Whitewash? Hogwash? You decide. EDDC’s Chief Executive gives his view? legal opinion? opinion? who knows!

23 Jan

Below is an exchange of correspondence between a concerned Sidmouth resident, the Chairman of the Task and Finish Forum looking into the East Devon Business Forum and EDDC’s Chief Executive.  Whitewash buckets at the ready this evening, everyone!

THE INITIAL LETTER

Dear [Chairman of TAFF]

There is serious concern that the Business TAFF set up by the Overview & Scrutiny Committee will end up toothless and, therefore, worthless.

What is particularly alarming is that the ‘legal advice’ proffered by the Chief Executive at the initial meeting in December has effectively rendered the TAFF an empty exercise, which will cosmetically smooth the transition to a slightly less ambiguous body representing the business community across East Devon.

I would take serious issue with this ‘legal advice’ – namely, that the scope of this TAFF cannot include planning issues.

In the ‘Notes’ of that first meeting, the Chief Executive says that planning decisions cannot be challenged’  by any TAFF.

However, the District Council’s own Constitution makes it very clear that it is the responsibility of Scrutiny Committees and their TAFFs to hold any part of the District Council to account: “Each Committee operates within the guiding principles of effective scrutiny promoted by the Centre for Public Scrutiny, namely: 1. Provide a ‘critical-friend’ challenge to the Cabinet… 2. Reflect the voice and concerns of the public and its communities. 3. Take the lead and own the scrutiny process on behalf of the public…

The Chief Executive also claimed that ‘[neither] this TAFF nor its members could properly be considered independent, and this constrained any ability to look into such areas [as planning]’.

However, the Centre for Public Scrutiny, the body respectfully cited in the District Council’s own Constitution, defines public scrutiny as “the ability to critically examine the activities of those exercising power on behalf of the wider populace, in order to hold them accountable for it.”

In other words, the Constitution allows for any TAFF under the Overview & Scrutiny Committee to consider planning issues; and nowhere in the Constitution does it expressly bar any such consideration.

And in fact, there is a great deal of precedence to draw on. It is extraordinary that no mention has been made of the fact that the East Devon District Council itself has set up several TAFFs to look into planning issues – for example, the Employment Land TAFF of 2007 and the Land Supply for Housing TAFF of 2009, if my researches prove correct. (See attached)

Could it be, I ask, that there is extreme pressure being exerted on this Business TAFF because these earlier TAFFs were heavily influenced by the EDBF and its members – and to open this particular can of worms could be explosive?

But frankly, unless the process of examining the East Devon Business Forum is carried out rigorously by an official body left free to do so, then not only will we be left with a Business Forum tarnished with an uncertain past, but all sorts of contrary evidence will continue to seep out into the press and public domain, further damaging the name of the District Council itself.

I therefore urge you and your colleagues on the Business TAFF to carry out a thorough scrutiny of the EDBF on behalf of the East Devon community.

Thank you.

With best regards,

Jeremy Woodward [writing in a personal capacity and not in any other capacity]

THE REPLY

RE: Concern re the limited scope of the Business TAFF – UNCLASSIFIED:

Thank you for this e-mail. I have read Mr Woodward’s e-mail carefully.

I have seen a number of criticisms of my advice, none of which, I would say, get to the point of the issues constraining your TAFF.

I am assuming at this stage that you do not want me to address the issue of individual planning applications since my advice appears to have been accepted in this respect?

The factual background to my advice was that the draft Local Plan was out to public consultation (this has now finished), prior to it going before a Planning Inspector who will assess all the consultation responses, and also the evidential basis for the various policies and land allocations. The Council has a limited opportunity to accept minor changes to the Local Plan before the Inspector starts his examination but is no longer at liberty to make major changes (unless it wants to go out to further consultation and incur further delay with all the risks that that entails).

In that the complaint (as I understand it) against the EDBF is that it has acted as a ‘lobby group’ (in respect of some elements of the Local Plan),  you cannot ignore the fact that those making the complaint against the EDBF also comprise ‘lobby groups’. I’m not really sure whether the SOS tag is accurate to describe them as a single ‘lobby group’ or whether the Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce etc should be seen as a separate ‘lobby groups’. Either way the motivation of those lobby groups campaigning for the EDBF to be ‘investigated’ appears to derive from their dissatisfaction with the Sidford allocation (and the also the Knowle) and their desire to challenge the allocation. As far as I can see, attacking the EDBF is part of their campaign of challenging the contents of the Local Plan, particularly with regard to Sidmouth?

The issue that constrains the TAFF therefore is that those seeking to challenge the EDBF appear to me to be seeking a way of going behind the draft Local Plan and as the Council has now issued the final version of the draft Local Plan it is not appropriate for the TAFF to go behind the decision of the Council at this stage.

If the complaint against the EDBF is that it has acted ‘improperly’ in relation to ‘planning matters’ then  the issue of the TAFF’s independence comes into play. Like it or not the TAFF is not independent of the Council and arguably is not able to carry out an impartial investigation.

If the Council was persuaded that there was a defined issue worthy of investigation it would do what I have advised the TAFF – that is to say either the Ombudsman should assess the matter (impropriety) or the Local Plan Inspector (insufficient evidence to justify allocations etc).

I hope this clarifys matters.

Yours sincerely,

Mark [Williams – Chief Executive, East Devon District Council]

THE FURTHER RESPONSE

Dear [Chairman of TAFF]
I would like to briefly reply to the Chief Executive’s comments:
1) This is not about subterfuge and trying to undermine the Local Plan by devious, backdoor means. This is about challenging a powerful lobby group at the heart of local government. Concern actually goes much deeper than quibbling over some ‘allocation’.
2) Yes, the SOS campaign is a lobby group, as is the Chamber and the SVA etc. However, the difference between these and the EDBF is that the latter seems to have had unparalleled access to decision-making at the highest levels of local government. This needs to be investigated thoroughly.
3) It is absolutely ‘appropriate’ of any TAFF to scrutinise the decisions made by Cabinet and other Council bodies. It is the duty of any TAFF to be seen – publicly that is – as acting independently from any interference from Officers and Councillors. It can only be taken seriously if it is seen to be acting impartially. In other words, if there is a defined issue worthy of investigation’, then the OSC is perfectly within its rights to set up a TAFF to consider it.
With respect, the Chief Executive has not addressed the point that the District Council’s Constitution specifically says all of this: this is not some fancy on my part. Scrutiny Committees are meant to address widespread public concerns – which is exactly why this TAFF was set up, not to look at individual planning applications, but to examine worries about perceived conflicts of interest and undue influence from a powerful lobby group.
Because the Omdudsman has no interest in general allegations of maladministration, only in individual injustice cases, and because the Local Plan Inspector has no interest in procedures as to how proposals were passed,  only as to whether they are compliant with the NPPF etc – to expect an external body to investigate these now-widespread concerns only distracts from the real powers that the OSC has to set up a body to scrutinise any aspect of the Council as it sees fit.
Thank you for your determination to set out the work of the TAFF as agreed by the Committee Members.
With best regards,
Jeremy
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4 Responses to “Whitewash? Hogwash? You decide. EDDC’s Chief Executive gives his view? legal opinion? opinion? who knows!”

  1. Medusa January 23, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

    What strange people our EDDC officers are and strangest amongst them seems to be the Chief Executive. A decent CE would want to see this sorted in public, since it is the public that a council serves. But it seems this one exists only for developers.

  2. stoneleighblogger January 23, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    The letter from Mr Williams seems full of his own advice. He has drifted away from the responsibilities of his office and is now all at sea. Will find safe harbour ? Only if he heeds good advice from the likes of Mr Woodward here, and ignore the wreckers lanterns waved at him by the EDBF, the cabinet and property developers.

  3. Not A Developer January 23, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    Advice but not legal advice. We still don’t know where his “legal advice” to the first TAFF came from since the Local Government Act which he quoted actually specifically ALLOWS overview and scrutiny of individual planning applications in certain circumstances that seem to apply in this case. Is the tail wagging the dog?

  4. Roobarb January 23, 2013 at 6:13 pm #

    Perhaps the next request to the TAFF Chairman/EDDC Chief Exec should be for publication of this ‘legal advice’?

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