The EDDC Annual Meeting (for those who don’t know) is constitutionally and democratically the most important meeting of the municipal year. In summary, the reason for its importance is that it is the point in the year when the Council Chairman and Leader, and their deputies are voted into office. The required Overview, Scrutiny and Standards Committees are appointed. The Council makes the selection and appointment of Councillors on Committees and Outside Bodies (like the GESP – Greater Exeter Strategic Plan). It decides which other committees to form; their size and Terms of Reference; and the allocation of seats to political groups in accordance with the political balance rules (although this doesn’t apply to the Cabinet). The Leader appoints the Cabinet.
As a comment has reminded us, constitutionally, the Annual Meeting is held in May. So Owl has been pondering how and why the decision to cancel this year’s meeting could have been taken. Especially, in circumstances when the political tectonic plates had shifted to place the governing coalition in a minority. Owl might understand a postponement to allow the Democratic Alliance and Progressive Independents to fully finalise their memorandum of understanding, but not a cancellation whose only aim could have been to frustrate any change.
The social media comments from the Democratic Alliance on 17 May made it clear that the decision was made by Cllr Stuart Hughes, the Conservative Party chairman of EDDC. Owl thinks it inconceivable that he didn’t have the support of others as well. Luckily, wiser heads have prevailed and Cllr. Ben Ingham, the Leader, and his Cabinet have resigned, clearing the way for a transition.
Owl can’t understand why, in the absence of anyone else, Officers didn’t intervene. Having spent hours researching the roles of Senior Officers and the rules and regulations governing Local Councils, Owl thinks the following paragraphs provide an explanation.
Civil Servants, the Police, the Military and the Judiciary are all “Servants of the Crown” and can speak “truth to power”. Local Government Officers are employed by the Local Authority they serve. The relationship between Councillors and Officers is, therefore, a very close one and in EDDC, until now, the Conservatives have always been in power.
Governments over the years have also taken an increasingly “hands off – light regulation” approach to Local Authorities. There is, for example, no template listing the responsibilities of Chief Executives and Owl understands that attempts to find the job description for the EDDC Chief Executive through FFIs, in the past, have proved unsuccessful.
The interpretation of the planning policy framework is a good example of the freedom Local Authorities have to make their own decisions. Members decide, for example, what weight to attach to protective policies versus economic benefits of development or vice versa when determining applications within Areas of Outstanding Beauty. The policy is guidance open to a wide range of subjective interpretation.
What matters is that Councillors behave “properly”. The core rules governing Councillors’ behaviour is set out in section 28 (1) of the Localism Act 2011 which states: ‘A relevant authority must secure that a code adopted by it under section 27 (2) (a “code of conduct”) is, when viewed as a whole, consistent with the following principles [The seven Nolan principles – see Committee on Standards in Public Life].
It is the role of the Monitoring Officer to ensure the lawfulness and fairness of council decision-making and to provide guidance to Councillors. One has to ask the question where was he in May?
EDDC extends the Nolan principles in paragraph 1.2 of the section of its constitution dealing with Members Code of Conduct as follows:
“You should have regard to the Principles of Public Life namely, Selflessness, Honesty/Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Personal judgment, Respect for others, Duty to uphold the law, Stewardship and Leadership.”
There then follows a number of exhortations to Members and Owl highlights three of them:
Do nothing as a Member which you could not justify to the public.
The reputation of the Council depends on your conduct and what the public believes about your conduct.
It is not enough to avoid actual impropriety, you should at all times avoid any occasion for suspicion or appearance of improper conduct.
The statement by the Democratic Alliance makes it clear that such a decision was made on political grounds. Not only was this undemocratic (it denied the new majority partnership the opportunity to make a smooth transition at the appropriate time) but was made by councillors, Owl suggests, in breach of the Standards.
The decision was clearly not made solely in the public interest but was made in “Self-Interest”. Those who made the decision lacked “Integrity”, “Judgement” and “Openness”, and spectacularly failed to show “Leadership” in that it inevitably brings the Council into disrepute.
In short the decision was indefensible.