Thursday, 28 August 2014

Knowle relocation project: FOI request goes to tribunal: latest reports........................................................................ AND District Council puts Knowle on the market

Following on from this morning's hearing in Exeter:
Date agreed for East Devon District Council HQ move tribunal | Exeter Express and Echo
East Devon District Council to justify refusal to disclose relocation details at tribunal | Exeter Express and Echo

...here is the latest from the Express & Echo:

Tribunal hearing begins over East Devon District Council's refusal to disclose relocation details

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: August 28, 2014

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The first part of a tribunal hearing, where East Devon District Council is justifying its refusal to disclose details about its proposed relocation from Sidmouth, was heard at Exeter Magistrates Court this morning.

Evidence surrounding why the council went against the Information Commissioner’s decision that it should have disclosed certain information as a result of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by Sidmouth resident Jeremy Woodward, was heard in closed session this afternoon.

This is because the contested content of the FOI, which is thought to contain information which is commercially sensitive, would be discussed.

In February 2013, Mr Woodward requested all internal correspondence between council officials regarding the office relocation.

This, and requested minutes from Office Relocation Working Party group meetings, were refused by the Information Commissioner.

However the commissioner ruled that reports written by an outside consultant should be revealed.

The first half of the discussion surrounded the employment of Davis Langdon LLP consultant Steve Prattern who has been producing the relocation progress reports in his role as an independent expert advisor to the council on the relocation project.

But despite Mr Prattern being an outside consultant, during the hearing, deputy chief executive Richard Cohen was trying to justify that his role closely resembles that of an officer.

Mr Prattern’s reports were discussed by the Office Relocation Working Party group, which is made up of senior officers and members who would subsequently discuss any issues and may go on to make recommendations to Cabinet and full council.

The Information Commissioner therefore ruled that the minutes of the meetings, which contained cut and pasted extracts from the reports, should not be disclosed to give the authority “thinking space”.

A large part of the hearing focussed on what checks were made, or “quality assurance” is in place regarding Mr Prattern’s employment.

The court heard that Mr Prattern is “totally embedded” in the council, as no consultant has ever been before – he works from the council offices and from a council issued laptop with “unfettered access” to the council system in order for him to do his job which is to advise the council on how to achieve “best value” with regards to the relocation costs.

The court also heard that his reports were “arbitrarily” headed with the company’s name yet there were next to no checks made of the reports for the council, which were signed off by the deputy chief executive.

The court heard that it is the view of both Mr Prattern and the deputy chief executive, that if the contents of his reports were to be revealed then “significant harm” could be caused to the council and third parties and the “entire project could be jeopardised” due to their commercially sensitive content.

The second part of the morning’s hearing focussed on whether the council’s public consultation had been adequate or not.

Speaking on Mr Woodward’s behalf, Richard Thurlow, who is the chairman of the Save Our Sidmouth campaign group, accused the council of an inadequate public consultation.

A brief section of Mr Woodward’s evidence was quoted – he said the public has been given “squat” information about the project.

Mr Cohen refuted this, adding: “There’s been a variety of different routes the public could engage with us and an extensive and varied range of public consultation activities.

“But there have been constraints due to commercial confidentiality that we’ve had to work within, but we’ve done as much as we can to engage and advise.”

He confirmed there have been two strands to the project, the relocation exercise and the planning application for the redevelopment of the Knowle site, which was refused by the council’s Development Management Committee in March 2013.

Mr Cohen said the council’s frequently asked questions section on their website was kept updated, it had issued countless press releases and news letters, and with reference to the planning application, three public consultation events in Sidmouth.

Mr Thurlow, added: “The reason Mr Woodward submitted the FOI was because of the lack of information being given to the public and concern over decisions being made.”

There may be another stage of the hearing. The decision is not expected for another two or three weeks.

Tribunal hearing begins over East Devon District Council's refusal to disclose relocation details | Exeter Express and Echo
Media report on today’s Tribunal: EDDC vs Information Commissioner and Jeremy Woodward | East Devon Alliance

The District Council has now put the property on the market:

Home of East Devon District Council in Sidmouth put up for sale

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: August 28, 2014

Kowle Aerial

Aerial shot of the site

The prime Knowle site in Sidmouth, home of East Devon District Council, has come on the market.

The site, which covers nearly five acres, has been home to the council’s headquarters since the 1970s, but the increasing cost of maintaining and running an ageing building stock, coupled with the occupational inefficiencies, have prompted the Council’s decision to move.

The property, is not listed and is not within a Conservation Area.

The site has a draft allocation for 50 dwellings in the emerging East Devon Local Plan, which is expected to be adopted during 2015.

The site extends to approximately 4.76 acres and the council expects to be in a position to grant vacant possession by May 2017.

The Council wants to reach an agreement with the Town Council of Sidmouth whereby they take over ownership and management of the remaining parkland and this is the subject of discussion. Otherwise, EDDC will retain and manage the parkland in the absence of another agreement.

Nick Jones, Director of Savills in Exeter said: “The Knowle is a very special site in a stunning location and we expect to receive strong interest from a wide variety of parties. The site could suit a range of uses and it will be interesting to see what proposals come forward as a result of the marketing campaign.”

Richard Cohen, Deputy Chief Executive, stated: “The Knowle site represents a rare and high quality development opportunity.

“The existing building stock at the Knowle is now not fit for the Council’s purpose and our decision to relocate has been driven by a desire to deliver a modern council from modern offices. We are open minded about future uses for the site and the Council believes that the redevelopment opportunity within a retained parkland will be an attractive development and a strong legacy adding to the vibrancy of the town.”

The Council is also disposing of their nearby Manstone Depot, which extends to 1.33 acres and is situated within a residential area accessed off Tully Gardens, 1.2 miles north of the town centre. The property is currently used by the District Council as its depot facility. The site has the benefit of a draft allocation for 20 dwellings within the emerging East Devon Local Plan. The Council expects to provide vacant possession by the end of 2015.

The sites are being offered for sale by informal tender and the deadline for submission of offers is Wednesday 22nd October 2014.

All viewings are through sole selling agent, Savills. For further information, please contact Nick Jones on 01392 455712 / njones@savills.com or Mark Chugg on 01392 455 715 / mchugg@savills.com.

Home of East Devon District Council in Sidmouth put up for sale | Exeter Express and Echo

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