11. Overview and Scrutiny Forward Plan
Audio recording for Overview and Scrutiny Forward Plan during Overview and Scrutiny Committee on 13 November 2014
Jacqueline Green spoke about the former Economic Development Manager as lead officer of the Business Task and Finish Forum, asking who would act as lead officer for the Forum once it resumes.
An answer had been provided which the Chairman read out:
At the April 2014 Council meeting, the Chairman of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee responded to a question raised by Jacqueline Green on when the Business Task and Finish Forum would resume and if the Council’s Economic Development Manager would continue to be the Forum’s lead officer. Councillor Tim Wood advised that he was guided by legal advice and, so far as he was aware, the Economic Development Manager would continue to be the lead officer for the Forum, as there was no reason for this not to be the case.
With the conclusion of the police investigation into ex Cllr G. Brown, the Chief Executive has issued advice regarding this particular TAFF. The most appropriate next step is to now consider that advice.
The Chairman expressed that he saw the next step for the committee was to review the requirements of the Forum at their next meeting and for the Forum to briskly complete work, aiming for March 2015. He wanted the committee to be confident that the Forum was able to investigate and ensure a satisfactory relationship with businesses. He also commented strongly that businesses should have the right, just as individuals enjoyed, to communicate their views to the council.
Mrs Green asked a supplementary question: was it appropriate for a paid servant of the council to influence the committee?
The Chairman confirmed that it was the role of officers to give advice to the committee and members make their own decision. The Chief Executive affirmed this as his role to give advice to council. The Chairman also made clear that it is the decision of the committee to decide the composition of the Forum.
In clarifying his advice, the Chief Executive set out to the committee that it was important for them, in considering the future of the Forum, to understand the full history of the Forum to date and the issues involved. He outlined that, in response to the police referral, he had advised them to take into account when the concern about the East Devon Business Forum (EDBF) had first been raised at the meeting of Council on 27 July 2012 where a motion had been put to Council on the subject. Clearly those individuals raising concern at Council on 27 July 2012, and at subsequent meetings of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee and the Business TaFF would be of interest to the police to contact.
In response to statements that the naming of a councillor was incorrect to do, legal advice from the Principal Solicitor was provided to the committee that the advice issued by the Chief Executive did not state that the police interviewed those individuals detailed, it stated that there was contact with the police.
Councillor Claire Wright commented on recent circulation of letter of the East Devon Alliance, and stated that trying to eject her from the membership of the Forum sends a message to the public that there is something to hide.
Councillor Allen reminded the committee that a Task and Finish Forum could not pursue a legal investigation under the terms of the constitution. He suggested that, if the Forum proceeds, the committee consider including in its remit to investigate any undue influence of any councillor or organisation, including political elements, on the issue of land use.
Arising from the minutes of the 16 October 2014, Councillor Allen asked the committee to agree to, further to the agreement to have a report back on general contract terms, a report specifically on the contract relating to the Beehive, Honiton. He wanted to be clear on the contractual obligations for Honiton Town Council in respect of the development on a charity basis.
1. that a report be brought to the committee at their next meeting on the Business Task and Finish Forum with proposals of how, if the committee agrees, it should proceed, bearing in mind that there has been no criminality, unlawfulness or maladministration arising out of the operation of the Forum and the Council's relationship with it;
2. that a report be brought back to the committee at a future meeting on the contractual arrangements of the Beehive, Honiton to scrutinise how the value of the investment is being secured.
Overview and Scrutiny Committee minutes for 13 November 2014 - Overview and Scrutiny Forward Plan - East Devon District Council
These are not the first questions as to how the Cttee has dealt with the issue of the East Devon Business Forum.
From its September 2014 meeting:
Overview and Scrutiny Committee minutes for 11 September 2014 - East Devon District Council
Futures Forum: The East Devon Business Forum and the Overview & Scrutiny Committee: meeting Thursday 11th September: questions to be asked
Futures Forum: The East Devon Business Forum and the Overview & Scrutiny Committee: meeting Thursday 11th September: further comment
From its October 2014 meeting:
Overview and Scrutiny Committee minutes for 16 October 2014 - Office relocation update - East Devon District Council
Futures Forum: The lack of scrutiny at East Devon ... Council's Scrutiny Cttee meets Thursday 16th October
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: "Merely noting a report has no place in Scrutiny."
And from its November 2014 meeting - as referenced above:
Overview and Scrutiny Committee minutes for 13 November 2014 - Overview and Scrutiny Forward Plan - East Devon District Council
Futures Forum: Ex-Cllr Graham Brown, the East Devon Business Forum and the District Council's CEO's pre-emptive strike against the Business TAFF
Futures Forum: "Scrutiny committee set up to look at the East Devon Business Forum, which Mr Brown chaired, should now reconsider its scope."
Futures Forum: Scrutinising the East Devon Business Forum... "EDDC will not separate the police investigation from the separate issue of interference in the planning process which was one of the causes of the draft local plan being thrown out."
The Overview & Scrutiny Cttee is to consider the EDBF Task & Finish Forum (TAFF) at its next meeting on Thursday 22nd January
These are some of the main points from that report:
Agenda item: 11
Subject: Business Task and Finish Forum
Purpose of report: This report looks specifically at difficulties in the continuation of Business Task and Finish Forum. It sets out the considerations for the committee to evaluate if the Business Task and Finish Forum should continue; and if so, what form this Forum should take in terms of scope and timeframe.
Recommendation: 1. Debate if the Forum should continue;
2. If the committee agree that it should, review and agree a revised scope for the Business Task and Finish Forum with a view to completing the work by end March 2015
Reason for recommendation: Improving communication between the Council and the business community is still desired and a revised scope for this TaFF will help deliver this, if the committee wish to see the Forum continue and complete its work.
Risk: The committee need to weigh up if public concern about the continuation of the Business Task and Finish Forum, with current membership, is of such a high level that it may be damaging to the council’s reputation to discontinue the Forum.
1.2 Business Task and Finish Forum Scope
1.2.1 Since the adoption of the scope of the Forum, a number of changes have taken place. The EDBF support provided in the form of administration and officer time was removed; the EDBF have since disbanded; and a number of other organisations and groups exist that are self sufficient.
1.2.2 Therefore the main topic of the scope, the EDBF and the specific areas identified to review, such as its objectives, if it is a lobby group, and if a conflict of interest existed in being a member of it, are now irrelevant.
1.2.3 The committee may feel that there are still questions unanswered relating to the EDBF. Members are reminded that the outcome of the police investigation found no evidence worth pursuing.
1.4 Employment land planning issues
1.4.1 The Forum had already accepted legal advice that:
It had no power to investigate planning applications (as set out in the constitution)
Debate into individual site allocations in the Local Plan was detrimental to the process of producing the Local Plan because of the opportunities already provided in commenting on it, and the pending review by the Inspector.
1.4.2 As already set out in an earlier report in this agenda, the role of agreeing and approving the Local Plan is constitutionally placed with the Development Management Committee and full Council; it is not within the constitution for any Forum set up by this committee to revisit any content of the emerging Local Plan, including individual allocations of employment land.
1.4.3 I would recommend that the Forum leave aside any discussion on employment land and focus instead on the forthcoming Services Workspace Demand and Delivery Appraisal.
1.5 Revised scope
1.5.1 A revised draft scope, with input from both officers and the Chairman of Overview and Scrutiny Committee, is set out below for consideration by the committee.
Broad topic area: To produce an in-depth report on the nature and methods of all business engagement within East Devon, the relationship between business and the Council, and how it might be improved both as regards effectiveness and transparency.
Specific areas to explore within topic area: To consider
1. The lessons that should be learnt from the previously existing relationship between the former East Devon Business Forum and the Council...
Areas NOT covered by review:
Individual planning applications
East Devon Local Plan
Individual contracts between the council and contractors or suppliers
Undertaken by the committee or is a TAFF required:
(Previously existing Business TaFF has comprised: Councillors Graham Troman, Mike Allen, Vivien Duval Steer, Claire Wright, Steve Gazzard, Peter Burrows, Maddy Chapman And Alan Dent)
Here is some analysis from the East Devon Watch blog, from the first part of an entry from yesterday:
A BUMPER OVERVIEW AND SCRUTINY COMMITTEE AGENDA WITH SOME HIDDEN GEMS!
Friday 16th January 2015
The agenda is here: Thursday 22 January 2015, 6.30 p.m. Knowle
It really is hard to know where to start! So much to overview and (maybe not quite) scrutinise!
2. Then we move on to how to “improve” Task and Finish Forums. Basically, this would be done by agreeing the scope of such TAFFs in advance and not deviating from them one little bit. Oh, and getting the Legal Officer’s “advice” on such scoping. You see what we mean about a lot of overview and very little scrutiny. In this case, the Legal Officer fires the arrow, the Overview and Scrutiny Committee draws a bulls-eye around it and a TAFF says “look at that – exactly in the centre of the target!”.
A TAFF is meant to INVESTIGATE. To investigate it has to have a format that allows it to explore areas that might not at first be evident. No way, says EDDC, a TAFF does what our officers tell it to do, no more no less – though less would be good.
3. And then we get to an agenda item on the Business Task and Finish Forum (pages 61-65) which basically says that, as its Chairman Graham Brown is no longer with us, what’s the point of all this – let’s kick it into the long grass where it belongs just before an election.
It misses the point entirely: this was not (just) about its Chairman and his myriad of council and business interests. It was about a group of big local landowners and developers carving up the district in their own image (something which has,to a certain extent, since happened) and whether this was an appropriate way to bring together evidence and policy for a district council and its Local Plan. Well, that isn’t going to get an airing is it!
Much is made of a successor to the East Devon Business Forum – the EAST DEVON BUSINESS SUPPORT GROUP.
This group apparently has a one-page website which lists its members (basically Chambers of Commerce, the NFU and Federation of Small Businesses) but contains no mention of any constitution, meetings, scope, etc (perhaps the EDDC Legal Officer could help with that, just like the Economic Development Officer was SO helpful to the East Devon Business Forum as its Hon Sec). However, at least two of the “same old” names appear on the list of members crossing over with the old EDBF. And it has this addition:
“The East Devon Business Leaders Group.
“This organisation represents the larger businesses that operate within our district & it provides them with a forum where they can meet together to discuss matters which are of interest to the larger businesses.”
No web pages, no names of members, no names of businesses involved- oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!