Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Probity, accountability and transparency

Following on from earlier posts
[Futures Forum: LobbyingFutures Forum: Lobbying part 2Futures Forum: lobbying: follow-up]
this is what the Rt Hon Hugo Swire, MP for East Devon, has to say on the subject of due process and openness in local government
- followed by words from Unlock Democracy and the Rt Hon Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government:


Friday, 26 October, 2012

EAST Devon MP Hugo Swire has vowed to call on his Whitehall colleagues to independently scrutinise the district council's plans to redevelop its Knowle headquarters. Mr Swire revealed he will ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, to 'call in' the proposals if they are approved.

He said the move was necessary in the interests of "probity, accountability and transparency".

"I'm not against it, I'm not for it," said Mr Swire. "I just want to make sure I'm fulfilling my role as an MP so everyone is absolutely certain proper procedures have been adhered to."

Mr Swire said he respected East Devon District Council's aspirations to relocate and the possible sale of its current Sidmouth home as a result - and didn't question its motives.

But he recognised that an authority determining the fate of its own plans, relating to land it owns, would inevitably be looked on as controversial. "Because this is so contentious in terms of the council giving itself planning permission, in the interests of probity, accountability and transparency, it will be better if it's called in," he said.

"I'm going to urge Eric Pickles to call it in. It's so contentious that people will only be assuaged if it's seen to be a genuine, independent decision."

Mr Swire said the public "failed to understand the limited role" of an MP in planning matters like Knowle. "I totally support local democracy, including the council's decisions to do what it wants," he added. "It's not for an MP to second guess the local authority which is responsible for decisions, but I do have a role in ensuring proper procedures are adhered to. If localism means anything, it's local people's views have been listened to. That doesn't mean there can be a block on everything."

Mr Swire said he penned a letter to Mr Pickles on behalf of a number of his constituents in September.

In his response, Mr Pickles said his office had received a petition and a number of letters and emails on the subject. He added: "In light of the large volume of correspondence we have received, my officials will be considering whether call-in is appropriate. However my general approach is not to interfere with the jurisdiction of local authorities unless it is necessary to do so. Consequently, I only consider calling in applications where issues of regional or national importance arise."

In dealing with applications for their own proposals, councils must apply the same statutory planning procedures in the same way for private development.

"Every authority is accountable to its auditor, the electorate and ultimately the courts for the procedures it follows and for the decisions it takes on applications... including its own," added Mr Pickles.


Sunday, May 26, 2013
How typical of the leader of EDDC not to have the leadership courage to tell Cllr Hughes face to face that he was being relegated to the back benches!
Instead, he delegates the job to his chief whip. But perhaps it’s an example of the “transparency” he promised us on assuming the lead?
After all, the alleged reason for his decision is transparent enough for everyone to see through! The obvious real reason is that Cllr Hughes spoke up for those whom he represents and did not kowtow to the party line.
Perhaps the given reason – that chairing the Overview and Scrutiny Committee is an important job that takes up “an awful lot of time” – is because the machinations of this council’s planning policy require an awful lot of scrutiny?
Peter Whitfield
It’s transparent - Letters - Sidmouth Herald


One of the  ‘items of concern’  from  EDDC’s recent Full Council meeting, is their plan to use more ‘delegated powers’ for planning decisions (See our May 24th report, Public question time…and some items of concern ).

Will the new planning application for Sidford  be decided by this method, away from the public eye? (For the proposal, and SVA objection, go to May 20th post, New Planning Application for Sidford AONB).

SOS Chair, Richard Thurlow has been finding out. His comments, and correspondence with EDDC , are  reproduced below, with his permission:

 “I asked whether the Planning Application for the vet centre in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty  was going to the Development Management Committee or being dealt with under ‘Delegated powers’.

This is the answer.”...


EDDC’s reaction to District-wide opposition seems clear. A string of changes are afoot, as revealed at the recent Full Council Meeting at Knowle on 22nd May.
For example, the new push for more ‘delegated powers’ will distance the public  from Planning decisions. And some key positions on crucial  Committees have been given to  Councillors with a particular track record on Planning matters.
These two points are detailed in EDDC Councillor Roger Giles’ report on the 22nd May AGM   ( for the Ottery Town Council  today, 3rd June 2013 )...


Taking the cue from the government, EDDC is proposing a fee for Freedom Of Information requests that take more than 18 hours’ of staff time. The officers at the Knowle have clearly been overwhelmed by the numbers of FOI requests received 
(see list for EDDC at http://www.whatdotheyknow.com)
An e-mail sent out by Unlock Democracy describes some of the implications...


The government is proposing to introduce new restrictions to limit the ability of people to make use of the Freedom of Information Act. While they claim this is intended to limit a handful of individuals from “placing disproportionate burdens on public authorities” who make “industrial” use of the Act, three of their core proposals would make it easier for authorities to refuse all Freedom of Information Act claims, while the fourth has already been dealt with by new guidelines from the Information Commissioner.
The effect of these new proposals would be to make it far harder to get information out of the government - especially for local and specialist journalists. We're working with the Campaign for Freedom of Information to stop these changes from happening. Please write to your MP today to ask them to take a stand against these proposals.


The number of Freedom of Information requests received by EDDC has apparently become  burdensome.
One way round this problem is suggested under the heading Open Data  on p. 24 at this link 


Pickles urges council to open ‘digital doors’ to meetings is the title of an article by Jonathan Werran today (14 June 2013)  
in LocalGov.co.uk .
In summary, it says that the public can now attend and film council cabinet meetings,and report them online using social media. Details are in a plain English guide just issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Click here for details: 
The aim is have more transparency into executive, committee and sub-committees, including permitted open filming of meetings attended by the public.
Naturally, the filming should be as unobtrusive as possible, and council staff should be given advance notification.
Citizen journalists – including bloggers, tweeters, Facebook and YouTube users –can use social media to report on meetings.
Council meetings can only be held in private in specially defined circumstances, and records of executive decisions must be made available.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles is quoted as saying: “I want to stand up for the rights of journalists and taxpayers to scrutinise and challenge decisions of the state. Data protection rules or health and safety should not be used to suppress reporting or a healthy dose of criticism” . According to the article, he also said,”Modern technology has created a new cadre of bloggers and hyper-local journalists, and councils should open their digital doors and not cling to analogue interpretations of council rules” , and “Councillors shouldn’t be shy about the public seeing the good work they do in championing local communities and local interest”.


Thursday, June 27th, 2013. 2:48am

I decided to observe Huntingdonshire District Council’s full council on Wednesday the 26th of June 2013. I was particularly interested in hearing the debate to be led by Police and Crime Commissioner Graham Bright who was scheduled to speak to the council and take questions from councillors.
Prior to attending I looked up the council’s rules on filming; and noted via Twitter that they appeared at odds with Minister Eric Pickles’ recent statements that the public have a right to record council meetings. Unexpectedly Minister Pickles responded to my tweet, to suggest the council’s rules had been superseded by his statements and the council’s demanded notice and permission to film were not required:

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