• Tory chairman of East Devon tree scrutiny task force resigns at its first meeting

    5th December 2014 | News | Claire
  • The committee, at which only three of its six members were present, met at 9.30am to discuss ways in which the council could better protect important trees across the district.

    The meeting got off to a tricky start as I queried a procedural matter about the chairmanship of the committee.

    Around a year ago I had asked to chair the committee because of my particular interest in trees. I am the Woodland Trust tree champion for Devon.

    Normal procedure is that a chairman of such a committee is selected either by the overview and scrutiny committee, or at the beginning of the task group meeting. 

    I asked how the chairman had been selected and was informed that Cllr Tim Wood, chair of the overview and scrutiny committee, had asked Cllr Howard to chair the tree task group.

    I nominated Cllr Roger Giles for chairmanship, which was in line with procedure. But as the other members of the committee were not present, this awkward issue was deferred until the next meeting.

    There were two members of the public present. And Val Jones from Feniton addressed the committee to ask for greater protection for trees that run along her boundary, which are on land subject to a planning application by Wainhomes.

    The next agenda item was to agree the scope. 

    I said that the scope was very good but I proposed what I thought were sensible and reasonable changes. The first one – which was to include greater opportunities for tree planting, was accepted.

    But then things went downhill.

    Next, I asked that at the section on “areas NOT covered by the review,” which had excluded the local plan from the committee’s remit.

    I asked that the local plan WAS included in the committee’s remit and explained that it played an important part in protecting trees and we should be allowed to refer to it and perhaps look at housing allocations as affecting woodland or important trees, if this was thought to be necessary.

    The tree policy in the local plan was proposed by the Woodland Trust and is actually very good, but I was concerned that the committee would be restricted without being able to include the local plan in our discussions.

    Roger Giles (also a member of the committee) read out a section from the agenda papers which emphasised how important the local plan was in tree protection.

    But Cllr Howard said this was not allowed because we were not permitted to change the local plan.  After a protracted disagreement, he finally relented to say that the local plan could be discussed but he was not willing to formally include it in the scope.

    This seemed petty and a mixed message.  I was also concerned that any attempt to raise broader strategic policy issues would be restricted, if the local plan was excluded from the scope.

    Things got worse.

    Cllr Giles seconded my proposal and asked for a vote.

    Cllr Howard replied that there was only three of us present and he had two votes as chairman. He claimed therefore that the result was two-two.

    Cllr Giles invited the advice of an officer on Cllr Howard’s interpretation of the chairman’s vote.

    The officer tactfully replied that an informal committee such as this usually works towards consensus agreement.

    She tried to help by suggesting some alternative wording. Although her help was appreciated, it didn’t quite cover what we were asking for, which was simply that the local plan be included in the scope.

    Stalemate ensued.

    We moved on.

    I suggested two more consultees – the Woodland Trust and the Forestry Commission. 

    I held my breath.

    There was no objection from Cllr Howard.

    But then I asked that under “desired outcomes of the review” that reference might be made to national policy, as well as local policy – so if the group wanted to make recommendations to central government on tree protection, it would be able to do so.

    But Cllr Howard vetoed this. He said that this was not what full council (back in October 2013 had agreed), following my motion for tree protection.

    He insisted that the committee should focus on local policy only.

    By this time I was feeling distinctly testy. I said I was worried for the future of the committee if we couldn’t even get over some fundamental and reasonable amendments to the scope. The tree committee should be allowed to decide its own scope without being restricted by comments made at full council over a year ago, I said.

    Cllr Howard indicated that we shouldn’t be trying to change the scope in this way. Cllr Giles and I replied that it was an item for discussion on the agenda and we were entitled to make proposals for changes.

    But Cllr Howard then read out the minutes from the full council of October 2013 (much of what was read seemed to be his own comments at the meeting), including how the council shouldn’t be “wasting government time.”

    An officer once again tried to help by suggesting that the committee primarily focused on local issues, but left room for making recommendations to national policy.

    Cllr Giles and I agreed with this approach.

    But Cllr Howard took this to mean we were happy to withdraw our proposal referencing national policy.

    Exasperated by now, I replied that there should be SOME words in that section of the scope to allow us to make recommendations to central government, if we felt that this was appropriate.

    At this point, Cllr Howard announced that he was going to resign, as chairman of the committee.

    Then after a short coffee break to seek advice from colleagues, he announced he was going to close the meeting.

    Before the meeting could close I asked that we set a date for the next meeting, as there were many of us in the room (including officers) who would need to be there again.

    Unfortunately, we couldn’t even do that without disagreeing.

    Cllr Howard suggested a date in February. I asked why so late and suggested January instead – the group has to report its findings to the overview and scrutiny committee by 26 March.

    Business has to be wrapped up by the end of March, in time for the May elections.

    Cllr Howard stuck to February, but an officer suggested 26 January.  This was agreed by those in the room – but it leaves just one month for discussions.

    We had waited 14 months for the first meeting and I had been really looking forward to it. I was full of ideas and enthusiasm. I hadn’t bargained for one block after another on our remit. How controversial can a task forum to protect trees be?

    What a waste.

    See blog here of full council meeting in October 2013, where the debate on my tree protection motion took place – http://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/tree_motion_deferred_to_set_up_task_and_finish_forum