Perceptions over conflict of interests have led to changes to East Devon District Council’s constitution to bar Cabinet members from sitting on planning and licensing committees.
Wednesday night’s full council meeting saw councillors vote by 29 votes to 27 to change the constitution, following the nominations made by the ruling Democratic Alliance to appoint cabinet members to the committees.
The meeting heard that while there was nothing legally to preclude cabinet members from being appointed, successive administrations had previously chosen against ‘taking the risk’ and the council’s legal advisor had advised against it.
The constitution changes mean that the Democratic Alliance will need to nominate alternative appointments to replace of Cllrs Paul Millar and Jack Rowland on the Licensing & Enforcement committee, and for Cllrs Rowland, Paul Hayward, and Eilleen Wragg on the Planning Committee.
Cllr Wragg was due to be the chairman of the committee, and while Cllr Paul Arnott, leader of the Democratic Alliance said they had a Plan B, it would mean him having to appoint two working mothers of school age children and a key worker to the Planning Committee to fill the three vacant spots.
Putting forward his amendment, Cllr Ian Thomas, a former leader of the council, said it was straight forward and consistent with practice followed by recent administrations and to ensure serving members of cabinet are not eligible for appointment to the two committees.
He said that while there was no formal legal restriction, the advice is clear and unequivocal in judging the wisdom against such a move, and added: “The reason is perception. People believe they may lead a particular outcome, intentionally or unintentionally. The risk to the council is that this may be used in appeals or judicial review, and can avoid avoidable complaints to the council.
“I am deeply concerned the constitution does not offer adequate protection against an ill-advised move, and any appointment would be dangerously against the long standing advice.”
Cllr Ben Ingham, the previous leader of the council, added: “This issue is of grave concern and we have always avoiding taking this risk, whether it is low, medium or high. Last year the subject was broached and I discussed it and the advice that was not to appoint any portfolio holders to licensing or planning, so I would be reticent to take the risk when there is an alternative. Why would we want to take an unnecessary risk?”
Cllr Susie Bond added that it looked like Cllr Arnott ‘selective shopped around until he got the advice that he wanted’, adding: “Perception is key and by packing with regulatory committees with cabinet members is a move that will be widely interrupted as seeking to exert undue influence. The people of East Devon deserve open and transparent governance, not the equivalent of some Orwellian nightmare.”
Leader of the Conservative Group, Cllr Andrew Moulding, said that while it may be legally permissible, there will be a perception by the public that could open up additional risk for the council, adding: “There is no doubt that in time it will bring the council into disrepute and there will be regular conflicts of interest for portfolio holders.”
Cllr Philip Skinner raised his concerns over the ‘dangerous precedent’ and was worried about the portfolio holder for economy sitting on planning, saying: “They should be pushing the economic agenda but then are voting on those issues if these agendas are coming back through the planning process. I can see nothing but problems coming from this.”
Cllr Mike Howe, the previous chairman of the Development Management Committee, said having cabinet members sitting on quasi-judicial boards is not the best plan. He said: “It is a perception issue. The public perception is that cabinet will be controlling these committees, irrespective of whether they are, and that is the danger of what could happen.”
And two members of the cabinet – Cllrs Jess Bailey and Megan Armstrong – also added their concerns about the proposals, with Cllr Bailey saying: “The key question is, does the filling of committees in this way increase the risk of decisions being challenged, and I think it does, and the head of legal does advise against it.”
But Cllr Millar, portfolio holder for Democracy, called the amendment ‘stupid’, and said that there was no occasion when appointing cabinet members to committee had caused an issue anywhere in the country. He added: “This complies with the national guidelines and I urge you to vote against the amendment as it is rubbish and been brought by members who seek to undermine the new administration.”
Cllr Wragg said that four members of the executive sit on the planning committee at Teignbridge and there have been no problems whatsoever in the time they have been serving. She added: “There is nothing illegal about what is being proposed,” and questioned who would pay for the childcare or to compensate those with work commitments who cannot afford to sit in planning meetings all day.
Cllr Arnott said that the people who he had proposed were the people who were the best for the council and to serve the public interest. He said: “If this amendment passes, for planning, for there are no others available, we would have to put forward two working mothers of school age children and a full-time female worker in a key British industry. These are not retired gentlemen who can afford to spend all day on planning. The people put forward are the best for the council and the public interest is best served by them being on the planning committee.
“I have every confidence that if there is a perceived conflict of interest then they will simply recuse themselves. If the leader of strategic planning portfolio holder where on planning then there would be an interest. This is not a question of the Democratic Alliance not having the talent to serve on committees, but a committee that sits all day, is a very difficult thing for councillors of a certain age to do.”
And Cllr Hayward, the portfolio holder for economy and assets, said that he found the hypocrisy of some councillors staggering given the scandals that the Conservative Party have been embroiled in.
He said: “Some councillors have failed to disclose interests in the past, but they still sit on the committees, and I find the hypocrisy staggering. The opposition is judging the new administration by its own insidious standards. There is the housing minister embroiled in scandal after scandal of planning.”
Cllr Hayward also referred to the scandal involved the disgraced former councillor Graham Brown who was secretly filmed by the Daily Telegraph claiming he had access to all the right people for the right clients and said ‘”If I can’t get planning, nobody will.”
He was recorded as saying: “I don’t come cheap. If I’m turning a green field into a housing estate and I’m earning the developer two or three millions, then I’m not doing it for peanuts – especially if I’m the difference between winning and losing it.”
Cllr Hayward added: “He caused more harm to this council than anyone else in its history and the public perception of this council was dragged through the mud by a councillor who did not sit on planning.
“I don’t support the amendment as we have put the right people in the right roles for the benefit of East Devon. If we just stuck to tradition we’d still be washing our clothes on a rock by the river, but we don’t, we have washing machines now, and we have moved on.”
But councillors voted by 29 votes to 27, with one abstention, to amend the constitution to prohibit cabinet members from serving on either the planning or licensing committees.
Nominations for the councillors to replace those who were set to be appointed to the committees will be made subsequently by Cllr Arnott with delegated authority to officers to confirm them.