Finale of the long running “Changing of the Guard” at East Devon District Council Today, 6.00pm

(Or how the Conservatives with only one third of the Council seats tried to retain power for ever and ever. A comic tragedy in five parts.)

Extraordinary Virtual meeting of Council, Council – Wednesday, 24th June, 2020 6.00 pm

You can watch live or catch up on EDDC’s Youtube channel.

This comic tragedy has played out to an international audience (Owl has viewers across the globe) in five Acts over the past four weeks, why? 

In May 2019 the Conservatives, for the first time since the Council was formed in 1974, lost their majority. Cllr. Ben Ingham, leader of the opposition (who resigned from the Conservative Party around 15 years ago but campaigned and was elected as an Independent) took control of the council by forming an informal partnership/coalition/compact/arrangement with the Conservative councillors giving them key committee positions. In May this year after a series of defections, this arrangement broke down and a new Majority Group was formed.

The opportunity for a smooth transition was dashed when Conservative Cllr and Council Chairman Stuart Hughes took the opportunity provided by a change in legislation by the government to take the option of prematurely cancelling the Annual Council Meeting. This marks the end of one civic year and the beginning of the next. 

His, and his close Conservative colleagues’, reasoning became clear during the Act I debates: despite the democratic shift in power they didn’t want to see change. As one councillor put it “It is vital that we have stable leadership and in Cllr Hughes we have someone with the experience and the link with County Hall. To replace him would jeopardise the recovery process and demean the work he has done. To change in the middle of the crisis could be a monumental mistake. This is not the time to hold an EGM. 

During all this Cllr. Ben Ingham resigns (sacks) his Cabinet and “falls on his sword.” The Council is rudderless. 

This indefensible decision of Cllr. Stuart Hughes created chaos since the only way to make the inevitable change was through “Extraordinary General Meetings” (EGMs) but these constitutionally are restricted to a single motion.

Hence the five acts in this comic tragedy which will have been appreciated, no doubt, by another influential and “experienced” Conservative, sent packing by the electorate in May 2019: Cllr. Paul Diviani, Chairman of EDDC Council 2007 – 2009 and Leader from 2011 – 2018 with almost 10 years experience in stage entertainment including Howard & Wyndham’s Pantomimes. 

Act I – The prelude or warm up act, where a meeting had to be held to decide to have a meeting to vote for a new Leader. (Some people don’t seem to get “democracy”. If you have a minority of the vote you are going to lose on a matter of confidence such as this)

Refreshments served as Cllr Stuart Hughes resigns as Council Chairman following this defeat.

Act II – where the meeting to elect a new Leader crashed when Conservative Cllr. Tom Wright was so taken aback by the way the votes were being called (he shouldn’t have been) swore on open mic causing You Tube to pull the plug with only a few votes left to be cast. 

Interlude overnight

Act III – the reconvened meeting the following morning where Cllr Paul Arnott was elected Leader. Paul Arnott appointed Cllr Eileen Wragg as Deputy Leader and a Cabinet (these are all Leader appointments). At this point we have a new administration with a new purpose. 

Change of Costume – Cllr. Ben Ingham who campaigned and was elected as an Independent claimed he had  “No Choice” but rejoin the Tories after 15 years.

Act IV – where Cllr Cathy Gardner and Cllr Val Ranger were elected Council Chairman and Vice Chairman. The new Civic leaders and upholders of the constitution. This was an uncontested election. A considerable number of Conservatives and Cllr Ben Ingham absent themselves from this virtual meeting.

Now we come to the Finale which should be a matter of ratification of the governance arrangements and committee appointments for the remainder of the civic year (until the next Annual Meeting May 2021).

Act V – where the council will consider Governance Arrangements and committee appointments for the remainder of the Civic Year (2020/21). The important aspect of this meeting is the procedural changes proposed in Part A to cut the Gordian Knot and resolve all the outstanding issues in the one meeting.

Owl has already commented on the shift in power balance these key appointments represents.

PART A 

  1. Approves the amended Constitution to determine the committee structure, their size and terms of reference and the scheme of delegations.

 PART B 

  1. Confirms the Conservative Group as the formal opposition.

 PART C

  1. Approves the allocation to different political groups of seats on the overview, regulatory and other committees (see agenda papers)
  2. Approves the allocation of seats on individual overview, scrutiny, regulatory and other committees as set out in Appendix 1 of agenda papers. 

PART D

  1. Agrees the Membership of the Standards Committee and Housing Review Board (as detailed in Part D of this report) and approves an extension of the appointment of the Independent Person for a further year. 

PART E

  1. Approves the appointments of Councillors to committees as set out in the table in Appendix 2.

 PART F 

  1. Approves the appointments of the Chairs and Vice-Chairs of the committees as set out in Appendix 3