Friday 13 September 2013

Lobbying: East Devon Business Forum

Following on from earlier blog entries:
Futures Forum: Lobbying
Futures Forum: Lobbying or Advocacy? 

Can the East Devon Business Forum be described as a 'lobbying' body?

There has been discussion on this for some time:

East Devon Business Forum

From: helen newman

8 February 2011

How much influence does the East Devon District Forum have on the LDF?
East Devon Business Forum - a Freedom of Information request to East Devon District Council - WhatDoTheyKnow

EDDC’s response to Sandra Semple on East Devon Business Forum

... the Forum was created to facilitate improved dialogue between the Council and the District’s business community and has enjoyed some pleasing success.
EDDC’s response to Sandra Semple on East Devon Business Forum | Communities Before Developers

According to its own website, the EDBF should have a close relationship with the District Council:

East Devon Business Forum has been set up to work to improve communication between businesses here in East Devon, local government and those external bodies that influence the health of our area. Our aim is to foster local economic resilience and sustainable business growth.
> To act as a forum in which business organisations, major employers and the District Council can meet on a regular basis and agree, so far as possible, a common approach and policy on matters relating to the ecomony, prosperity and well-being of East Devon.
> To facilitate the communication of views and opinions between the business community and the District Council (and any other relevant local government and public bodies) and through an effective partnership with local government to promote the prosperity of the District.
> Specifically, to advise on the preparation, adoption and performance of an Economic Development Strategy for East Devon and the Council's annual service plan for Economic Development; to facilitate development and implementation of the East Devon Community Plan; and identify or promote by other means, issues relevant to the economic well-being of people living and working in East Devon
East Devon Business Centre

Comments on this entry at: East Devon Business Forum – some perplexing questions | Sidmouth Independent News

The question remains as to whether the EDBF is an open forum or closed:

Next meeting of East Devon Business Forum

The next meeting of the East Devon Business Forum will be held on Thursday 11 October 2012 at 6 p.m. at the East Devon Business Centre in Honiton.
Its Chairman, Councillor Brown, has said that it is open to anyone at all who wishes to attend.  However, according to theSidmouth Independent News, ( Oct 9th post) East Devon District Council says that the meetings of EDBF are private.

At a meeting of the District Council's Overview & Scrutiny Committee in September 2012, the status of the EDBF was considered:

Tony Green, a Sidmouth resident, asked why the Council listened to the East Devon Business Forum (EDBF) lobby, when, in his opinion, the EDBF has a key interest in planning matters. He also asked if the Committee felt that the current membership of the Forum risked the impartiality of the Members and if it also put officers into a difficult position. He informed the Committee that the Forum did not have a favourable public perception. 

Roy Stuart, Vice Chairman of the EDBF, reminded the Committee of why the Forum was set up and the contents of its constitution. He outlined the varied membership of the Forum. He told the Committee of the Forum’s work in investigating the Atkins report and how their work found only 6 hectares of viable employment land. The Tym report more recently used had not been referred to the Forum. He had not seen or been consulted on employment land designated at Sidford. He reminded the Committee of the importance of the Forum, on a small budget, to assist in the current economic climate in providing strong links to other sectors, including the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).


These are postings on the September meeting from Independent District Councillor Claire Wright:

Chairman and secretary to defend business forum

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The chairman of East Devon Business Forum and its honorary secretary are to defend East Devon Business Forum, at next Thursday’s overview and scrutiny committee meeting.
Cllr Graham Brown (Con) and East Devon District Council’s economic development officer, Nigel Harrison, will appear together at the meeting, following Cllr Graham Troman’s (Con) call for the forum to be debated by EDDC’s overview and scrutiny committee.
Cllr Troman asked chairman of the scrutiny committee, Cllr Stuart Hughes for East Devon Business Forum to be listed on the committee’s agenda, following my motion lodged at the full council meeting on 25 July, where around 100 people were present to hear the outcome.
I proposed that EDDC should withdraw its funding of over £5,000 a year for the forum, which largely consists of major local landowner-developers.
East Devon Business Forum led by Cllr Brown, a planning consultant, has had a significant impact on EDDC’s Local Plan, including overruling the findings of an independent report on the need for employment land and instead coming up with very different conclusions - that the district needed many new industrial estates instead.
Since EDBF dismissed the independent Atkins ‘employment land’ report, which was published in 2007 - and got their own recommendations adopted instead - other organisations have stepped in to express concerns over the amount of employment land now proposed, including an independent report conducted in 2011 and Dorset County Council, which says it has ‘significant concerns’ over the amount of land proposed.
The amount of agricultural land proposed to be converted into industrial estates (employment land) means that 12 acres of land designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty at Sidmouth is now set to become an industrial estate, in plans put forward by Fords of Sidmouth, also East Devon Business Forum members.
My motion was heavily defeated as it was voted down virtually unanimously by EDDC’s conservative group.
See my blogs from July for more detail on the meeting.
Cllr Troman is concerned that East Devon Business Forum is not representative of the businesses in area.
Cllr Brown runs East Devon Business Forum alongside vice-chair, Roy Stuart - a former EDDC councillor who owns Hill Barton Industrial Estate and was behind a controversial application for 400 houses at Westclyst, which was approved by EDDC in 2010.
The link to the agenda for the scrutiny committee, which will take place on Thursday 27 September, is below.  The meeting starts at 6.30pm and members of the public can speak at the beginning of the meeting or prior to each item.

Committee to investigate East Devon Business Forum

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A district council committee will investigate the make-up, direction and influence of East Devon Business Forum (EDBF), it has been agreed by councillors.
EDDC’s scrutiny committee last night was alive with accusations over conflicts of interest, influence over planning policy, and there were questions raised about the number of successful planning applications by business forum members, that were contrary to the adopted local plan.
Some councillors expressed concern over what members of the public had to say about the business forum, but others were defensive and claimed concerned comments were nothing more than ‘innuendo and slur.’

Row over business forum planning approvals - BBC report

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This morning’s BBC Radio Devon breakfast news programme led with a story on a row growing about East Devon Business Forum members’ planning approvals that have been contrary to planning policy.
Also covered were the conflicts of interest in relation to a lobby group, which is also part of the council.
I was interviewed by Matt Woodley just after 7am.  Cllr Graham Brown was also on live at around 8.10 and EDDC Leader, Paul Diviani gave an interview last night to journalist, Sophie Pierce, who attended the scrutiny meeting. 
Also on the programme were interviews with Tony Green, a Sidmouth resident who was co-author of a report (outlined in a blog earlier this week) that was submitted to last night’s scrutiny committee.  Chair of Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce, Steven Kendall-Torry, argued that the forum should be disbanded and that the forum had access to EDDC that the Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce never enjoyed.
You can click on the link below to hear this morning’s programme.  The item was broadcast around every 15 minutes ...

Residents report concern over business forum interests

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I received this report today, along with other East Devon scrutiny committee councillors, from two Sidmouth residents who have carried out some detailed research into East Devon Business Forum.
EDDC’s overview and scrutiny committee will debate the activities and representation of East Devon Business Forum this Thursday (27 September).  The meeting starts at 6.30pm and is open to the public, who, if they wish, can address the committee at the beginning of the meeting.  The report is pasted below: .............................................
Cllr Troman’s referral of the East Devon Business Forum (EDBF) to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee on September 27 2012 is very timely.
Many informed residents of East Devon are concerned that the District Council is unduly influenced by the EDBF especially in the preparation of the controversial Local Plan which proposes massive development in the district including more than 15000 houses and over 180 hectares of industrial/ business parks with the consequent loss of agricultural land and parts of our Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
A detailed study which we have conducted of publicly-available documents relevant to the forum has confirmed the grounds for serious concern.

At the first meeting in December 2012 of the District Council's TAFF looking into the East Devon Business Forum, these questions were raised:

Paul Newman’s question related to the scope of the TAFF. He mentioned the 
background of the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the East Devon Business Forum and was concerned that the Business Forum had been used in the past as a lobby group to help get planning applications passed. The TAFF needed to investigate whether the Business Forum was a trustworthy organisation.

Tony Green a Sidmouth Resident stated that he had produced a paper on a review of the EDBF minutes. He was concerned that the TAFF’s scope excluded 2 of the key concerns, regarding the Local Plan and planning permissions. In his view the EDBF had undue influence over planning policy. He also commented on the confused legal state of EDBF which he felt had risked compromising both 
Councillors and Officers. This led to a number of conflicting interests. He felt that the key objective of EDBF was to lobby the Council on behalf of business. The Council needed to clarify the status of EDBF.
Tony Green had two questions: 
The first was, if EDBF was an independent lobby group then why were Councillors and Officers working for it? 
Secondly, if EDBF was part of the Council why was the Council supporting a lobby group? 

The Chief Executive confirmed that... the TAFF was not independent nor quasi judicial. 


There have been questions about the veracity of the Minutes:
Minutes Manipulation at EDDC? | Save Our Sidmouth
Whitewash? Hogwash? You decide. EDDC’s Chief Executive gives his view? legal opinion? opinion? who knows! | Sidmouth Independent News

The Express & Echo produced a very through report on the meeting:

Scrutiny councillors probing East Devon Business Forum are GAGGED!

Unknown article source icon
Thursday, December 13, 2012 

Despite a major influence on planning issues being the catalyst for establishing Tuesday night's East Devon District Council (EDDC) scrutiny committee to investigate East Devon Business Forum, the subject has been vetoed on the advice of officers.
The meeting – possibly one of the most controversial ever staged at East Devon District Council - was quite bizarrely almost completely devoid of conservative councillors, save the three serving on the committee and a further three who were observing proceedings.
Not a single member of East Devon Business Forum (EDBF) appeared to be present either.
Around 50 members of the public attended but the absence of EDBF and almost all the 43 members of the ruling group, including the chairman, leader, deputy leader, and most of the cabinet, gave the distinct impression of a mass boycott.

Scrutiny councillors probing East Devon Business Forum are GAGGED! | This is Exeter

As, again, did Cllr Wright:

EDDC tries to justify gagging committee on business forum

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The latest press release from EDDC is pasted below, which attempts to justify gagging the East Devon Business Forum scrutiny TAFF. Some might spot flaws in the argument .....................
EAST DEVON residents are being urged to have their say on the district’s draft Local Plan as its final consultation reaches the halfway point. And those who question the council’s propriety are being challenged to make it formal rather than resort to the rumour mill.
This reminder follows the launch of a Task and Finish Forum (TAFF) where six councillors are examining the council’s relationship with East Devon Business Forum, established by the Council to act as a regular consultation and engagement link with the district’s business community. The TAFF will assess and recommend how, in its view, the Council might improve upon or replace the existing arrangements.
However, the TAFF is not designed to look at allegations that the EDBF might have had an undue or improper influence over employment land allocation in the draft Local Plan. Any allegation is a matter for an independent planning inspector, who will examine the plan in public next year.
People’s responses to the Local Plan consultation will be considered by the inspector, making this the most appropriate avenue for raising any planning policy or land allocation concerns. The inspector’s public investigation is a standard part of the Local Plan process, and all councils have their plans independently inspected in this way.
Nor will the TAFF directly investigate any allegations about influence on specific planning applications in the past, as any complaints of this sort should properly be dealt with through formal procedures involving the Local Government Ombudsman.
Now the council is asking those saying they believe something wrong has happened to make it formal if they actually have a specific complaint.
Councillor Paul Diviani, Leader of East Devon District Council said: “It’s important and entirely proper for a Task and Finish Forum to examine our relationship with the East Devon Business Forum and how we as a council can engage effectively and properly with our business community.
“Given the nature of some of these complaints, we think it is best that any allegations of undue influence follow formal procedures. It’s not something the Council should be investigating itself since public confidence in the matter is properly assessed through an independent approach involving either the Inspector or the Ombudsman.
“If people have concerns or a belief of maladministration involving planning, they should make a formal complaint to the independent Local Government Ombudsman.
“If people wish to question the evidence behind employment land allocation in our draft Local Plan, it is most appropriate to respond to the consultation so that the independent Inspector can consider it.
“The Task and Finish Forum is not independent of the Council and not the right place for it, and I would hope that encouraging formal reporting will reassure everyone that we take any complaints seriously. We co-operate fully with formal external investigations”.

Several papers were produced at this time, analysing the position and influence of the EDBF:
The dossier provided to every councillor by Mr Green regarding the East Devon Business Forum | Sidmouth Independent News

At the March 2013 meeting of the TAFF, the issue was revisited:

The Council’s view of the East Devon Business Forum 
Debate on the role of a joint body, particularly with reference to 
allegations of inappropriate lobbying. 
A definition of lobbying is: “in a professional capacity, attempting to 
influence, or advising those who wish to influence, the United Kingdom 
Government, Parliament, the devolved legislatures or administrations, 
regional or local government or other public bodies on any matter within 
their competence”. 
In January 2009 the House of Commons Public Administration Select 
Committee published a report 'Lobbying: Access and Influence in 
Whitehall' which noted, amongst other findings, that: 
“The practice of lobbying in order to influence political decisions is a 
legitimate and necessary part of the democratic process. Individuals and 
organisations reasonably want to influence decisions that may affect 
them, those around them, and their environment. Government in turn 
needs access to the knowledge and views that lobbying can bring.”

Councillor Claire Wright considered that it would not be possible to have a 
discussion on lobbying if the TAFF could not consider planning issues. Councillor Mike Allen also considered that the Overview and Scrutiny Committee should access the implications including consideration of planning and the planning process if within its scope.

Councillor Mike Allen... considered that it was acceptable to have overt lobbying. It was important to spend public money effectively. 
Councillor Claire Wright wished to take issue with the Council’s definition of lobbying contained on the agenda. She considered that EDDC needed to define better how lobbying was taking place. 
During discussion the following points and questions were noted: 
> An issue was that EDBF was a joint body of the Council and included people 
who stood to gain from lobbying; 
> In some ways it was useful for bodies to lobby the Council as long as this 
lobbying was open and transparent; 
> It would be useful to establish a group to define what was acceptable lobbying within the Council. 


And this coincided with the so-called 'Browngate' scandal:
Cllr Graham Brown, Chairman of East Devon Business Forum, will be under scrutiny at tomorrow’s TAFF meeting, 6pm at Knowle. | Save Our Sidmouth
Councillors for hire who give firms planning advice - Telegraph
BREAKING: Graham Brown resigns from EDDC - News - Exmouth Journal

And in its wake, the EDBF reformed:
Futures Forum: East Devon Business Group... or Forum
Futures Forum: Lobbying and transparency, continued...

It has always been a question of how much influence this 'lobbying group' has had over the allocation of Employment Land within the Local Plan:
Planning issues ARE within the scope of the Business TAFF | Save Our Sidmouth

And the chair of the Futures Forum raised the issue of the reliability of the District Council's CEO 
The Chief Executive and the Overview and Scrutiny Committee (28 March) | Save Our Sidmouth 
Which echoed similar concerns:
The Chief Executive, the Business Forum, and the LGO | Save Our Sidmouth
An interesting exchange of correspondence with EDDC’s Chief Executive regarding the EDBF Task and Finish Forum | Sidmouth Independent News

Following a 'summer lull', the scheduled TAFF meeting for September was postponed:
Chairman makes decision to postpone next Business TAFF meeting | Save Our Sidmouth
Futures Forum: Concerns about transparency and lobbying continue in East Devon: pt 1
Meeting to discuss controversial East Devon Business Forum postponed | Exeter Express and Echo 

And there was a more in-depth report last week from the Express & Echo:

Delay on business row group

Thursday, September 05, 2013

THE postponement of a group set up to examine the relationship between a controversial business group with East Devon District Council has been criticised.
Last September, councillors on the Overview and Scrutiny Committee ruled that a sub-committee should be set up to scrutinise the East Devon Business Forum, branded by critics "a lobby for developers".
Since the formation of the Task and Finish Forum (Taff), there have been three meetings – in December, March and June – and its scope has been a constant topic of debate.
In June, following the withdrawal of officer support from the Forum, it was rebranded the East Devon Business Group in a bid to making a "fresh start".
The next Taff meeting, scheduled for September 2, has now been postponed.
The decision was made by Taff chairman, Councillor Graham Troman.
He said: "This is to await the outcome of discussions within the business community on the setting up of a forum. We will invite representatives of the proposed business forum to a future meeting of the Business Taff with them to outline their plans. The Taff can then refer back to its previous discussions with business representatives and decide on any principles of good practice it would like to recommend in managing its relationship with the business community."
He also confirmed that the delay was to ensure that the work of the Taff did not delay the Local Plan process.
But critics are questioning the reason for the delay, highlighting that the point of the Taff forming was to evaluate the former relationship between the business forum and the council.
However Cllr Troman confirmed that the remit of the Taff, which includes looking into what influence the Forum had on determining the level of employment land to be included in the emerging Local Plan, would be fulfilled.
Earlier this year, although the issue of its influence on planning was a central reason for the formation of the group, council chief executive Mark Williams ruled it could not discuss planning for legal reasons.
However committee members subsequently debated the scope at the March meeting and a vote to put the influence the Forum has on the council's planning process was put back on the agenda.
Delay on business row group | This is Exeter 

There is a very useful timeline of the TAFF here:
The Business TAFF drags on | Sidmouth Independent News
East Devon Business Forum | Save Our Sidmouth

But to finish: 
Here is an item from the Minutes of the EDBF from November 2006 - when Cllr Brown was its chair, until his resignation in March 2013. 
This records how the compiler of the Atkins Report into Employment Land gave an interim presentation to the EDBF -  and that he would be asked back to give the final presentation of the Report to the Forum the following January, BEFORE it would go to the District Council's own Executive Board...

17 East Devon Employment Land Review

The Business Forum received a copy of the brief from Atkins on the East Devon Employment Land Review. Members welcomed Marcus Wood from Atkins Ltd who gave a presentation on the progress made so far.

The Business Forum acknowledged the complexity of the subject and its connection with the Regional Spatial Strategy. The final report would be presented to the next meeting of the Business Forum on 11 January 2007 and onto the meeting of the Executive Board on 17 January 2007. Atkins had looked at 44 employment sites within the District and 750 premises of which 63 were vacant.

Employment requirements for the next 10 years to 2016 were expected to be in the range 50 – 80 hectares with 75 – 115 hectares to 2026.

During discussion the following points were noted:
·         Forecasted economic growth in East Devon would continue to out perform the UK as a whole;
·         the Regional Spatial Strategy wished to promote sustainability of communities;
·         the East Devon District had a strategic location on the eastern side of Exeter with good links to the M5;
·         East Devon had a higher than average level of entrepreneurship than other areas of the South West;
·         East Devon was a high quality environment with a shortage of business premises;
·         The AONB status of the District constrained the opportunities for development and growth, particularly in Exmouth;
·         There were high levels of self employment in East Devon;
·         The Business Forum was impressed with the level of thoroughness given in the report;
·         The District needed a vision to identify what business wanted in its District;
·         The need to distribute employment land around the district and involve local communities.

Marcus Wood was thanked for his presentation

RESOLVED: That the Review be noted


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