in place at the council to make sure they are robust enough so if there ever were any perceived conflicts of interest, whatever they may be, they would be identified. Auditors ruled that all was satisfactory.