Saturday, 21 December 2013

Transparency and process in East Devon..................... continued: part one

The issues around transparency in local government 
Futures Forum: Transparency and process in East Devon... a summary
continue to be discussed:

Transparency code to be mandatory for councils above £6.5m threshold

Thursday, 12 December 2013 12:43
Publishing the Government’s response to the consultation on a revised code, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said: “Greater power for local government must go hand in hand with greater local transparency and local accountability.”
The DCLG said interested partners would have until 17 January 2014 to comment on the wording of the proposed new code.
In response, Cllr Tim Cheetham, Transparency Lead on the Local Government Association’s Improvement and Innovation Board, argued that local government was the most open and transparent part of the public sector

Local Government Lawyer - Transparency code to be mandatory for councils above £6.5m threshold 
EDDC must be more transparent – by law | Sidmouth Independent News 
Improving local government transparency - Consultations - GOV.UK 
Making local councils more transparent and accountable to local people - Policy - GOV.UK

However, there is significantly less confidence in the 'standards regime' at local government: 

Localism Act fails to live up to Government promises: survey

Friday, 20 December 2013 00:55
Localism Act Survey Cover 160pxTwo years after the Government's flagship Localism Act 2011 gained Royal Assent it has yet to deliver on its key aim of freeing local authorities to innovate their way out of austerity, according to new research published this month by Local Government Lawyer and Freeth Cartwright LLP.
The survey found that just 6% of the 78 local authority legal departments that took part said that that the general power of competence in clause 1 of the Localism Act 2011 had made "a significant positive difference" to their authorities' appetite for risk and less than a quarter of local authorities (24%) felt confident that the general power could be fully relied upon in most situations.
Meanwhile, one in four local authorities surveyed reported that councillors’ behaviour had worsened since the new standards regime came into effect, against just 4% claiming that it had led to improved behaviour. The vast majority of survey respondents (85%) believed that the member sanctions introduced by the Localism Act were ‘too weak’.

Local Government Lawyer - Localism Act fails to live up to Government promises: survey
85% of councils think sanctions for misbehaving councillors are now too weak | Sidmouth Independent News

And yet the District Council's planning committee (the Development Management Cttee) has rejected proposals to limit public speaking:

Councillors throw out plans to restrict public speaking

Proposals to considerably limit public speaking at planning committee meetings were yesterday thrown out by councillors, in what was at times, a rather heated debate.
The public speaking discussion took place at yesterday’s special development management committee meeting (planning committee).
One of the recommendations was that all members of the public who wish to address the DMC on a planning application, must register to speak before the agenda is finalised.
A further implicit recommendation was that that only those who have already submitted a written comment on an application, would be allowed to address the planning committee.
See my earlier blog here for more information and a link to the agenda papers - http://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/more_public_speaking_restrictions_afoot_at_eddc/


1. At 04:09 pm on 18th Dec Malcolm wrote:
Encouraging to see that democracy hasn’t been totally killed off in East Devon!
And congratulations to Cllrs Howe and Allen in recognising that the public are not happy with the attitude of EDDC towards its residents.  Now need the Chair and Vice-chair of DMC to acknowledge this.
When such important, and irreversible, decisions are being made on our behalf It is ridiculous to have meetings which go on for hours and hours.  As reported, some members of DMC have to leave before the end of a long meeting and the quality of decision-making must fall off the longer that ANY meeting goes on.
With such important matters at stake we are entitled to proper discussion and carefully considered decisions and if extra meetings are needed to facilitate this then they MUST be arranged, regardless of any cost involved (extra costs will be negligible compared with the irreversible damage to East Devon’s environment and communities).
Delegating more and more applications to officers is also totally unacceptable, especially relating to potentially controversial proposals where the ward member does not object.
I look forward to seeing this outburst of democracy flourish over the coming months!
2. At 04:37 pm on 18th Dec Paul Arnott wrote:
Claire, yet again the great proportion of the thinking people of East Devon are indebted to you for this account.
Three things stand out. First, you, Roger and a number of other fair-minded councillors from across the party spectrum deserve immense credit for speaking out against this ill-conceived proposal.
Second, many of us have attended Planning meetings where the speeches from the public - strictly timed and stopped dead at 180 seconds - have been excellently researched and added to the debate.
Third, if the Chairman and her right-hand man operated the chair productively to restrain the repetitious and bloated contributions from some of the DMC members then timing would not be an issue. It is the fault of their Planning outfit that we have no Local Plan and therefore an absurd number of punts from developers. This temporary aberration should not be used as an excuse to attempt such an obvious affront to democracy
3. At 06:22 pm on 18th Dec Susie Bond wrote:
I listened to the whole debate and entirely agree with Cllrs Sullivan, Howe, Chamberlain and Allen. Now really is NOT the time to restrict public speaking at planning meetings.
We are living in extraordinary times with some frankly ludicrous planning applications being submitted on sites which would never have been considered before the NPPF. The unseemly rush by developers to influence the Local Plan (just read through their submissions on the Local Plan for evidence) and force through inappropriate development before the Plan is adopted is the direct result of Government policy.
The problem of excessively long DMC meetings will be resolved as soon as the Local Plan is adopted. In the meantime, public fury about the state of planning is mounting across the district as this policy comes home to roost.
4. At 08:01 pm on 18th Dec Roger Giles wrote:
At the commencement of the item about public speaking we heard the quite astonishing claim that the intention was not to limit public speaking!
Believe that if you will, but the proposals in the paper put before the Committee would most certainly have had that effect had they been agreed.
As I said at the meeting we are still suffering from the exposure by the Daily Telegraph of malpractice in planning matters of a very prominent EDDC Councillor (Mike Howe referred to him having “tarnished” EDDC`s reputation), and we are under threat from packs of voracious developers seeking to exploit EDDC`s lack of a five year housing land supply. How could anybody think it remotely acceptable to reduce public participation in East Devon planning decision-making at such a time?
5. At 09:33 pm on 18th Dec Sandra Semple wrote:
Gosh, finally these councillors are getting the message:  the more they restrict us, the more unpopular they are.  AND Independents speak truth to power.
6. At 06:07 pm on 19th Dec Dick Beardsall wrote:
I am writing on a personal basis here, not on behalf of WHRA.
Having heard from Roger and Claire at the meeting, having read their comments here, and the other comments, I went back to the report to reread it and see what I had missed. My initial impression had been that there was a lot of good in the report and I am still of that opinion. I am probably missing something!
In principle, I think that something needs to be done about the meetings. (And yes, certainly councillors need to be more focussed in their comments.) Twice I have had to cancel other appointments to get to the start of the meeting only to sit there for two hours before our item came up. (Mind you, listening to the debate has frequently proved extremely interesting.)
As a fairly frequent speaker at these sessions, I would welcome a better idea of how the agenda will run and have no difficulty with the idea of pre-registration. But I realise that there need to be exceptions so I would rewrite Recommendation 1.1 on the lines:
“All public speakers on planning applications must pre-register. In exceptional circumstance, the Chairman may allow non-registered persons to speak.”
The grounds for exceptions might be where people have been on holiday or in hospital at the time registration was due or maybe they were just not aware of the rules. But I would limit this latter exception to vulnerable people directly affected by a proposal(e.g. neighbour).
I believe that Recommendation 1.2 relating to non-application items (which is what we were pressing for 6 months ago) should be worded exactly as for planning applications i.e. public speaking should be allowed but speakers must pre-register. The idea put forward by the Chairman at the meeting that no public speaking should be allowed on non-application items as people could always speak before the Council meeting has not been thought through. The idea is to influence the Committee before they make their recommendation. The chance of influencing the Council once the Committee have made a recommendation is remote.
Recommendation 2 seems quite sensible but I would make a slight amendment so that it read:
“Future DMC agendas shall, as far as practicable, be formulated….”
as there may be occasions where some departure from the guidelines is required.
Clearly, the key question here is “Would pre-registration limit public speaking at meetings?” If it did, then I would certainly not support it but at present I do not see how it would.
Over to you.
7. At 09:07 pm on 20th Dec Conrad Black wrote:
I sometimes regret the tasteless Americanism of adding the prefix ‘pre’ to words to make the appear more sudden and urgent.
What we are talking about is getting members of the public to know what the agenda scheduling of the EDDC is so that they can somehow or other, without the benefit of officer guidance, ‘register’ at some unknown time before a meeting in order to have the ‘privilege’ of being able to speak at it.
It is bad enough when you are not an accomplished public speaker, as councillors presumably are, to stand up in public and perhaps make an ass of yourself because you are intimidated by the environment, by the Chairman threatening you with a 3 minute cut off when you have not practised your speech, as developers clearly have, and with a lack of certainty as to what is ‘relevant’ when what they want to say is that they are unhappy.  The majority of the public I have seen at such meetings are ordinary people without the benefit of training and oratory and so on.  They need help in putting over their point(s) of view and deserve the support of the meeting, not the abstract indifference it is so easy to fob them off with.
Yes, meeting take longer.  That is the price of involving the public.  So putting any barriers in their way is to choose to prevent comment, inclusion and the democratic process.
If everyone had been trained as a solicitor then maybe all these meetings would be so much quicker and easier, although on more reflection, perhaps not.  They would know how to slow everything down quite legally?
Better to choose involvement and get communities to respond and become involved than put roadblocks in the way.

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