The public gallery was packed with members of the public – around 80-100 people sweated it out in a stuffy council chamber for over three hours to hear the debate on the Local Plan and my notice of motion – which was the last item on the agenda.

In the public speaking session at the start of the meeting, Sandra Semple, former mayor of Seaton asked the council why it was ‘bank-rolling EDBF’

A member of EDBF – Bill Murray – spoke in defence of East Devon Business Forum. 

He said he wasn’t a developer or a landowner and asked what measures the council had in place to deal with blogs such as mine which he claimed had ‘implied malpractice’ in relation to the forum.

Communications portfolio holder Ian Thomas replied that he had circulated the rules on defamation to councillors.

My notice of motion relating to EDDC distancing itself from the forum, which was the last item on last night’s full council agenda, read:

“This council recognises the need for fair and independent representation from businesses in the district.

“It also recognises that East Devon Business Forum has among its members, a high proportion of major landowners and developers. 

This has prompted concern among members of the public and business community, that the forum is neither independent nor representative of business in East Devon.

In addition, council budgets have been slashed by 30 per cent and we are in a time of financial austerity.

“For these reasons this council will now withdraw financial, officer and administrative support from East Devon Business Forum, with the aim of encouraging the evolution of an independent, representative, self-financing body, managed by a chairman, independent of this council.”

I proposed the motion by giving a speech, pasted below:

“The BBC reports today that our economy is shrinking further and we could be looking at the most depressed period in our economic history.

“It is vital that ALL businesses – large and small – are given the boost they need to continue to be viable.

“And of course this council has a role to play by being receptive to ideas and proposals from local businesses, which will boost the economic potential of East Devon.

“But what if the main business representative body has become dominated by one group of individuals – major landowner/developers?

“And what if many of this group have submitted their land for development in EDDC’s Local Plan?  AND have been successful in getting their land allocated for large-scale development?

“How would it appear to East Devon residents if the minutes of this business representative body showed that this group had had such an influence over planning policy at this council, that their recommendations for industrial land overrode two independent consultant reports, commissioned by this council?

“Of course all this happened back in 2007 but only now are we seeing the manifestation of this influence, with proposals now in the Local Plan for a completely unnecessary and unevidenced new industrial estate in AONB at Sidford.

“You may be interested Mr Chairman, to hear what Roger Tym on P75, point 7.55, states about an industrial estate at Langage Business Park in Plymouth:

“Marketing of a 1.4m sq ft scheme at Langage Business Park in Plymouth has progressed over the last 5 years without success of obtaining a single occupier…. we would therefore suggest the proposed allocations are EXCESSIVE for what is likely to be deliverable in this area, particularly when factoring in the larger allocations closer to the M5.”

“As you may know, Mr Chairman, the 40 hectare skypark business park/industrial estate at junction 29 of the M5, still has no occupiers, despite being marketed for well over a year. 

“Allocating large amounts of industrial land in towns will simply draw business away from the large strategic allocations at junction 29 and put at risk millions of pounds of public money, which was supposed to kickstart these projects.

“There are around 400 empty commercial units in East Devon.  Some have never even been occupied.  Roger Tym consultants state that this is a good reason why very little new commercial land is needed.

“Who is benefiting from these excessive extensions to industrial estates in East Devon?  Because is not local people, despite the claims made by members of East Devon Business Forum.

“East Devon Business Forum is administered and funded by East Devon taxpayers.  Can this council really justify to residents, subsidising a group of wealthy developers?  If so, I would like to hear the justification because to me, it is indefensible.

“EDBF is far from representative, it is not independent and it is far too entangled with this council for an objective view of its influence to be assessed.

“I want to leave the council with one of the last paragraphs of Roger Tym’s report – ED Housing and Employment Study 2011:

(At this point, chairman, Peter Halse, said:  “Oh I thought you said you want to leave the council!’ and laughed.  Members of the public and some other councillors did not like this, judging from the called out remarks.  Cllr Halse looked embarrassed and I don’t think he meant it maliciously).

“After advising this council to significantly reduce its commercial land allocations, Roger Tym states in point 8.20 on page 84:  “Adding further supply by allocating too much new land may only depress values further and undermine market confidence.”

“I now urge this council to withdraw financial, officer and administrative support from EDBF.

Leader of the independent group, Cllr Ben Ingham, seconded my motion.  He said there was a long-standing tradition of EDDC supporting businesses, and this was right.  He added that there are around 2000 businesses in East Devon that employ six people or less. 

Cllr Ingham said it was a shame that EDDC subsidises EDBF, that its own minutes admitted that it should look for further sources of funding, besides taxpayers money. 

He called on EDDC to focus on helping those businesses without knowledge, which are the lifeblood of the area. 

“Buy your own breakfast!” Cllr Ingham finished by saying.

Leader, Cllr Diviani spoke.  He said he had always bought his own breakfast at forum meetings. 

He said he was previously EDDC’s economy portfolio holder and had set up East Devon Business Forum.

Cllr Diviani claimed the Atkins report (the first independent report in 2007, which was dismissed by EDBF members) was ‘contrary to anecdotal evidence’ so he had asked the business community to comment.

He said that the motion was ‘merely mischievous’ and showed a ‘negativity against development.’  The EDBF was a very moderate cost.  He said that ‘knowledge should replace fantasy’ about EDBF.

Cllr Diviani claimed that there was negativity against any form of development and that this demonstrated ‘an ignorance of business’ (there were lots of HEAR HEARs!! from the Tory group at this point).

Economy portfolio holder, Cllr Graham Godbeer, who said he also spoke for Cllr Stephanie Jones, gave a lot of information to the council that appeared entirely unrelated to my notice of motion. 

He did add, however, that the constitution of EDBF had been changed to accept people who employed more than five people (used to be 10) and small businesses were represented by chambers of commerce.  EDBF members had contributed 400-900 extra employees.

Cllr Godbeer claimed that EDBF was ‘great value for money’ and he said he would ‘strongly defend’ the EDBF budget when it came to be renewed next year.

Cllr Graham Brown, chairman of EDBF and former deputy leader of EDDC, said he had sat on various business committees for years and he had never had this criticism before.  He said he was ‘really disappointed.’

He added that he was upset that the people criticising EDBF had never been to a forum meeting.  Cllr Brown claimed that my concerns were ‘supposition’ and that this was ‘scurrilous.’ 

He said that the Atkins report had showed 144 hectares of employment land available and claimed that EDBF had visited every one of the sites and found that only six ha was available.

Cllr Brown said he was proud of EDBF, that there were 85 active members and 67 non land-owning members.  He said he never shuts the door on anyone who wants to attend and the forum rarely gets to vote as there was usually consensus. 

Cue yet more HEAR HEARs!! and much table banging from the Tory group.

Earlier in the meeting the chairman had asked members of the public not to clap too loudly.  He said it was not appropriate.

Former Ottery Rural councillor, Ray Bloxham stood up.  He said that most councillors would know what he did for a job in the past (he is a retired police detective).  He said that ‘integrity should not be impugned’ without grounds. 

Cllr Bloxham said that there were proper channels to follow, that if there were concerns then there should be a formal complaint to be dealt with via the standards committee. 

He added that he did not think it was appropriate for the press to be running stories about the forum in advance of the notice of motion.  At the end of Cllr Bloxham’s speech more HEAR HEARs!! came from the Tory group.

Cllr Bob Buxton was next.  He said that he had been a long-standing member of EDBF and was a volunteer. 

Cllr Buxton thought I was insinuating EDBF were ‘crooks’, which, as member, he was not happy about, at which point chairman, Peter Halse, intervened to say that this was not an accusation.

Cllr Mike Allen said that he ‘deeply resented’ the attitude of the two proposers of my motion.  He claimed that during Local Plan Panel meetings, that there was an ‘equal voice’ and that no one had had more influence than someone else.

He said ‘certain cllrs combine prejudice with statistics.’

Oddly, Cllr Allen then inaccurately claimed that this blog was funded by the Green Party and Sharon Pavey (Green party councillor on Honiton Town Council) had designed it. 

Conservative whip, Cllr Phil Twiss, asked the chairman for a point of order to correct this.  But Cllr Allen insisted that if anyone looked at the bottom of my website they would see Sharon Pavey’s name (?!).

Leader of the LibDem group, Geoff Chamberlain, spoke up.  He said this is a matter of ‘public perception’ and it was ‘right and proper’ to raise the issue. 

Cllr Chamberlain said he was ‘very suspicious of what goes on’ and that he had been opposed to EDBF since its inception. 

Cllr Roger Giles said that it was right that EDDC should support local business. However something had ‘gone wrong’ with its relationship with EDBF. 

Cllr Giles gave as an example the Roger Tym recommendation for Honiton, which was five hectares.  EDDC has allocated 15 hectares in the Local Plan – three times as much as advised by the independent consultants.

He added that the industrial estate at Sidford was also well in excess of Roger Tym’s recommendations for Sidmouth. 

Unfortunately, while Cllr Giles was making his speech there was so much heckling and groaning from the Tory group that he decided to discontinue his speech.

Summing up, Cllr Diviani claimed that I should ‘get evidence’ adding that if I wanted to electioneer I should do it somewhere else.

I was then allowed to have the final say prior to the vote. 

I said I would like to refer Cllr Bloxham to EDBF minutes between 2007 and 2008 as they tell their own story.  I added that the issue was about influence and the facts speak for themselves. 

It was a fact that this group had significantly influenced the amount of employment land in the district.  All the evidence supporting my motion was in minutes and documentation, if councillors wished to look.

In relation to the membership issue, I pointed councillors to the attendance recorded in EDBF minutes.  Overwhelmingly it was the developer-landowners who were attending meetings. 

And it was a group of major landowner-developers who had prepared the report, later adopted by EDDC for inclusion into the East Devon Local Plan.  This is indisputable as it is all recorded in the minutes.

The vote was predictable.  It looked, from where I was sitting, that the Tories voted unanimously against my motion and the independents and libdems voted unanimously in favour. 

As a result my motion was overwhelmingly defeated.

It was the response I had been expecting … evasion of the issue, rudeness, arrogance and the wounded cries of integrity being called into question unfairly.

Last night the EDDC Tories last not only defended the indefensible, they embraced it.

But I don’t give up that easily.