EDA “Intense disquiet” with Chief Executive’s letter to councillors

Mark Williams’ letter this morning to all EDDC Councillors has provoked a strong response from the East Devon Alliance.
The Chief Executive’s letter is recorded in our earlier post http://eastdevonalliance.org/2014/11/12/mark-williams-on-unfortunate-circumstances-arising-from-g-brown-case/

This critical analysis of it, addressed to the Chairman, has been circulated to all O&S councillors today, on behalf of EDA:

To Cllr Tim Wood, Chair of EDDC Overview and Scrutiny Committee
Dear Councillor Wood,
We are writing to you to express our intense disquiet with the Chief Executive’s letter to councillors today following the Police announcement that they have completed their investigation into the activities of ex-councillor Graham Brown.
Leaving aside the question of whether the police inquiry could be described accurately as “extensive” and “robust” (please see the EDA press release attached) we object strongly to the tone and content of Mr Williams’ letter for the following reasons:
1. The CEO describes the TAFF inaccurately – it’s actually the Business TAFF not the “EDBF TAFF”.
2. He under-estimates the close involvement of EDDC and EDBF saying merely that the council provided “secretarial and administrative support”. He omits to mention council funding, and the fact that a senior officer (Nigel Harrison) was allowed to play a pivotal role in the organisation and lobbying activities of the EDBF. He also ignores the fact that in 2007, an EDBF committee was permitted to denigrate a consultant’s report concerning employment land, and propose recommendations to relax planning restrictions which were accepted soon afterwards by the Council.
3. He falsely implies that the TAFF was established amid the “unfortunate circumstances” and “febrile atmosphere” of the Telegraph revelations. In fact the TAFF was established in September 2012, six months before the Telegraph report and before EDA existed.
4. He falsely claims that those calling for the TAFF “were mainly Cllr C Wright and the East Devon Alliance/Save Our Sidmouth”. This would hardly explain why a majority of the OSC committee voted to begin such an investigation. As the minutes of the OSC (September 2012) show, Cllrs Stuart Hughes and Graham Troman played an important role in arguing that a TAFF should look at the influence of the EDBF over the draft Local Plan, especially in relation to the 12-acre business park proposed for Sidford.
5. He falsely implies that community groups were looking to smear individuals with allegations of “improper behaviour”. The concern of groups like SOS was that there existed serious conflicts of interest when councillors and officers were intimately involved in the lobbying activities of a group that represented landowners and developers. These concerns were subsequently proved to have been justified. As Cllr Twiss wrote to councillors on 17 March 2013, the chair of EDBF was revealed to have engaged in “inappropriate actions” which “brought the council into disrepute”
6. Mr Williams is disingenuous in claiming that “G. Brown chaired the Forum in his capacity as a representative of the NFU (not in his then capacity as an East Devon District Cllr”). It is impossible to disentangle his role as Chair from his role as a very senior councillor, with considerable influence in changing council planning policy which benefitted EDBF members, and on the shaping of the (stalled) Local Plan.
7. Mr Williams claims “the scope for the TAFF is vague and there are a number of caveats.” This could possibly be due to his unwarranted interference in the conduct of the TAFF. In advising, for example, that planning matters could not be discussed and preventing the Economic Development Manager from attending. He has also been accused of manipulating the minutes of the TAFF.
8. He falsely suggests that “it now makes sense to reconsider what is wanted” because it would be inappropriate for the TAFF to continue to ask probing questions as the police inquiry has been called off. The TAFF has never been concerned with possible illegal activities, but with the relationship between council and businesses, apparent conflicts of interest, and possible undue influence on council policy from a lobby group.
9. Mr Williams tells councillors “If a version of the TAFF is to continue the purpose needs to be quite specific and not some generalisation which would otherwise enable the TAFF to justify any and all lines of enquiry they choose to pursue.”
It is completely inappropriate for a Chief Executive to appear to be dictating what a Scrutiny committee should or should not discuss. Constitutionally the OSC must be completely free to hold the leadership to account.
10. Finally, and most seriously, Mr Williams implies that Cllr C Wright and EDA had been in contact with the police and somehow were responsible for a climate of “taint, innuendo or implication (sic!) ” that gave rise to the TAFF.
As said before, the formation of the TAFF predates the existence of the EDA, and the Alliance views this comment as, not only inaccurate, but bordering on the defamatory.
Mr Williams’ thinly veiled suggestion that Cllr Wright should be removed from the OSC because she could not “come to the matter with an open mind” is outrageous. It is totally inappropriate for a senior officer to attempt to influence the composition of a Scrutiny committee by suggesting a named councillor be excluded. This is possibly a serious breach of the Constitution of the Council and of the Officers’ Code of Conduct.
We hope, Cllr Wood, that you will take the opportunity at tomorrow’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee to completely disassociate yourself, and your Committee from Mr Williams’ intemperate and ill-judged comments.
Yours sincerely,
Tony Green
On behalf of the East Devon Alliance

Press Release from Paul Arnott Chair of East Devon Alliance, 12 November 2014

‘East Devon Alliance (EDA) notes the statement issued today by Devon and Cornwall Police that they have decided not to continue their inquiry into the activities of former councillor Graham Brown because of insufficient evidence.

Following the “Councillors for Hire” report in the Daily Telegraph of March 11 2013, EDA was contacted by several people who wished for information to be given to the police. EDA did this on a number of occasions between May 2013 and September 2014.

EDA has therefore followed the conduct of the inquiry with interest. It has been concerned by initial delays caused by an erroneous referral to Action Fraud following the Daily Telegraph revelations, slow progress once the inquiry was underway, and the apparently limited resources devoted to the investigation.

The Alliance is now considering what action it might take to express these concerns in the appropriate forum.

Whatever the result of the police inquiry, EDA agrees with the statement of the EDDC Majority Whip Phil Twiss, in a letter to councillors on 17 March 2013, that he was “hugely disappointed that the inappropriate actions of a former member of the EDDC Conservative group has brought (the council) into disrepute”.

Urgent questions remain concerning the role played by Mr Brown in determining planning policy at EDDC and shaping the failed Local Plan. It is vitally important that the Overview and Scrutiny Committee resumes its much-delayed investigation into the Council’s relations with business, particularly with the East Devon Business Forum of which Mr Brown was chairman.

However, we are very concerned that EDDC’s Chief Executive, Mark Williams, has responded to today’s announcement by writing to all councillors demanding the exclusion of a named councillor from this vital inquiry, and that its scope be limited. ‘

Notes for editors:
1.The Daily Telegraph article “Councillors for Hire” of 11 March 2013:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/9921344/Councillors-for-hire-who-give-firms-planning-advice.html
and follow-up article of 11th November 2013
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/investigations/10417451/Telegraph-undercover-planning-investigation-a-summary.html
2.https://eastdevonwatch.wordpress.com/2014/11/12/mark-williams-on-unfortunate-circumstances-arising-from-g-brown-case/

Police and EDDC on closure of Brown inquiry

The following statements were issued this morning to the media:

From Devon and Cornwall police:

‘Following an extensive investigation regarding allegations of abuse of planning processes relating to a former East Devon District councillor, Devon and Cornwall Police will take no further action.
No arrests have ever been made in relation to the investigation, although there has been extensive and robust enquiries into the allegations as a result of a report in the national media.
East Devon District Council has been informed of the decision and the matter is now closed from a police perspective.’

Two lines from EDDC:

‘The council welcomes the announcement that the Police have completed their lengthy and thorough investigation into this case, which was referred to them by us very shortly after the revelations in the newspaper article.’

More on this news, will follow…

Mark Williams on “unfortunate circumstances” arising from G. Brown case

This extraordinary letter from the Chief Executive has just been sent to all EDDC councillors:

Dear Cllr,

I am writing to confirm that the Police have announced today that they have completed their extensive investigation into matters concerning ex Cllr G. Brown. You will recall that this derived from claims that ex Cllr G. Brown made to Daily Telegraph reporters which were reported in March 2013. They have concluded, after extensive and robust enquiries, that no further action is appropriate.

As far as the Council is concerned, this leaves outstanding the issue of the East Devon Business Forum TAFF. The East Devon Business Forum no longer exists, albeit for a period of time the Council did provide secretarial and administrative support as part of its wider economic development role.

It is my advice that the Overview & Scrutiny Committee should now review what further inquiry, if any, the Committee wishes the TAFF to carry out and what the proposed terms of reference should be.

My reasons for giving this advice are that the TAFF was originally established amid, what I would term, unfortunate circumstances and a febrile atmosphere during which all manner of things were being alleged concerning the Council. Those calling for the TAFF were mainly Cllr C Wright and the East Devon Alliance/Save Our Sidmouth who considered that there was evidence of improper behaviour deriving from or through the activities of the East Devon Business Forum and alleged influence on the Council’s planning process. Inextricably linked to the issue was the fact that G. Brown chaired the Forum in his capacity as a representative of the NFU (not in his then capacity as an East Devon District Cllr).

The wording used to explain the scope for the TAFF is vague and there a number of caveats. In light of recent developments it now makes sense to reconsider what is wanted and more particularly and importantly tease out the reasons why. I say this because as the Police investigation hasn’t identified any action worth pursuing then it would be wrong to allow the same issue to be pursued through a different route i.e. via the TAFF. If a version of the TAFF is to continue the purpose needs to be quite specific and not some generalisation which would otherwise enable the TAFF to justify any and all lines of enquiry they choose to pursue. If, for example, the TAFF is simply to look at the process or means by which, generally, land is put forward for employment purposes then the Scrutiny Committee should assess how this assists in the context of the current Local Plan adoption process.

It is my understanding that during their investigation the Police met or otherwise corresponded with Cllr C Wright and the East Devon Alliance in order to ensure that they were aware of all the claimed evidence regarding the alleged activites of ex Cllr G. Brown in whatever capacity. In so far as no further action is to happen, it is important that if a TAFF is to continue it does so without the taint, innuendo or implication that gave rise to its original formation. Furthermore, the membership of the TAFF should comprise Cllrs who come to the matter with an open mind and who have had no involvement in the matter previously. If a Cllr believes they have material evidence that might be of use to the TAFF they should be a witness to the TAFF and not a member of the TAFF.

If you have any queries regarding this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Mark
CEO
EDDC

“Borchester Land” (The Archers) also known as …. ?

Some eerily resonant stories in The Archers about “Borchester Land” surely not based on any real consortium ….. or councillors … or … other things. Art imitating life or life imitating art?

“In July 1997, a consortium of business people formed Borchester Land (BL). The company was a vehicle to buy the Berrow Estate, which was being sold by Simon Pemberton.

The estate comprised 1020 acres of Ambridge farmland, two tenanted holdings: Bridge Farm and Grange Farm, and a set of business units converted from buildings at the former Sawyer’s Farm.

Brian Aldridge was soon revealed to be a member of the consortium. But the remainder were urban types who knew little about farming. The company was chaired by lairy Matt Crawford, originally from Peckham, who initially didn’t much like the countryside because it was too quiet.

One of Matt’s first proposals was to build a leisure complex on Estate land. Appalled Brian’s objections were vindicated when an accountant’s report pointed out the capital gains losses they would have to sustain.

Grange Farm

Matt had little patience with the Grundy family, who chaotically ran the ramshackle Grange Farm. In 2000, they were evicted for non-payment of rent. The farmhouse and 50 acres were sold to the much more acceptable Oliver Sterling.

Grange Spinney

Matt’s big guns were back in 2001. After a change to the council’s Local Plan, BL applied for planning permission to build a large housing development on some of their land near the historic church of St Stephen’s: 30 four- and five-bedroom houses and eight low-cost homes. A few local businesses and young people were in favour. But most of the village was outraged. Brian, as the local face of BL, was in great discomfort.

Brenda Tucker, then working for Radio Borsetshire, unearthed indications of corrupt links between BL director Andrew Eagleton and district councillor Stephen Chalkman. But she handled it badly, accusing Chalkman live on air and nearly losing her job. Despite the disgrace, she eventually brought undeclared evidence to Brian that Chalkman’s wife would benefit from the development.

When confronted, Matt blustered, then tried to bribe Brian, and finally caved. They would reduce their proposals. After further negotiation, in 2003 six low-cost dwellings and 12 luxury homes were built: Grange Spinney.

Arable contract

Brian had negotiated a five-year contract to farm the ‘in-hand land’. But by 2001, he was sweating, as the Estate had not delivered the farming income he had projected. Unsympathetic to Brian’s excuses of a market slump, rising fuel costs and poor weather, the board appointed new contractors.

It was 2006 before Home Farm won the contract back. Brian’s step-daughter Debbie Aldridge would manage the contract from Hungary while his step-son Adam Macy would carry out the work.

The shoot

Although not a natural countryman, Matt did like shooting, especially as a means of entertaining business contacts. He was soon interfering in the shoot, driving up numbers to the detriment of the wild native birds.

The Home Farm and Estate shoots were run in conjunction with the shooting in Grey Gables Country Park. When fading Jack Woolley sold the hotel in 2006, Borchester Land bought the park to consolidate the shoot. It also bought the adjoining land land used by Ambridge Golf Club.

Skylarks

Matt doesn’t have much of a green agenda. In 2008, he forced Adam to plough up set-aside land at Quarry Bank. Pip Archer was appalled at the destruction of a rare skylark habitat. It was a newcomer to the board, their former solicitor Annabelle Schrivener, who encouraged Matt to take a cannier line and be a little more accommodating with local environmentalists.

Matt eventually received praise in the local press when he agreed that Adam could install skylark plots in the adjacent Forty Acre.

Bridge Farm

In May 2008, Pat and Tony Archer were dumbstruck. Their landlord (BL) had applied for planning permission to convert the barn they used as their vegetable packhouse into a four-bedroom house. This caused huge family friction, as Matt had by now shacked up with Tony’s sister Lilian Bellamy. Tony’s brother-in-law Brian protested that the decision had slipped through without him noticing.

Pat and Tony mobilised a protest campaign. Brian’s daughter Alice touted their petition around the family. At a planning committee meeting in July, Pat spoke convincingly of the importance of the building to Bridge Farm’s business, and the proposal was rejected.

But it hardened Pat and Tony’s determination to throw off the yoke of their landlord. Matt drove such a hard bargain that they nearly gave up. But pushed by their offspring Helen and Tom, they just scraped together enough finance for the agreed price of £825K.

Matt is ousted

Matt’s control of BL ended in 2009, when he was prosecuted for fraud conducted by an investment company he jointly owned with Stephen Chalkman (yes, him again). Annabelle choreographed his demise, and his replacement. Not only did Brian take over the chair, but Home Farm managed to retain their farming contract. Brian was riding high.

Borchester Livestock Market

Because of traffic problems, South Borsetshire District Council had long been keen to move the livestock market from its potentially lucrative site in Borchester. In 2010, Brian conceived an ambitious plan. He negotiated the tricky purchase of 25 acres of farmland on the by-pass. BL put forward plans for a new market fit for the 21st century.

Things were looking good until September, when Matt revealed that he had bought a small ‘ransom strip’ – land that was essential for access to the site. As well as an exorbitant sum, Matt demanded BL shares and a seat on the board for Lilian. After difficult arguments with the board, Brian eventually offered Lilian a directorship of the operating company – Borchester Market Developments (BMD). And Matt still made a pile of cash out of the deal.

In 2011 as work progressed, the council received a bid for the old market site from a supermarket. BMD agreed to speed up the construction, against Brian’s better judgement because of severe penalty clauses if they missed the deadline. When the diggers turned up a vast cache of bones from a former Foot and Mouth Disease burial site, it nearly jeopardised the whole project.

Despite this setback, the market opened on time, with only a few teething troubles, at the beginning of December.

The ‘mega dairy’

The market was a walk in the park compared with Brian’s next scheme. In September 2011, Debbie proposed setting up a large-scale dairy operation. 1500 cattle would be kept permanently indoors, and their slurry would feed an anaerobic digester supplying power to the grid.

Brian put the plans to the board. But when Adam learned of them, he refused to cooperate, as it was anathema to his philosophy of farming. Brian was forced to tread a difficult path, contracting other farmers to supply feed and silage for the cattle.

Meanwhile, public anger quickly grew. Many people were disgusted at the prospect of cows who would never see daylight or fresh grass. Brian was at odds with members of his extended family. BL countered a difficult public meeting, rowdy demonstrations at their market and critical press coverage with a PR campaign and a glossy DVD.

In April 2012 the council approved the application. But it still wasn’t plain sailing. When one of the contracted farmers pulled out, Brian unilaterally decided that Home Farm would have to step in. Adam came close to throwing it all up and moving away but he and Brian eventually reached a shaky détente.

Building work began in September. In January 2013, highly qualified Rob Titchener started as herd manager, and the first heifers arrived in August. In a bid to belie the vast industrial nature of the buildings, Brian and Rob named the enterprise Berrow Farm, to the scorn of its critics.

Damara Capital

But Brian’s success with the market and dairy were short-lived. He was aghast when in 2014 aggressive Damara Capital became majority shareholders of BL. Brian tried to cling to control. But he was replaced as Chair, ironically by his former kingmaker Annabelle Schrivener.”

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thearchers/posts/Borchester-Land

Countryside under siege

Thought-provoking article on Western Morning News website:

“…If you love something and know it should be protected from harm, you will fight for it – preferably with others, but alone if needs be. But standing up for the countryside can be a lonely furrow to plough in a modern world where our leaders seem to have turned their backs on the nation’s once beloved green acres. …

..But if we have warned, cajoled and focused on the idea that the countryside is under attack from a government which puts short-term profit and gain above the concept of long-term sustainability, then what has puzzled me is why national newspapers and celebrity media commentators aren’t leaping on the same bandwagon. …

….Mr Jenkins [ outgoing Chairman if the National Trust] believes developers have been successful in their bid to build on the countryside, thanks to the fact that they have a “friend” in the Chancellor. If you think the former NT chairman might be deluded, then look at how many towns around the Westcountry are being encircled by new housing developments, despite the fact that communities are protesting they don’t have the infrastructure – or jobs – to support such large numbers of incomers. …

… The countryside isn’t just a pretty place – although there’s evidence to prove that being a pretty place has financial worth both in terms of tourism and wellbeing. It is a provider rather than a taker. It gives far more in the way of economic benefit than it costs. It grows the food we eat, provides the water we drink, helps clean the air we breathe and sequester the muck we shove into the atmosphere. Its worth is far more than anything politicians could hope to accrue by allowing get-rich -quick developers to convert green acres into temporary money spinning fields.”

http://www.westernmorningnews.co.uk/saying-politicians-ignore-countryside/story-24517311-detail/story.html

The “small town” of Beer: development by Clinton Devon Estates begins

Recall our story here on 10 November 2012 that, for Draft Local Plan purposes, Beer has been declared “a small town” and that we predicted that higher levels of development would be set for the “small town”.

Here it is: Planning Application 14/2621/MOUT – Clinton Devon Estates – land at Short Furlong, Beer for development of “up to” 30 houses with “up to” 40% affordable homes. The current application seeks to get planning permission for access only.

However, it is hard to understand why “up to” 30 homes required 70 parking spaces. Oh, and the planning application says that there are protected species on the land.