Knickers in a Twiss?

20 Mar

On Monday this week , EDDC Councillor Phil Twiss sent an e-mail to the Tory Group of councillors,  criticising Tony Green’s paper Planning in East Devon and the East Devon Business Forum which was sent to all councillors in October last year.  For the e-mail from Cllr Twiss, click here: Comments re Tony Green paper 16th March 2013

Here is  Tony Green’s open letter to Cllr Twiss in reply.
Dear Phil Twiss,
Sorry, but I couldn’t resist asking a few weeks ago, “What is the point of Cllr Twiss?” when you said as Tory Whip that you’d never whipped anyone. Well, having read the email you’ve just sent to the Tory group concerning my paper on the East Devon Business Forum, I now know your function: organising damage limitation!
I quite understand why. Last week’s “Browngate” revelations were a severe blow to the reputation of EDDC and the Majority Party. It’s sad that many upright, hard-working councillors and officers risk being “tarred with the same brush.”
You were a bit unfair, though to condemn my paper as “guesswork, speculation, and innuendo” when it warned beware conflicts of interest!,  and gave  a lot  of evidence that a scandal was waiting to happen in Mr. Brown’s EDBF
Well it happened. People are shocked by the spectacle of a councillor’s primary responsibility – to act in the best interests of his constituents- apparently being trumped  by a secondary consideration – to make a profit as a planning consultant: a classic example of a conflict of interest.
My paper described at some length the extraordinary dual role of ex-Cllr Brown. As chair of a group dominated by landowners and developers he lobbied effectively for their business interests, and presumably his own as a planning consultant. (Incidentally I have another fat dossier on the detail of EDBF lobbying from 2006 to 2012)
Then, wearing his councillor’s hat, he played an important role in changing planning policy, which, after 2008, made it much easier for developers to get planning permission for big extensions to industrial estates.
Shaking off allegations of planning “ improprieties” , he then chaired the LDF Panel in 2009-10. In private meetings, he encouraged Forum members to put forward their own land for inclusion in the Local Plan. A report by the Planning Advisory Service  in November 2009 took a dim view, warning that some sites were pushed through “prematurely” without due deliberation or consultation with planning officers.

All this time, he was failing to declare an interest in the Forum, even in a council meeting where decisions were made directly benefitting the business interests of his old friend Roy Stuart- now vice-chair of EDBF. Or in a planning committee meeting where his planning consultancy seems to have been working for the applicant.
Sadly, in his bragging to the undercover reporters, Brown implicated the Economic Development Manager (a.k.a. Honorary Secretary of the Forum) as a first contact to “kickstart” planning applications on behalf of his clients. Officers should ideally be kept out of the firing line – they can’t defend themselves publicly- but Mr Harrison’s conflict of interest was so concerning that I went into it in some detail in my paper.

As Secretary of the EDBF he was spokesman for a group of businessmen, and helped lobby the council on matters that would benefit them financially. In Jan 2012, for example, with Mr Brown he produced  the EDBF response to the Local Plan demanding an increase in the amount of employment land – a clear advantage for leading Forum members such as business park owners, AE Stuart and FWS Carter.

He did things in this capacity which were incompatible with his role as a public official:
defending Brown when the former council leader attempted to remove him as Business Champion because of “accusations of impropriety involving planning applications within East Devon”;  tasked to write to Kate Little, Head of Planning to facilitate  a member’s planning project; sent to tell the Chief Executive that the Forum was unhappy about the presence of a ‘prejudiced’ councillor on the Business TAFF.

Most worryingly, as Economic Development Manager, Mr Harrison  is a consultee on major planning applications. He often comments on those from Forum members whose interests he has championed as honorary secretary. Since 2007 he has supported, –often enthusiastically- at least fourteen planning applications from members of the Business Forum.  Most of these were very controversial and contrary to the adopted Local Plan. All were approved.

Obviously, a conflict of interest can exist without any wrongdoing, but good councils avoid like the plague situations where  the public  suspect  that decisions are not made objectively in the public interest. Sadly the leaders of our council have failed to do this.
Cllr Diviani has got some serious questions to answer.
Last July why did he dismiss – with his signature arrogance – a motion by independent councillors to distance the council from Brown and Stuart’s Forum, branding the proposers as “anti-business”?
Why did he mislead people by telling Radio Devon that Mr Harrison’s work was merely “clerical”?
As a founder member of the Forum, who has attended 27 of their meetings, why did he not  declare an interest in EDBF while chairing the Development Management Committee which approved major and controversial planning applications from members of the EDBF?  He is always scrupulous about declaring his interest in the AONB!
The Chief Executive has known for years that the EDBF was a minefield of conflicts of interest for the councillors and officers involved. Since at least 2009 there have been complaints about this confused tangle of public servants and private lobbyists.
Mr Williams’ reaction to public concerns was to dismiss them and accuse critics of being politically motivated or prejudiced.
Recently, he has attempted to constrain the work of the TAFF committee investigating  the EDBF. He has given the committee dubious  “legal” advice  preventing  it from looking at the Forum’s influence on planning in East Devon. Minutes have been manipulated to make it more difficult for the committee to conduct an in-depth investigation, and he seems to have written the agenda for meetings, giving a partial view of the issues to be discussed.
This is serious because democracy is at stake. The TAFF is part of a watchdog whose job is to hold council leaders to account in the public interest. It is clear from the Council’s own constitution that the TAFF should be free to investigate public concerns. Any attempt by a leader to muzzle it is a serious constitutional issue.
After years of ignoring complaints about the Business Forum, Mr Williams now appears to be undermining a transparent, public enquiry into its activities.  He has lost public trust and should resign.

Finally, Phil, I agree with you that the flourishing new East Devon Alliance is a sort of “ rainbow” grouping.  It includes people of all political hues – and none. Their common hope is for a thriving local democracy where decisions are made transparently for the public good.
What’s wrong with our current politics was neatly summarised last week by a story in the Exmouth Journal. 75-year-old Janet Sawyer, a member of the Conservative Party for 40 years,  was suspended from the East Devon branch. Her crime? She spoke out against East Devon District Council’s development plans which she described as “money-orientated”. Local politics in the District, she said, were in a “deplorable” and “amoral state.”
Will we see you on Saturday at Feniton?

Best wishes,
Tony Green

P.S. Could you and Mark Williams please stop referring to me as “a” Mr Green. Thanks!

7 Responses to “Knickers in a Twiss?”

  1. Deirdre Dee March 20, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

    Thank you. An excellent clear and thorough response to Phil Twiss.

  2. TAFFY March 20, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

    Problem in a nutshell. BUT is this only the tip of the iceberg? Are there other scandals on the back of this (we all seem to have suspicions that there could be). And is the Titanic that is EDDC going to plough on and crash into it?

  3. Paul Hayward March 20, 2013 at 10:07 pm #

    I am a bit puzzled by Cllr Twiss’s opening gambit…

    “……. Mr Tony Green is promoting an organisation called the East Devon Alliance, a “rainbow alliance” of interest and lobby groups from all over East Devon representing a wide variety of issues, both local and National, some with complimentary and some with conflicting views. This organisation states itself as non political which appears at odds with a small number of councillors who promote and support it….. ”

    As far as I can tell from my involvement with the EDA so far ( and please correct me if I am mistaken so I know for future reference ) the only councillors actively involved in the EDA are:

    Roger Giles
    Claire Wright
    Ian Hall
    and myself….

    and the last time I checked, we were ALL independent councillors at either DCC, EDDC or Town level with no declared political affiliation, no political party funding, no party whip, logos, distribution teams or social / local associations or meeting halls….

    So therefore, I can not see for my sins how the EDA can be anything but non-political… contrast that with EDDC itself ( 59 councillors of whom 43 are Conservative with a Whip, or 73% ), both the leader and deputy leader being conservatives, the cabinet being exclusively Conservative, all the member champions are conservatives bar PLAIN ENGLISH and RECYCLING ( Indy ) and the DMC is staffed by a conservative majority ( 11 / 3 LD / 2 indy ) … but Cllr Twiss states ….

    ” The DMC are a politically balanced, semi judicial committee who have a justifiable reputation for their independence with political affiliation being of no relevance… ”

    I would say that politically balanced would mean 8 conservatives and 8 non-conservatives not 69% of one group and 31% of the rest!!

    Frankly, I don’t give a jot which party you belong to just as long as the decisions you make are equally non-political, as indeed they are at the EDA… there will be disgreements on direction, on strategy, on media use but one thing is clearcut …. no-one will force their hand and tell them what to say, when to say it and to whom….when that happens, I’m outta here, folks…

    I beseech all at EDDC: staff, management and councillors alike…. do the right thing, don’t make EDDC look like a banana republic and listen to the population and react accordingly… you are not gods, you are not superior, you do not govern us, you are not above the law, you are not better than everyone else, you do not have the right to ride roughshod over the needs, feelings and wishes of the residents who pay their council tax in the belief that it will be used to make their lives better and keep East Devon beautiful….

    My final comment is a quote from that seminal publication ANIMAL FARM… chapter 10;

    ” …….The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which….. ” *

    * This quote does not imply that anyone at EDDC is a pig, or a creature, or just men…it’s just a quote that makes a very valid point. Hat tip to George Orwell, whose grave I have had lunch next to in Culham cemetery, Oxon.

    Goodnight..

    Paul Hayward
    Axminster Town Councillor
    Prospective DCC candidate for Axminster Division 2/5/13
    Member and Axminster Area Rep. for EDA.

  4. Paul Hayward March 20, 2013 at 10:09 pm #

    Just submitted this and realised how long and possibly verbose it was…sorry! I was listening to Strauss at the time and the words just kept flowing, like the Danube!

  5. TAFFY March 20, 2013 at 11:00 pm #

    It all needs saying Paul. The amount of mis-information we are being subjected to at present is breathtaking and the more people who challenge it the better.

    EDDC Tories just do not seem to be able to get their heads around people who, whilst definitely not being sheep, can work together without being at all political – too much Coalition and not enough co-operation for them it seems. EDA is a real frightener for them (as it should be) and is leading to some very rash behaviour on their part.

    And now I see that Claire Wright, who offered to look after Feniton until the election (actually who was the only person looking after it during Graham Brown’s tenure as its district councillor) has been passed over in favour of EDDC Chairman Peter Halse, as Mark Williams felt obliged to defer to him because he is Chairman of the Council).

    Such is patronage …

    • Paul Hayward March 21, 2013 at 7:45 am #

      Perhaps that is political balance at work again?

      Have a good day, sir. It’s tipping it down in Axminster and I have a patio to lay!

      Paul

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Conflicts of interest…..a reminder | East Devon Alliance - April 19, 2014

    […] has still to finish its task. To refresh your memory of why the TAFF was set up,  go to this link: https://sidmouthindependentnews.wordpress.com/2013/03/20/knickers-in-a-twiss/  . More posts on the same subject on the SIN blog archive ( SEARCH conflicts of interest […]

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