High Court backs approach taken by East Devon District Council in standards case

“A decision taken by East Devon District Council as principal authority over a code of conduct breach by a town councillor and the sanctions it recommended – including a requirement for training – was lawful, a High Court judge has ruled.

However, in Taylor v Honiton Town Council & Anor [2016] EWHC 3307 Mr Justice Edis quashed additional sanctions imposed by Honiton on the claimant, Cllr John Taylor, over and above those recommended by the district.

The case arose after Cllr Taylor, a member of the town council since 2007, became concerned about the funding of a major project in Honiton, the building of the ‘Beehive Community Centre’.

The councillor published a letter in January 2015 about the town council’s extension of borrowing from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) by £98,000 to cover a shortfall. It included an allegation of impropriety and a request for a police investigation.

Honiton’s town clerk complained that she had been slandered in the letter, details of which had appeared in a local paper, and her professional reputation had been affected.

Attempts by East Devon’s monitoring officer to resolve the complaint informally were unsuccessful as Cllr Taylor refused to make an unreserved apology. East Devon therefore asked Tim Darsley to investigate.

Mr Darsley concluded on the facts that statements made by the councillor had been inaccurate and given a misleading account of what the town clerk had said at the meeting about the PWLB loan extension. His findings also included that there was no evidence that the loan application was in any way illegal and was used for an improper purpose.

In his report Mr Darsley also found that Cllr Taylor had publicly made claims of illegality and impropriety associated with the town clerk and that, in the absence of any reasonable justification for his claims, this constituted a failure to treat her with respect.

The standards hearings sub-committee at East Devon subsequently found Cllr Taylor to have breached a paragraph of the code of conduct because he had not treated the town clerk with respect in that he had publicly accused her of criminal behaviour, namely conspiracy to obtain a loan by deception in that its true purpose was misstated on the application.

On advice from its officers, the sub-committee recommended that the town council:

censure Cllr Taylor for his breach of the code of conduct;
publish the findings of the hearing sub-committee. (East Devon would anyway publish the findings on its own website as a matter of procedure).
instruct East Devon’s monitoring officer to arrange training for Cllr Taylor in respect of the code of conduct and councillor conduct – such training by the end of the current financial year (“the training requirement”).

Honiton went on to impose the sanctions recommended by East Devon and also applied a new policy on code of conduct sanctions it had adopted in October 2015.

These additional measures – to remain in place until Cllr Taylor had complied with the training requirement – involved:

(i) A restriction preventing the claimant/Cllr Taylor from speaking at any meeting including the council meeting.
(ii) The removal of Cllr Tayor from the five committees and working groups on which he served.
(iii) A restriction preventing him from attending any meeting as a member of the public together with a restriction from speaking as a member of the public at any meeting.
(iv) A restriction preventing Cllr Taylor from attending at the council offices unless accompanied by the mayor of the council.

Cllr Taylor brought judicial review proceedings on the following grounds: illegality; the sanctions not being imposed on a proper basis in the light of East Devon’s conclusions on the investigation; and the hearing before the standards sub-committee being procedurally unfair.

Honiton subsequently withdrew all sanctions imposed on Cllr Taylor but said it would consider the issue of sanctions again after any fresh decision by East Devon, and/or the outcome of the judicial review proceedings against the district.

In the end the proceedings were issued against the town council. (East Devon becoming an interested party because it wanted to establish that imposing a requirement for training on Cllr Taylor was lawful).

Honiton expressed the hope that the claim would be withdrawn because, amongst other things, it agreed that its decision of 14 December 2015 should be treated as never having been made. It also agreed that it would not seek to re-impose all of the sanctions that were imposed.

Mr Justice Edis decided, given Honiton’s approach, he would address two questions:

whether Honiton was bound by the findings of East Devon as to the facts and as to whether there was a breach of the code.

“This is because the Decision actually involves two stages: breach and sanction. Honiton has certainly withdrawn the second, but says that it is still bound by the first. The point is not academic to the Decision and to the order which should be made.

Whatever the outcome of this issue, I will quash the Decision. This does not mean that the route to that result is irrelevant. If the claimant is right I will quash the finding that there was a breach of the Code because no such finding was made by Honiton which wrongly simply adopted East Devon’s decision. If Honiton and East Devon are right I will quash the Decision because Honiton has conceded that it wrongly included sanctions which are beyond its powers.”

Mr Justice Edis decided that the effect of provisions in the Localism Act 2011 was to place the duty of investigation and decision of allegations against members of Honiton on East Devon as principal authority.

“The arrangements for decision making must involve independent persons and it would frustrate that important safeguard to hold that a parish council had a duty to reconsider the principal authority’s decision and substitute its own if it chose to do so,” he said.

The judge noted that in this case East Devon had decided the issue of breach but made recommendations to Honiton about what action it should take consequent on that finding. Honiton then took the decision on sanctions.

“The challenge in these proceedings is based on the proposition that East Devon’s role was limited to that of investigator and adviser on both questions and contends that Honiton was the ultimate decision maker on both issues. This appears to me to be clearly wrong….,” Mr Justice Edis said.
“A natural reading of the Act gives decision making power to the principal authority and requires it to have arrangements for the exercise of that power in place. It would make a nonsense of that scheme if the parish council were able to take its own decision without having any of those arrangements in place.”

The judge added: “The whole point of the scheme is to remove decision making powers and duties from very small authorities which do not have the resources to manage them effectively and who may be so small that any real independence is unattainable. I therefore reject the challenge.”

Mr Justice Edis added that in doing so, he declined to decide that the Act required the splitting of the decisions as between breach and sanction between the two relevant authorities in the way in which this happened in Cllr Taylor’s case.

On the imposition of a training requirement, Mr Justice Edis said Honiton was under a statutory duty to maintain high standards of conduct under s.27(1) of the Localism Act 2011 in relation to its members. Section 27(2) required it to have a code of its own or to adopt that of East Devon.
The judge said: “The existence of a code of conduct is regarded by Parliament as an important aspect of the maintenance of standards. It appears to me to be proportionate to a significant breach of it for a relevant authority to require the person in breach to be trained in its meaning and application.

“There is no point in having a code of conduct if members of the authority are not aware of its meaning and effect and where a member has demonstrated by his conduct that this is the case, a reasonable amount of training appears to be a sensible measure. A local authority should be able to require its members to undertake training which is designed to enable them to fulfil their public functions safely and effectively.”

Mr Justice Edis said it had been reasonably open to the decision maker to conclude that there had been a serious breach of the code.

He added: “There is no finding as to the claimant’s motives and it may be that he acted in good faith, believing that his statement about the town clerk was justified. However, it was not. He accused her of criminal conduct when there was not the slightest justification for doing so. This was a very serious error of judgement. Therefore, a requirement of training was proportionate.”

The judge noted that if such a requirement was made but the member refused to comply, the only sanction was publicity.

“Such conduct may reduce the confidence of the electorate in the member so that he or she is not re-elected. Equally, it may not,” he said. “That is a matter for the electorate to decide which it can do only if it has the relevant information. For these reasons I consider that it is open to a relevant authority exercising its power as contemplated by s.28(11) to take action following a failure to comply with a code of conduct to require the member to undertake training. That decision will usually be published and it will be open to the authority to publish what happens as a result of the requirement.”


“Don’t miss chance to have your say on plans to cut community hospital beds across East Devon”

“People are urged to have their say on plans to cut hospital beds across East Devon before the consultation closing date on January 6.

Proposals – that could see Sidmouth lose its inpatient unit – have met with widespread opposition and more than 5,000 residents have signed petitions opposing the changes.

Health bosses say a move towards a home-based model of care will help plug a predicted £384million deficit by 2020/21, and improve patient care.

Respond to the consultation at http://www.newdevonccg.nhs.uk, or paper copies are available at the town’s library, leisure centres, hospital and GP surgeries. Call 01392 267642 to request a copy.”


Sherford (and Cranbrook) slightly on the rocks?

One of the firms involved in building the huge new town at Sherford near Plymouth [and Cranbrook] has issued a profit warning causing concern that the construction sector is in decline

Bovis Homes, one of Britain’s biggest housebuilders, is part of the Sherford Consortium alongside Linden Homes, and Taylor Woodrow [as in Cranbrook].

… The announcement, which preceded a 4.8 per cent fall in the Bovis Homes share price, was seen by analysts as a blow for the construction sector as it heads into 2017.

Bovis Homes denied the slowdown was due to any Brexit effect following the UK’s referendum decision to leave the EU.

… But completions in the second half of 2016 fell by one per cent to two per cent, year-on-year.

Meanwhile, GDP data has shown that construction generally is now in a “technical recession” with output down 1.1 per cent in Q3 2016. … “


Heart of the South West LEP: where is OUR money going now?

It appears that the “Heart of the South West LEP is dead in the water now that three of its original members have refused to continue to back it and instead are considering their own grouping – the south-west “Golden Triangle” LEP.

Which brings us to that age-old concern: the money. Where did the HOTSW LEP money come from, where was it spent and now, more importantly, what is happening to it now that several big players – who originally underwrote it – have pulled out?

How do we find out [what little there is] – where is the paper trail and where does its “accountability” reside?

This correspondence with the National Audit Office gives some clues:

[Concerns have been raised] about lack of transparency around contracts and spending.

As part of the assurance framework each local enterprise partnership has a nominated local authority that acts as its accountable body, and Somerset County Council (the Council) is the accountable body for the Heart of the South West LEP.

You could therefore consider bringing the matters to the attention of the Council themselves.

Alternatively you may wish to consider bringing the matters to the attention of the Councils external auditor. For this Council, the appointed auditor is Grant Thornton UK LLP.

The engagement lead for the audit is Peter Barber, who can be contacted at peter.a.berber@uk.gt.com or on 0117 305 7897. You should be aware, however, that the NAO has no powers to direct the auditor take further action, as that is a matter of professional judgement to be exercised by the external auditor themselves.

If you are a local elector for the [Somerset?] Council, you also have rights in relation to inspecting and objecting to the Councils accounts, if you feel this appropriate. The NAO has produced Council accounts: A guide to your rights, which sets out these rights in more detail. The guide can be accessed from the link or from our website home page”.”

Council tax payers of Somerset – arise. You, and we, surely have many questions of the council (or better still its external auditors) as to where your (Somerset) and our (Devon and, in particular for us, East Devon) money is going now that the HOTSW LEP has had at least one of its legs cut off.

Have its fingers been cut off? Is the till snapped shut and locked?


“Local” Enterprise Partnerships

The Guardian view on English local identities: a clash of cash against community


A court case about whether Chesterfield can leave Derbyshire to become part of Sheffield [Local Enterprise Partnership] illuminates the inexorable wasting of English local government and identity.

Is Derbyshire in the north of England or the Midlands? The question is as old as the redrawing of the map of England following the Norman conquest. But it is no longer such a parochial or academic question as it may seem. Derbyshire’s dilemmas now illuminate what we mean by local democracy and local government in England more generally. That’s because the promotion of English city regions and the money being directed towards the northern powerhouse by the Treasury in London are making a nonsense of historic local identities as well as of England’s long but increasingly derelict traditions of locally rooted democratic municipalism.

Just before Christmas, the high court backed an objection by Derbyshire county council against efforts by Chesterfield, which is in the north of the county, to attach itself to the emerging city region of Sheffield, which comprises Sheffield, Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster, which are all historically part of the various iterations of Yorkshire, its ridings and its more modern subdivisions.

The court did this after Derbyshire complained that if Chesterfield were permitted to redefine itself as part of Sheffield, it would raise the question of whether the county of Derbyshire could be said to exist at all without its second largest town. The county’s case was reinforced by the fact that Chesterfield district has no actual border with Sheffield, from which it is separated by part of the North East Derbyshire district. If Chesterfield were to join Sheffield, it would become an enclave (or, from Sheffield’s viewpoint, an exclave) within its former county. It would be the Nagorno-Karabakh of the east Midlands, leaving the map of Derbyshire resembling nothing so much as a Barbara Hepworth sculpture.

From a financial rather than an identity perspective, Chesterfield’s move makes a certain sort of sense. Faced with continuing financial pressures to cut, sell off or simply abandon swaths of local government services that have existed for generations, English local authorities inevitably clutch at any cash straws they can. The city regions are one of the few straws on offer. They are due to receive £30m in new funding a year and to acquire new freedoms to shape local transport, planning and economic policy.

It is hardly surprising that Chesterfield’s defection was hatched and promoted at the council level, since councillors and council officers are in the frontline of struggling with these austerity-driven realities every day. While the councils did their deal, Chesterfield and Derbyshire opinion was barely considered, the high court ruled, so it must now be properly consulted and taken into account before any decision is taken. An online poll organised by the county council in August, five months after Chesterfield decided to join Sheffield, found 92% of respondents opposed to the move.

That is almost certainly because, for all its proximity to Sheffield, there has never been any serious tradition of Chesterfield regarding itself as part of Greater Sheffield, or of Sheffield seeing Chesterfield as part of South Yorkshire. Chesterfield is today what it has always been, an important town in north-east Derbyshire, famous for the twisted spire of its St Mary’s church, and for having had Tony Benn as its MP in the later period of his parliamentary career. Its possible marriage to the Sheffield city region is overwhelmingly rooted in perceived economic advantage rather than in history or public sentiment. The high court has therefore pitted economic survival against identity and democracy.

The Chesterfield-Sheffield question is of far more than local interest. Local identity matters everywhere. It is tenacious. It runs deeper than the economic or administrative convenience of a bureaucrat’s pen. County identities are medieval in origin but they lurk on in many modern consciousnesses. Ministers mess with them at their peril.

The argument about Derbyshire has only arisen because English local government is in such a desperate state. Austerity in the 2010s is completing the centralisation of local powers begun in the 1980s. Communities like Chesterfield are reduced to scrabbling for a share of the Treasury’s parachute drop of cash to the city regions.

Ministers may talk of a new era of municipal greatness, but it is a hollow sham as long as local authorities lack effective income-raising powers. Unless and until English devolution is reconceived as regions made up from existing counties, cities and boroughs, these arguments will continue, pitting community identity and democracy against economic inequalities and distortions enforced from Whitehall.”


Bay FM interview: Skinner (EDDC) v MacAllister (SES)

Louise MacAllister, Spokesperson, Save Exmouth Seafront gives her view on the contest. Owl will be happy to publish Councillor Skinner’s riposte if received:

  • SES’s core aim is for independent public consultation before any further work goes ahead on the seafront.
  • EDDC’s consultations have been inadequate.
  • Cllr Megan Armstrong’s survey that SES supported showed that a majority do not want to see wholesale development on the seafront.
  • EDDC’s incompetence around the project has led to the seafront becoming derelict.
  • The spiralling costs of the project further demonstrate the incompetence of the Exmouth Regeneration Board.
  • That the Regeneration Board meet in secret only increases frustration and as such Ms MacAllister has been trying to arrange a Q&A session with Cllr Skinner, the chair of the Exmouth Regeneration Board.
  • Cllr Skinner gatecrashed a SES meeting, this is not public engagement.

Cllr Skinner, Chair, Exmouth Regeneration Board:

  • It is a three-phase development, it’s very exciting, we should be excited!
  • Phase three is ‘open for consultation’ we may even have a hotel?!
  • Existing tenants are blamed for delays.
  • Skinner thinks they have consulted extensively but – he doesn’t know the numbers.
  • This is a SERIOUS investment (thank god it’s not a joke investment!).
  • Correction – the ‘recent consultation’ with over 1000 participants that Howard Witts mentioned is in fact the seafront survey undertaken by independent Cllr Megan Armstrong, and which the regeneration board have resolutely ignored.
  • [Seems Skinner finds it amusing that the regeneration board meets in secret as he can be heard laughing while Howard is asking him about this].
  • The Premier Inn and Ocean are apparently architecturally superior and successful, ‘raising the bar in architecture’.

Other points:

  • Everything Skinner claims about his gatecrashing of an SES meeting is untrue, he was unwelcome and people made it clear he was unwelcome. Unfortunately the meeting was not chaired well and so he was enabled to carry on despite this. He was certainly not thanked or clapped as he claims in the interview.
  • The post-march SES meeting was not an open public meeting nor was it advertised as such, it was advertised as a meeting for SES supporters.
  • Cllr Skinner does not think it is Ms MacAllister’s responsibility as SES spokesperson to say that he should hold an open public meeting. SHE AGREES! It is HIS responsibility and he alone should be held accountable for his lack of public engagement she says. As someone who represents a group seeking transparency and openness she will continue to press for this even though it is not her responsibility.

Listen to Louise MacAllister

Listen to Cllr Skinner’s Response

Has EDDC been spying on us? They won’t say

“Local councils, including Exeter and Mid Devon, have been authorised to conduct covert surveillance, a freedom of information request has revealed.

The request, sent to all local authorities in the country by the Liberal Democrats, found two-thirds of those that responded had used powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to gather evidence.

Designed to fight terrorism and serious crime, Ripa is not supposed to be used for trivial purposes and should only be utilised if criminal activity was suspected. …

… East Devon District Council was one of those that did not respond.”


Remember Diviani telling us his Tory council would be “clean, green and seen”? Seems it remains pale, male, stale – and secretive.