Remember when senior officers in EDDC were found to have been “discourteous and unhelpful”, to have provided “inaccurate statements” and admitted to “amending” documents given to the Council’s own Scrutiny Committee, by no less than a Judge led Tribunal?
The context is the relocation of EDDC HQ from The Knowle, Sidmouth.
Note the ”formative” stages of this saga were taking place contemporaneously with the Graham Brown scandal which broke in the National press in March 2013.
To cut a long story short. A formal Cabinet decision to relocate was made in July 2011 in a move described as “cost neutral”. In 2012 an EDDC planning application to redevelop its site, to prepare for a sale with planning permission, failed. The Council’s own Scrutiny Committee attempted in January 2013 (unanimously) to ask EDDC to delay until more information was produced and had been examined, particularly on estimated costs and options for refurbishing existing office buildings. This was rejected by the then cabinet (see post script below).
On 17 February 2013, a member of the public, Jeremy Woodward asked under Freedom of Information for copies of the full unredacted Minutes of both Officer and Member Relocation Working Parties, and the full Relocation Manager’s formal progress reports.EDDC refused but he persisted, so did they. (Sequence of his requests can be found here).
It ended up with EDDC appearing at two formal hearings in front of an Information Tribunal, an initial one in August 2014 and a final one in 2015. In the final decision notice of May 2015 Judge Kennedy, chairing the Information Tribunal took, in his words: the unusual and unfortunate step of commenting on the conduct of the appeal itself.
From these we learn that the Tribunal considered that EDDC, whose response was led by the Deputy Chief Executive, Richard Cohen, had been at times discourteous and unhelpful and indeed that statements made at earlier hearings had been inaccurate. This related to whether or not a fully legible copy of the disputed information could be produced for the Tribunal. (It eventually was).
During the Tribunal hearing the deputy Chief Executive, Richard Cohen, also made the extraordinary admission that he had not given an original version of a document to the Scrutiny Committee but an “amended” one.
Despite the Tribunal ruling that the Council were required to publish documentation for a ‘live project’, EDDC still refused citing that: “certain events have to occur before the sale to Pegasus can be concluded. Should those events not happen then we may well have to go back to negotiate with other parties (being those who were not successful the first time around) or go back to the open market and in either of those circumstance the Council’s position could be prejudiced by the information you seek being in the public domain.” Eventually this information was released in Jan 2017.
In 2018 PegasusLife won a planning appeal for the site.
We now know, from the information squeezed out of EDDC that this site, with planning approval, is estimated to have a “developable value” of £50M.
It would be usual for a developer to pay up to a third of this (£16.7M) for the purchase of the land. So a sale price of £7.5M reached by EDDC was not good value for the ratepayer. It’s less than half of what should have been obtained
Graham Brown resigned as a councillor in 2013 and died in 2019. Richard Cohen was made redundant a year ago.
In Owl’s view the reputational damage that was done to the public’s view of probity amongst Tory Councillors and EDDC senior officers by these events lingers.
There has never been any evidence of the sort of deep “soul searching” within EDDC that is necessary to “cleanse the stables” and remove the taint.
How can anyone have confidence in an organisation whose “Top Team” appears, by inaction, to condone such behaviour?
As recorded by Claire Wright, when a district Councillor, the phrase used by Mark Williams (in his e-mail to councillors, 12.11.2014), was that the Brown investigation “hasn’t identified (anything) worth pursuing”.
“Nothing to see here” would seem to be a good summary.
PS Owl believes the spring 2013 cabinet comprised the following councillors, three or four of whom are still district or county councillors, some of whom seem to think they are qualified to cast stones; notably, a few lost their seats in 2019 (apologies to anyone left out):
Paul Diviani (Chairman/Leader); Andrew Moulding (Vice Chairman); Ray Bloxham; David Cox; Jill Elson; Graham Godbeer; Stephanie Jones; Ian Thomas; Phil Twiss