“Senior role in East Devon’s ruling cabinet has been axed”

So, the “transformation” role in Ben Ingham’s TiggerTory cabinet has been abolished by said leader.

How convenient – no more pesky questions about the Leader’s pre-election promise to move from a Cabinet system to a committee system, more representative of the diverse groups that now exist.

Councillor Millar, understandably, believed “transformation” meant changes to the way officers AND councillors would work. Instead it seems Leader Ingham sees “transformation” as applying to more commercialisation of council services and more revenue-boosting asset-sweating or selling. In other words, a continuation of the previous Tory policies – local government as business rather than public service.

More BOGOF (buy one, get one free) than transformation!

“… No reason for the decision of the leader of the council to not replace the portfolio holder position is stated in the papers ahead of the meeting. …

Instead, the cabinet collectively will take on responsibility for delivery of the Council Plan and the associated strategies of Fit for Purpose, Careful Choices and Commercialisation of Services.

The report says that Cllr Jess Bailey, Corporate Services Portfolio holder, will take on responsibility for Digital by Design and Systems Thinking, while Cllr Geoff Pook, Asset Management Portfolio holder, will now be responsible for Commercialisation of Assets rather than Revenue Generation.

… Next Wednesday’s meeting will also see changes made to committee membership as a result of the political balance of the council changes following Cllr Millar’s resignation from the Independent Group.

The council now consists of 19 members in the Independent Group, 19 Conservatives, 11 from the East Devon Alliance, eight Liberal Democrats, two Green Party members, and one Independent, Cllr Millar.

Sitting as an Independent, he is entitled to two seats across all the committees, and the full council is recommended to approve a proposal that would see the ruling Independent Group lose a seat on both the Overview Committee and the Licensing and Enforcement Committee.”

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/senior-role-east-devons-ruling-3442021

John Loudon (EDDC Sidmouth Rural councillor on Sidford Business Park planning application

From the blog of John Loudon, East Devon Alliance councillor for Sidmouth Rural.

The Sidford Business Park, Chief Executive, Council Leader & Private Eye
The planning applications to build the Business Park in Sidford have received a great deal of local attention and significant opposition, and I was pleased to be able to recently give evidence at the Inquiry in opposition to the proposed development. I believe that it is the wrong thing in the wrong place. Unfortunately, the Planning Inspector who adjudicated at the Inquiry disagreed and has now given the go ahead for the Business Park.

We are where we are because there have been two planning applications submitted by Tim and Mike Ford, in the name of OG Holdings Retirement Benefits Scheme, to build this Business Park. The first of these applications was submitted in 2016 and rejected by East Devon District Council. The second was then submitted in 2018 and was again rejected by the District Council.

In listening to the evidence at the Inquiry I, and many others, were taken aback to learn a claim arising from the evidence given by a key witness for the Fords, their agent Joseph Marchant, which was repeated by their QC and which wasn’t challenged by the Council.

The claim was set out at paragraph 6.0.1 in Mr Marchant’s written evidence “Subsequent to the refusal of the 2016 application, an approach was made to Members (Councillors) including Councillor Hughes and the CEO (Chief Executive) of EDDC, Mark Williams”.

This is continued in paragraph 6.0.2 of Mr Marchant’s written evidence “We were advised by Mark Williams…. that in his opinion, the applicant (the Fords) may make more advance in progress towards delivery through appealing (the Council’s decision to refuse the 2016 planning application) rather than resubmission”.

This claim was also clearly set out in paragraphs 13 and 14 of the Fords’ QC’s final closing arguments at the Inquiry “After the 2016 application was refused, there was a meeting with Councillor Hughes and the CEO of the Council”. “The CEO advised that the way to progress was to appeal. That is an extraordinary state of affairs”.

In my opinion all of this raised serious questions, not for the first time, about the links between the District Council and developers. It could be construed that the Chief Executive’s actions and advice undermined the authority and responsibilities of not only the Council’s planning officers, but also that of the elected Members, particularly those with responsibility for oversight and decision making on planning applications.

I therefore took this matter up with the Leader of the Council and in doing so I asked him a number of questions about how this meeting, involving the District Council’s Chief Executive and the developers, came about, what was discussed at it and who was present. After a bit of toing and froing I received answers to some of my questions, and as a result I believe that this is what happened –

After the 2016 planning application to build the Business Park was turned down by the District Council Tim Ford contacted the Chief Executive’s PA on Thursday 3 November 2016 seeking a meeting with the Chief Executive. This request appears to have been acted up very quickly as the meeting took place on Tuesday 8 November at 8.30 am in the Chief Executive’s office.

Present at the meeting were the Chief Executive, Mark Williams, Paul Diviani, the then Conservative Leader of the District Council, Councillor Stuart Hughes plus the developers Tim and Mike Ford and their agent Joseph Marchant, the one and the same person who’s witness statement led to this meeting being made public. The reason for the meeting is recorded as “To discuss the Sidford Business Park”.

The District Council is unable to confirm how long this meeting took. In addition, the District Council appears to have no formal, or informal, record of what was discussed or any decisions that were reached.

I find this situation concerning. It is amazing that within 4 working days of requesting a meeting that a developer can hold a meeting involving the Chief Executive and Leader of the Council, the two most senior people within the Council, to discuss a planning application that their Council had refused. I wonder how many members of the public can get that sort of high-level access so quickly?

I am concerned that at this meeting there was no planning officer, legal adviser nor the Council’s Monitoring Officer present. Surely, any discussion about a matter relating to a planning application should have the input of a planning officer. Wouldn’t the Council be best protected by having a legal adviser present? Surely, the Monitoring Officer, who is responsible for the probity of the Council, ought to be in attendance?

There was no record of the meeting’s discussions made on behalf of the Council. I cannot understand why this was so. Surely, it’s important that a record of such a meeting is made and then shared with the planning officers? Surely, a record of the meeting should have been placed with all the other related documents in the planning application file? It’s almost as if no one wanted the meeting to have been known about by anyone else, or otherwise why not keep a record of its discussions?

My role as a campaigner against the Business Park and as a District Councillor pursing this matter has been challenged by the District Council. The Business Park is within my Ward. Local residents within my Ward and within a neighbouring Ward at Sidford have expressed concern at the proposed Business Park and the involvement of the Chief Executive in this matter. It is therefore only right and proper that I have pursued this on their behalf.

Afterall, the Local Government Association’s Guidance for new Councillors 2019/20, which the District Council provided to me upon taking office in May, states at page 7, in the section headed “The Councillor’s role” that –

“A councillor’s primary role is to represent their ward or division and the people who live in it. Councillors provide a bridge between the community and the council. As well as being an advocate for your local residents and signposting them to the right people at the council, you will need to keep them informed about the issues that affect them”.

It goes on to explain that –

“As a local councillor, your residents will expect you to: … know your patch and be aware of any problems … represent their views at council meetings … lead local campaigns on their behalf”.

This guidance was reinforced to Councillors through the training that it provided in May 2019.

I don’t feel comfortable with some aspects of how the District Council has handled this planning application. I don’t feel comfortable about –

how quickly a developer was able to gain swift access to the most senior people in the Council.
that other key Officers weren’t present at the meeting.
that no record of the meeting was made by the Council.
I know for sure that many local residents remain uncomfortable too. As does Private Eye which has picked up on this story on 20 September.”

The Sidford Business Park, Chief Executive, Council Leader & Private Eye

Who is our EDDC councillor for Brexit? Are we prepared?

Does anyone know who our “lead councillor for Brexit” is?

The government required every council to appoint someone to be responsible for Brexit preparations:

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/aug/03/all-english-councils-told-to-appoint-brexit-lead?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Searching under “Brexit” on the EDDC site brought up no information except generic government information non-specific to East Devon, instead the site kicks responsibility to our Local Enterprise Partnership, saying that:

“The Heart of the South West Growth Hub

Our LEP wide Growth Hub continue to update their Brexit page with useful links to trustworthy sources of information & advice, Brexit related events and other resources that could be of use to local businesses.

Find out more, see the HotSW Growth Hub Brexit Resources page.”

https://eastdevon.gov.uk/business-and-investment/brexit-government-guidance-for-businesses-preparing-for-brexit/

Unfortunately, the link to the resource page apoears to be dead!

This LEP page did again have some very general information:

Brexit Business Resources

So, how prepared is East Devon for Brexit and who is in charge?

It’s getting nearer …..

EDDC Tory councillors get called out on pointless (and possibly illegal) criminal checks

Tory councillors Ian Hall and Tom Wright get their knickers in a real twist about Hall’s call for councillors to submit to Disclosure and Barring checks.

Swiftly demolished by Tim Todd in this exchange on Hall’s Facebook page!

EDDC CEO tries to slither out of responsibility (NOT successfully!) for his planning advice to developer in private meeting

Owl has SO many questions!

First, Mr Williams’ ‘explanation’ defies belief, he basically accuses the developer of lying about the meeting. Then, he issues his denial of the circumstances of the event to the press, rather than to the councillor who asked him for an explanation. THEN, there appears to have been a totally undocumented meeting between him, Stuart Hughes and the developer – something that is extremely worrying – how many other such meetings with developers and hand-picked councillors have occurred? How do they happen?

But judge for yourself from the full text of the DevonLive article.

Owl thinks the very least EDDC majority councillors should do is suspend him until this is satisfactorily sorted.

“Calls have been made for an independent investigation after East Devon District Council’s chief executive allegedly told developers to appeal his own council’s refusal of planning permission for the Sidford Business Park.

East Devon District Council in 2018, on the grounds of harm to highway safety, relating to increased heavy goods vehicle usage of the area’s narrow roads, refused the plans for land, currently used for agriculture, the east of Two Bridges Road in Sidford.

A larger scheme submitted by the applicants was rejected previously by the council in 2016.

Applicants Tim and Mike Ford challenged the 2018 refusal of the council and three days of arguments for and against the development took place in July.

At the planning inquiry though, Richard Kimblin QC, on behalf of the applicants OG Holdings Retirement Benefit Scheme, and Joseph Marchant, their planning agent, said that following the refusal of the 2016 scheme, Mark Williams, the council’s chief executive, advised them they should appeal.

The claims, made both in writing and verbally, were unchallenged by East Devon District Council during the inquiry.

Paragraphs 13 and 14 of the Mr Kimblin QC’s final closing arguments at the Inquiry said: “After the 2016 application was refused, there was a meeting with Councillor Stuart Hughes and the CEO of the Council. The CEO advised that the way to progress was to appeal. That is an extraordinary state of affairs.”

Following a request for comment from the Local Democracy Reporting Service on the remarks allegedly made by Mr Williams, an East Devon District Council spokesman said that the he did not advise the appellant of anything, the applicant chose to interpret the comments he did make as encouraging an appeal, and the comments were made in a ‘situation where a degree of hyperbole and exaggeration is not unusual’.

Cllr John Loudoun, who represents the Sidmouth Rural ward, though has called for an independent inquiry into the meeting and the comments, saying that the while the council says there was a ‘misinterpretation of events’, “misinterpretation is a nice way of calling someone a liar.”

The claim that was made by Mr Marchant was set out in his written evidence to the inquiry, which said: “Subsequent to the refusal of the 2016 application, an approach was made to Members, including Councillor Stuart Hughes and the CEO (Chief Executive) of EDDC, Mark Williams.”

The following paragraph added: “We were advised by Mark Williams….that in his opinion, the applicant (Fords) may make more advance in progress towards delivery through appealing the Council’s decision to refuse the 2016 planning application rather than resubmission.

Paragraphs 13 and 14 of Mr Kimblin’s final closing arguments at the Inquiry added: “After the 2016 application was refused, there was a meeting with Councillor Hughes and the CEO of the Council. The CEO advised that the way to progress was to appeal. That is an extraordinary state of affairs.”

Asked to comment on the claims made at the inquiry, an East Devon District Council spokesman said: “The council officers and legal representative, acting on behalf of the local planning authority, did not consider the comments made by Mr Marchant or the appellant’s QC as material in specifically defending the reason for refusal, which is of course their role in the inquiry.

“The simple point is that the circumstances described have no bearing or relevance to the local planning authority’s decision and nor therefore to the focussing of all of their efforts in seeking to persuade the Inspector that the proposed development was unacceptable.

“As for the meeting itself, as was made clear at the inquiry the CEO was asked by the applicant/appellant to facilitate a meeting between them and Cllr Hughes to ascertain what options there might be available to them in the light of the refusal of planning permission.

“At the meeting, as reflected in Mr Marchant’s proof of evidence, Cllr Hughes expressed his opinion that he could not foresee any circumstances under which planning permission would be acceptable, notwithstanding the Local Plan allocation.

“The CEO did not advise the appellant of anything, but expressed the view that there were therefore three potential options open to the applicants: resubmit with changes to the proposed scheme; appeal the decision; or walk away from the site.

“The applicant appears to have chosen to interpret this as encouraging an appeal and we would note that the comments from their QC were in the context of also making an application for costs against the council – a situation where a degree of hyperbole and exaggeration is not unusual.”

However Cllr Loudoun said that having read the council’s response, he was even more convinced of the need for what he originally asked for, a genuinely independent inquiry in these issues, and he was appalled that the response to his concerns was sent to the press and not him.

He added: “Evidence provided at the Inquiry was fully tested by both the Council and the applicants’ representatives because this is the way in which facts are established or challenged. The statements made verbally and in writing by Mr Marchant for the appellants are, according to the District Council statement, misinterpretations of the events and comments at the meeting involving the Chief Executive.

“This is an extraordinary state of affairs as we now have a challenge to Mr Marchant’s evidence at a point where he cannot defend himself and after the point when the Council allowed the statements to be accepted as fact. It would appear that the Council is now saying that Mr Marchant spoke untruths and that these were untruths were in turn repeated by the applicants’ QC.

“They are essentially accusing them of lying. When it was raised in the inquiry, no-one complained about it and or questioned it. To me, saying it was a misinterpretation is a nice way of calling them a liar.”

He added: “The Council’s statement is disingenuous in that it tries to down play the quotes of what the Chief Executive said as put forward by the applicants’ QC as “hyperbole and exaggeration” whilst pursuing a costs order. This ignores the fact that Mr Marchant made the claims whilst giving evidence and that the appellants’ QC repeated them not only in his arguments for costs but also, and more importantly, in his broader closing submissions in support of the applicants’ case.

“It was not a throwaway comment as it was in the both written and verbal statements and made by two people.

“I am even more concerned having read the Council’s public response to these matters and I am now even more convinced of the need for what I originally asked for, a genuinely independent inquiry in these issues.

“If he did say that they should appeal then he has it then he was undermined the officers, the council and his role on a very serious issues, and if not, then why wasn’t it challenged at the inquiry?

“I am bemused at the response from the council to this matter which seems to be now turning into as much a focal point as the planning application and subsequent Inquiry.”

A decision on whether to allow the appeal to allow the plans for 8,445sqm of employment space built on the outskirts of the village is set to be made by the Autumn. If the appeal was allowed, then a further planning application would need to be submitted for the details of the scheme.”

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/independent-inquiry-calls-after-claims-3158474

Grant Thornton – EDDC’s auditors – get more flack

Owl says: Good job we have internal auditors and an Audit and Governance Committee and a Scrutiny Committee …

“What is most perturbing is that the auditor being relied upon by investors [in Sports Direct – whose shares have tumbled] to navigate their way through the accounting miasma is Grant Thornton. It is jolly good that Grant Thornton is a challenger to the big four, but investors might feel more comfortable if the track record were more stellar.

Among its stunning successes were the audit of Patisserie Valerie, where tens of millions of pounds vanished, and Neil Woodford’s gated Equity Income fund.

Small wonder Grant Thornton has been put under special measures to raise audit quality by the enforcer, the Financial Reporting Council. Given the known unknowns, the 9 per cent drop in Sports Direct looks too kind. …”

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/money/comment/article-7249985/ALEX-BRUMMER-Chaos-Mike-Ashleys-empire-transpires-no-master-plan-place.html

“The way in which East Devon District Council is run could be changing” [HURRAH!]

Owl promises to stop using the phrase TiggerTories (the close working relationship between current and past Tories and The Independent Group led by Ben Ingham and which excludes the East Devon Alliance and Lib Dens) if this ever happens!!!

And note that officers are already suggesting “hybrid systems” – gosh, they MUST be scared that a committee system will weaken their powers!

“A review into the governance arrangements of East Devon District Council is set to take place.

The leader of the council, Cllr Ben Ingham, had promised to fully consider alternative arrangements to the current leader and cabinet system as a condition of the support from the East Devon Alliance when they seconded his nomination to become leader at the annual council meeting in May.

Wednesday night’s cabinet meeting saw them unanimously agree that the overview committee should carry out that review.

Cllr Paul Arnott, leader of the East Devon Alliance, told Wednesday’s meeting it was a very welcome development.

He said: “This idea didn’t come from me but came from Ben who in 2015 made it a principal of his manifesto when he was the East Devon Alliance leader to abolish the cabinet and bring in the committee system. The proposals are potentially excellent but the devil is in the detail.”

“When the governance arrangements changed it was with the quid pro quo that the scrutiny function worked. But the scrutiny function has been a eunuch function in East Devon as many suggestions and motions have been refused or ignored by officers. In my view, the cabinet system is not working because scrutiny is not working.”

He said there were two winkles of the recommendation that concerned him though, as one was that the report from overview would come back to the cabinet, so it would be like ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’. He was also worried about the ‘due course’ wording as any decision on governance changes can only be made at the annual council meeting.

Cllr Paul Millar, portfolio holder for transformation, said that it was important that the recommendations did come back in time for the next annual council in May 2020. He added: “This review needs to be done fairly and to establish the rationale for change and if the preferred solution will deliver a satisfactory outcome and, if so, at what cost would it do so.”

The report of Henry Gordon Lennox, Strategic Lead Governance & Licensing & Monitoring Officer, said that if the council did agree to change to either an elected Mayor and Cabinet system, or committee structure, then they would be forced to stick with the change for the next five years.

His report added that there are also hybrid options where elements of the cabinet and committee system could be combined that the council could adopt, but it is the view of officers that it is for Members to determine why the necessity for change and to establish what the objective of the governance arrangements should be.”

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/way-east-devon-district-council-3082739