“Leader says in hindsight, notes should have been taken when CEO met developers”

Owl says: Well, duh! And just how long has EDDC’s CEO been in the job? Where was his “hindsight”?.

And our “Leader” is now fully au-fait with the language if the previous majority party as far as giving non-answers is concerned!

Everything changes, nothing changes …

“At last Wednesday’s full council meeting, Cllr John Loudoun, asked questions around the keeping of notes from meetings that officers of the council are involved in.

Notes of meetings when senior council officers meet with developers over planning issues should be made in future, councillors have been told.

It follows an instance where 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.

Paragraphs 13 and 14 of the Richard Kimblin QC final closing arguments at a planning inquiry held this 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.”

The claims, made both in writing and verbally, were unchallenged by East Devon District Council during the inquiry, but afterwards, an East Devon District Council spokesman said that Mr Williams did not advise the appellant of anything but 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’.

At last Wednesday’s full council meeting, Cllr John Loudoun, asked questions around the keeping of notes from meetings that officers of the council are involved in.

He said: “Sometimes officers from this Council, beyond those directly responsible for local planning matters, meet and/or discuss with developers their planning applications. Sometimes these meetings take place to discuss applications that this Council has failed to support.

“Does the leader of the council agree with me that when such meetings and/or discussions take place, it is most imperative that they are held in ways that give residents faith that the Officers are transparent and accountable in these matters?

“Does the leader agree with me that it would be appropriate that at such meetings, or in such discussions, there should be more than one Officer present, such as a legal adviser and/or planning officer? Do you agree that any meetings or discussion with developers when they relate to planning should have a formal record kept of what was discussed and agreed, and why?”

In response, Cllr Ben Ingham, leader of the council, said: “The circumstances surrounding any meeting will determine whether it is necessary for them to be held in any particular way. I have the upmost faith that our officers would appreciate the need to act in a way that ensures nothing untoward occurs.

“But in hindsight, it is probably a very good advice and many members and officers of the council may say in future they will.”

It was of a number of questions raised at the meeting relating to concerns about the processes of the council which followed what some councillors called the ‘shambles’ of the previous full council meeting which left councillors unclear as to what they were voting for.

Cllr Loudoun added: “At the last Full Council meeting there was lengthy debate around a motion. A Member at one point interjected and proposed ‘that the question now be put’ and the chairman put this point of order to the meeting.

“Many members did not fully appreciate the implications of voting for or against this point of order and when passed by a show of hands, there appeared to be confusion amongst some Members as to what had just been agreed. When the chairman invited the meeting to vote on the motion on the agenda paper, some Members appeared not to understand what was happening and what they were now being asked to vote on.

Once the meeting had voted on the motion some Members were confused and it was only at this point that it was fully explained what had happened and the implications of their first vote, but by this point the votes had been cast and decisions made.

“The meeting ended with some Members expressing frustration and/or confusion about what the meeting had decided. Does the Leader recognise this set of events and if he does, what would he recommend this Council does to avoid a similar set of circumstances occurring in the future?”

In response, Cllr Ingham said: “It is not for me to say what other members may or may not have understood. I understood what was happening but members are always able to ask for confirmation on what is going on and I am sure the Chairman would, in such circumstances, ensure that clarity was given on the procedures from the officers present. We have may acted at a speed that was not appropriate for new members.”

Asked by Cllr Paul Millar on the potential merits of ensuring Members can make informed decisions when asked to vote in Council meetings, Cllr Ingham said that any council or committee makes mistakes, but as the new council learns, he hopes members and officers will make fewer mistakes when acting in a hurry.

Cllr Eleanor Rylance also questioned why a significant number of meetings had been scheduled to take place during the half-term break. As well as the full council meeting, a Strategic Planning Committee, an Audit and Governance Committee, and a Scrutiny Committee meeting took place last week.

She said: “In the spirit of inclusivity, how is it that this council is wilfully disadvantaging anyone with school aged children, caring responsibilities for school aged children, or those who work in schools or other educational establishments, by organising major meetings including this one during school half term? This is entirely avoidable. Please can the council set its timetable with school dates in mind in the future?”

In response, Cllr Ingham said: “Whilst it would clearly be difficult to plan a yearly meeting cycle to accommodate school holidays, particularly bearing in mind the length of the summer holiday and the potential impact on the business of the Council, it would be helpful to consider if changes could be made in future. “

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/leader-says-hindsight-notes-should-3475242

East Devon’s population explodes

In 2017, East Devon’s CEO and Electoral officer “lost” around 6,000 voters:

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2017/05/31/those-missing-6000-voters-electors-jump-from-96000-to-113000-plus/

and, when he had to explain it and put some effort into finding them, the population jumped from 96,000 to more than 113,000.

Now, in 2019, East Devon’s population is said to be 144,317!

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Devon

30,000 plus people added in just 2 years!

Wonder if the population increase is reflected in the electoral roll?

“District bosses accused of neglecting Cranbrook – but they say authority faces its own finanical pressures”

“The district council has been accused of neglecting its duties to support Cranbrook compared to other towns across East Devon.

In two letters sent to East Devon District Council’s (EDDC) deputy CEO, Richard Cohen, Cranbrook Town Council chairman Les Bayliss urged the authority to integrate Cranbrook and provide it with the same level of support it gives other towns. Cllr Bayliss said: “If Cranbrook is to continue to flourish, the community needs the district council’s investment.”

The town council has asked EDDC to help cover sizeable ground maintenance costs for Cranbrook’s country park.

Cllr Bayliss said a ‘substantial’ amount of council tax in Cranbrook – which is the fifth-highest tax in England out of more than 10,000 parishes – goes towards maintaining the green space. Cllr Bayliss said the maintenance costs are in the region of £200,000 per annum, adding: “It is clearly unfair that the cost burden is carried by Cranbrook taxpayers alone.”

The town council has also demanded the district council provides 500m² of commercial space in Cranbrook’s eagerly-awaited town centre. Cllr Bayliss said: “The development of [the] town centre in Cranbrook has not commenced to date, despite discussion among various partner organisations for many years.”

However, in a letter in response to the concerns, EDDC CEO Mark Williams blamed the district council’s own financial difficulties it faces in the short to medium-term future for its perceived lack of support.

He said: “It will increasingly be the case that communities will have to expect to fund their own assets as principal councils are fundamentally compelled by the Government to focus on statutory services.”

Mr Williams also dismissed the town council’s request for help funding the country park maintenance cost.

He said: “Representatives of our countryside service held extensive discussions with Cranbrook Town Council on a management plan that we initially submitted to [Cranbrook] Consortium with our proposals and costs associated with managing and adopting the country park… I assume that in seeking transfer of the land to the town council, you will have assessed the cost of managing and maintaining the land and reflected this in the precept amount you are charging your residents.”

https://www.midweekherald.co.uk/news/cranbrook-funding-request-to-eddc-1-6298803

Sidford Fields Business Park – Campaign update

“Forgive our silence over recent weeks but please don’t take this to mean that we haven’t been doing anything!
Having received the disappointing news that the Planning Inspector has upheld the appeal for the proposed Business Park a solicitor was engaged and a barrister instructed to obtain a legal opinion on the likelihood of a successful legal challenge to the Inspector’s decision.

We have only very recently received the barrister’s written opinion. Regretfully, the barrister’s opinion whilst incredibly sympathetic to the circumstances that local residents will find themselves in when the Business Park is up and running, concludes his opinion by stating “ … while I can see much to disagree with in the Inspector’s assessment, I do not consider there to be an arguable ground of challenge raising an error of law, and therefore the prospects of success in a section 288 claim – in my view – are low.”

This means that we have no legal avenue to challenge the Inspector’s decision. That said at least one Sidford resident has written to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government asking that the decision be “called in”. In other words, they have asked the Secretary of State to review the decision.

If anyone else would like to do the same then you can email the Secretary of State, Robert Jenner, at Robert.Jenrick.MP@parliament.uk.

There remain concerns of evidence that arose out the Inquiry and the outcome of the inquiry itself. We have been asked what residents can do should they wish to raise their concerns. Should you wish to do so your concerns can be addressed to –

(i) Concerns regarding the Planning Inquiry, its process and/or its outcome are best addressed to the Secretary of State Robert Jenner;

(ii) Concerns regarding the way in which the District Council, its Members and/or its Officers have dealt with the planning applications thus far can be addressed to the Leader of the Council, Councillor Ben Ingham, at BIngham@eastdevon.gov.uk. And/or residents are able to make comments at the start of Full Council meetings, with the next one being held in the evening of 23 October.

District Councillor John Loudoun has raised the matters associated with the meeting held between the Chief Executive and the applicants back in 2016 after the Council had refused the 2016 planning application. He has updated his blog which sets out the issues associated with the meeting based upon information provided by the Council. His blog is at http://johnloudoun4sidmouthruralhome.wordpress.com/.

The applicants, having now obtained outline planning approval as a result of the Inspector’s decision, will need to start to obtain detailed planning approval from the District Council.

This obviously will lead to scrutiny by the Town Council and the district Council and will afford residents opportunities to comment on the details within those applications. As of yet, no applications have been submitted.

It has been suggested that it might be appropriate for residents who are annoyed at the Inspector’s decision to lobby the District Council. We cannot see what this would achieve as it has no ability to alter the Inspector’s decision. Rather, we think that any further lobbies would probably be best considered when future planning applications are under discussion at Town and/or District Council meeetings.

We recognise that many of you are concerned to appreciate all that has happened over recent months and what can/should be done as things move forward. We are therefore trying to organise a public meeting for the evening of either 14 or 15 October. Once we have been able to book a venue, we will let you know the details of the meeting.
Best wishes

Campaign Team”

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

“General elections – the role of the Acting Returning Officer”

Given that our Acting Returning Officer (CEO Matk Williams) is STILL making multiple mistakes after many years in the job (including being summinsed by a Parliamentary Committee to explain some of his more controversial actions)

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2014/10/14/official-transcript-of-eddc-ceo-evidence-to-parliamentary-committee-on-voter-engagement/

he might appreciate this refresher and he can”t then plead ignorance:

“Ben Standing sets out some of the steps Acting Returning Officers should be taking now, with another general election seemingly around the corner.

If the news is anything to go by, we are likely to have our third UK Parliamentary Election in five years soon. This is despite the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 which was intended to take the politics out of calling elections.

If an election is called, it will be against a backdrop of a charged political climate and the recent creation of a new and potentially major political party (the Brexit Party).

From the perspective of an Acting Returning Officer the combination of inexperienced candidates and a charged political climate heightens the risk of something unexpected happening and of challenges being made against the way the vote has been managed.

Although mistakes do happen and can usually be rectified, the reputational damage that can flow from even simple errors can be significant. A mistake with the allocation of block votes led to 41,939 votes being counted in a small constituency in England that only had 7,000 registered voters and where only 2,477 ballot papers had been issued. The mistake led to the formation of a residents’ campaign group, a court supervised recount and costly High Court proceedings.

Now is an opportune moment for Acting Returning Officers to review their election plans, to ensure that they meet the relevant legal requirements and that contingency arrangements are in place to respond to a snap election.

The role of an Acting Returning Officer is to ensure that the election is administered effectively. It should be remembered that Acting Returning Officers can appoint one or more persons to discharge any of their functions; however they cannot delegate responsibility for delivering the election.

So what should Acting Returning Officers be doing? In theory, as electoral law hasn’t changed, Acting Returning Officers should be doing exactly the same as they have in relation to previous elections. However in practice there are a number of steps which may assist Acting Returning Officers. These include:

considering the candidate registration process. There may be an increase in inexperienced candidates (both due to candidates being fielded by the Brexit Party and the high profile loss of the Conservative whip for over 20 current MPs). Have candidates followed the correct procedure? Additional resources may be required to assist candidates with the registration process.

considering how the current procedure would cope with a significant increase in turnout. For example is there sufficient capacity in the polling stations, have sufficient staff been trained in order to ensure that votes are verified and counted in a reasonable timeframe (with the verification having taken place before 2 am). Considering this at an early stage is essential, as adjusting plans later is often more difficult.

reviewing the voter registration process. If an election is called, it is likely to be seen, at least in part, as a vote on how (and if) we should leave the European Union. It is possible that there could be a surge in the registration of new voters. Sufficient staff need to be trained and available to processes applications. In my experience, just because the public has been reminded to register to vote a number of months doesn’t mean that a significant proportion won’t try to do so within a few days of the deadline. Councils must be able to deal with any last minute registrations.

training polling station staff to manage difficult situations. Whether or not we leave the European Union is an emotive issue and polling station staff will need to know what to do in the case incidents in and outside the polling station. This could include being aware of how the police should be alerted if necessary (often local police forces will provide a dedicated number that polling station staff can use).

reminding staff how to deal with media. There is undoubtedly going to be significant media interest and staff will need to be reminded of what they can and cannot say.

staff and the public should also be reminded of the significant number of electoral offences. The integrity of the count is paramount.

a person may act as a proxy for any number of close relatives, but a person may not have more than one proxy at a time. The proxy must be registered in accordance with the relevant deadlines, but contingency plans should be put in place ahead of time to deal with any emergency proxies required.

ballot papers must by law be printed in accordance with the directions for printing in the appendix to the relevant election rules. It is strongly advisable that as a minimum, enough ballot papers to meet a 100% turnout should be printed (I have encountered a situation where a higher than average turnout almost left the local authority with insufficient ballot papers – a situation that no Acting Returning Officer wants to find themselves in!).

although polling stations close at 10pm, any voter in a queue at their polling station at 10pm may still apply for a ballot paper. Efficient planning should ensure that queues should not cause significant delays, however if it is anticipated that queue management may be an issue prior arrangements should be agreed with the local police.

Ultimately Acting Returning Officers need to ensure that they fully understand the legislative framework concerning the conduct of the election, and have an effective management procedure in place, so that they are able to respond to any unforeseen or unusual situations.

Acting Returning Officers who, without reasonable cause, are guilty of any act or omission in breach of their official duties are liable on summary conviction to an unlimited fine. Accordingly it is important that acting returning officers have the correct insurance cover.

https://www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/governance/314-governance-a-risk-articles/41542-general-elections-the-role-of-the-acting-returning-officer