Oi, government, where’s Exmouth’s dosh?

Some councillors think MP pulled a fast one

Daniel Clark, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk

East Devon District Council will seek answers about why Exmouth has not yet been given the promised £150,000 of Future High Streets funding.

Councillors have agreed to write to East Devon’s MP and a cabinet minister to ask why the town has yet to benefit from the cash.

Three days before the 2019 general eection, Simon Jupp, the Conservative candidate who subsequently became East Devon’s MP, announced that Exmouth will receive new funding from the fund.

His statement said that the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, Robert Jenrick, had confirmed that Exmouth will receive funding of up to £150,000 to help secure up to £20 million pounds from the government’s Future High Streets Fund.

The news surprised East Devon District Council as they had submitted what turned out to be an unsuccessful bid for Axminster as part of the fund and during the debate about which town to submit, Exmouth was not mentioned.

When the announcement of the towns to receive funding was made on Boxing Day 2020, Exmouth was not on the list.

East Devon District Council has now voted to establish what actually happened, and to write to Mr Jupp and Mr Jenrick to express disappointment that Exmouth was not, as promised, given the opportunity to engage with the bidding process for the Future High Streets Fund.

When contacted by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Mr Jupp,  said that he spoke up for Exmouth last week in parliament and that the secretary of state confirmed that new funding and the process to apply will be revealed very soon and that he was looking forward to seeing Exmouth’s application, and added he hoped that the council would work with him on any application.

Putting forward his motion, Cllr Joe Whibley (Democratic Alliance), who represents the Exmouth Town ward, said: “Just three days before the election, Exmouth was given a free pass to the next round of the Future High Streets Funding. According to details at the time from Mr Jupp, Exmouth would get £150,000 to put together a bid for substantial funds.

“But why was Exmouth in the running for a bid it hadn’t applied for, as the council had chosen Axminster to be its representative and in July 2019 received notice it had been unsuccessful. The money to put a bid together never arrived, there was no contact, and attempts to illicit contact yielded no response.”

Cllr Whibley said: “The promise of money was for one thing only – to win the East Devon seat as it was looking as though Mr Jupp wouldn’t be as secure as they had hoped. The offer of money was a complete fabrication and a carrot on a non-existing stick for East Devon.

“The deal struck in 2019 was a sham and any deal with the secretary of state was in the best light possible, a flight of fancy, and at worst, a blatant attempt to mislead the public to gain last minute votes. We need a clear honest explanation as to what happened as why.”

Cllr Paul Millar (Independent), who represents the Exmouth Halsdon ward, and who seconded the motion, said: “You can talk about elections promises and pledges, but this was a formal announcement that Mr Jupp had secured £150,000 through Robert Jenrick for Exmouth to bid for £20 million for the next group of towns for the money.

“We are concerned that this was fake news. Our town centre requires urgent regeneration. We have a clock that doesn’t even tell the time, a symbol of long term decline and austerity and continued lack of investment in the town, and Exmouth is a town in most in need of funding.”

Cllr John Loudoun (East Devon Alliance) said that he fully understood the annoyance and irritation of the “inappropriate election statement,” added: “I believe it was a deliberate and cynical attempt to influence and mislead voters ahead of the election. What took place was a disgrace by the candidate and appalling that he stooped to this level in order to gain power.”

Cllr Paul Arnott (East Devon Alliance), the leader of the council, said the question amounted to what was the difference between: “a promise of hard cash on the front page of the Exmouth Journal or the difference between something only a fool will believe.”

He said: “There is no need to seek legal advice and if the Electoral Commission went after everyone who didn’t deliver promises then they would be the busiest people on the planet,” adding that if the council voted against the motion, he would write to Mr Jupp on fact finding mission anyway, as “we have a right to know.”

Cllr Sarah Jackson (East Devon Alliance) added that her concern was that if there was another round of funding, then as a result of Mr Jupp politicising the matter, it would be difficult for East Devon to justify putting forward any town other than Exmouth, irrespective of whether Exmouth was the town most likely to succeed according to the criteria or to benefit from the funding.

She called the council to agree to meet with all of the MPs in East Devon (Simon Jupp, Neil Parish and Mel Stride) to prepare a bid for the town, which according to the criteria of the funding, is the most likely to succeed in any such bid, if another round of funding came forward.

But Conservative councillors criticised the decision to bring forward the motion and spoke up in favour of what Mr Jupp had done for East Devon since his election.

Cllr Maddy Chapman, who represents the Exmouth Brixington ward, said: “Simon Jupp is taking every opportunity to secure much needed town centre funding regeneration. Throughout the election campaign, he spoke to residents and businesses and the need for regeneration came up time and time again, and that is why Simon lobbied Robert Jenrick to put Exmouth on his radar for the next round of funding, which has delayed due to the pandemic. The only justified frustration is the delay due to the ongoing challenges of the pandemic.”

Cllr Fred Caygill, also for Exmouth Brixington, added: “We have to work with the MP, not against him. The next round of funding is not open yet. Why not wait for the details of the new fund process and then work with him instead.”

He also quoted what Mr Jenrick had said in parliament last week, when the Secretary of State had said: “I very much enjoyed visiting East Devon during the General Election campaign, I look forward to seeing Exmouth’s application in due course, as I said then, Exmouth is exactly the sort of town we want to benefit from the towns regeneration funds we’ve made available.”

Cllr Philip Skinner added: “Let’s not put up the barriers and let’s see in the course of time in funding comes forward, put our arms out and collaborate rather than fight before we have even started,” while Cllr Jess Bailey, an Independent councillor, said that she didn’t think the motion would help the residents of East Devon as it was confrontational rather than collaborative.

Councillors voted by 25 votes to 15, with nine abstentions, in favour of the motion, which aims to get answers from some of the outstanding questions over the status of the Future High Streets Fund and Exmouth.

The council will write to Mr Jupp and Mr Jenrick to express their disappointment that Exmouth was not given the opportunity to engage with the bidding process for the Future High Streets Fund, and to ask:

  • Why the announcement four days before a General Election was not followed with any communication, a firm process and confirmation of the next steps to be announced to East Devon District Council (the responsible authority for submitting such bids)
  • Why no reply was received to the letter sent by the former Leader of the Council in January 2020
  • If there will be future iterations of Future High Street funding
  • Was a unilateral decision taken by the secretary of state anywhere else in the country to subvert the bidding process?

After the meeting, Cllr Whibley added: “I want to make it clear that the Democratic Alliance are ready and keen to work with Mr Jupp, collaboratively and cross-party, to secure future funding for the region.

“We are not a Conservative administration, but our aims are the same – to secure the best outcomes for our residents and it’s important that the Conservatives nationally recognise that, if we’re going to secure positive results in East Devon, we have to work together. We cannot collaborate with silence.”

Mr Jupp, when asked for his response, said: “I spoke up for Exmouth last Monday in Parliament and asked when the next round of funding to improve high streets, towns and transport would be made available. The Secretary of State confirmed that new funding and the process to apply will be revealed very soon and he’s looking forward to seeing Exmouth’s application.

“Although the process will have been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, proper plans to boost the town will need to be submitted by East Devon District Council and the Secretary of State said he hoped the council will work with me to put together an application. I urge EDDC to grasp this opportunity for the good of our town.”

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