Re-branded East Devon Business Forum disbands after councillor row
By Exeter Express and Echo
Friday, October 04, 2013
A heavily criticised business collective in East Devon has disbanded, six months after its disgraced chairman resigned and after members deemed its objectives “unviable”.
In July, the East Devon Business Forum announced that it had re-launched in a bid to make a “fresh start” and the first meeting of the East Devon Business Group took place.
But a subsequent meeting to appoint a chairman was cancelled and instead, following a series of meetings over the summer, business community members resolved to disband the group.
The forum was initially set up to “improve communication” between businesses and East Devon District Council, to meet and agree “so far as possible” a common approach. But the forum’s relationship with the council was criticised by residents and councillors throughout the district due to the perception it had “significant influence over how much land is developed in the area”.
A Task And Finish Forum was set up to look into the workings of the forum, branded a “lobby group for developers”, and its relationship with the council.
In March, [East Devon Business] Forum chairman and Feniton and Buckerell councillor Graham Brown resigned both posts after he was caught on camera boasting that he could secure planning permission in his role as a planning consultant. It is not illegal for councillors to work as paid consultants but Mr Brown subsequently became the subject of a police investigation into whether he had committed a criminal offence.
Previously the group received about £5,200 of officer support from the district council, which was withdrawn by council chief executive Mark Williams after the revelations.
This summer independent auditors scrutinised East Devon District Council’s governance proceduress at the request of the Audit and Governance Committee. The audit looked at the procedures and checks in place at the council to make sure they are robust enough so if there ever were any perceived conflicts of interest, whatever they may be, they would be identified. Auditors and were satisfied with these.
When the East Devon Business Group re-branded, as part of its new constitution it was decided that serving councillors would not be eligible to serve as officers of the group, but where appropriate representatives from authorities at local, county and regional level would be invited to attend to hear the considered views of business.
The group it wanted to emphasise the existing premise that all businesses, large and small, were welcome. But members have since decided that it is unviable for a single umbrella group to adequately cater for the needs of such a broad spectrum of businesses.
Group members identified that there are “already in existence several well established and successful organisations that provide help and support to local businesses. It was further identified that these organisations, including the Association of East Devon Chambers of Commerce and the East Devon Branch of the Federation of Small Businesses, well represent the interests of small businesses, whereas since the demise of the business forum, larger businesses are devoid of a membership organisation to represent them.
Val Baker, who was acting secretary of the group, explained that the withdrawal of council support did not have significant bearing on the decision to disband and said the catalyst for the review was the issues surrounding Mr Brown. She added that the larger businesses in the district may decide to form a new organisation.
Meanwhile existing groups, such as the Devon Branch of The National Farmers’ Union, the Exeter and Heart of Devon Hotels and Restaurant Association and the chambers of commerce have agreed to continue to meet “as necessary” and meetings will be chaired by an independent retired businessman who does not belong to any of the organisations.
“Members didn’t really think that a ‘one size fits all’ group was really workable,” she added. “Perhaps not surprisingly, it was felt it was a bit ambitious to try and address the needs and cater for the interests of all businesses of different sizes and agendas, sitting round a table. Time was needed to review the group and over the last six months it’s become apparent that actually the biggest void is that the bigger businesses don’t have an organisation to represent them.”Re-branded East Devon business forum disbands after councillor row | Exeter Express and Echo
See also: Claire Wright - Your Independent East Devon District Councillor for Ottery Rural
Futures Forum: Lobbying: East Devon Business Forum