Futures Forum: The lack of scrutiny at East Devon ... Council's Scrutiny Cttee meets Thursday 16th October
... there has been considerable reaction in the blogsphere - with key points highlighted:
“(MERELY) NOTING A REPORT HAS NO PLACE ON SCRUTINY”, SAYS INDEPENDENT CLLR ROGER GILES
October 16, 2014
But despite strong and specific criticism tonight, by several Councillors and the members of the public, of Richard Cohen’s controversial update on Knowle office relocation, the Overview & Scrutiny Committee Chair, Tim Wood and others voted …to note the report!!
One thought on ““(Merely) noting a report has no place on Scrutiny”, says Independent Cllr Roger Giles”:
October 16, 2014 at 10:15 pm
So just to recap:
1. No one knows how much this is going to cost and therefore no one knows whether there is a business case which says it is cheaper to move than to stay at the Knowle. Yet yesterday’s full council agenda states “embedding whole life cost assessments into decision-making prior to significant investment would ensure that the Council had a better understanding of the long-term revenue implications.” How can they say that and yet be undertaking the Knowle move not only without whole-life cost assessments but in fact without ANY cost assessments?
2. Despite saying in the annual report that more small business units are needed, and despite the agenda for yesterday’s council saying that the council should “focus on achieving the delivery of additions to the stock of serviced office space”, the Knowle project includes the sale of the East Devon Business Centre in Honiton for demolition so that yet another supermarket can be built. How can they say they need more office units for small businesses at the same time as planning to destroy an existing one?
So here are two obvious points that any Scrutiny Committee should be taking a close look at – but instead they decide to “note the report”.
So not only is there rank hypocrisy in each of the two points above, with a clear intent to undertake the Knowle move regardless of the consequences, there is apparently even greater rank hypocrisy in the committee including the word Scrutiny in its name.
“(Merely) noting a report has no place on Scrutiny”, says Independent Cllr Roger Giles | East Devon Alliance
FOR URGENT ATTENTION OF EDDC’S OVERVIEW AND SCRUTINY CHAIR
October 17, 2014
Tim Wood seems to have been misled on two matters which cropped up last night at the O&S committee which he chairs.
1. The first was in response to this question from Marianne Rixson of East Devon Alliance :
‘At the Newton Poppleford Parish Council (30th Sept), Councillor Potter reported on a recent meeting of the Local Government Association. He quoted a government minister as saying that there would be no district councils left in 10 years’ time.
Given this prediction, will your scrutiny committee need to urgently explore the possibility that the millions of pounds dedicated to the Knowle move will prove to be a total waste of taxpayers’ money?
Could you please begin straightaway by asking Richard Cohen tonight to tell you how much it would cost to refurbish the present purpose-built Knowle offices, funded by the possible sale of part or whole of the former hotel building on the site?’
Tim Wood mumbled the reply that he believed Cllr Potter had been misquoted. Those who attended the Newton Poppleford Parish Council meeting, including 20 or so local residents and various East Devon Alliance members, heard and were astonished by Cllr Potter’s statement. Cllr Tim Wood was not at that meeting, so would he kindly check the recording of it?
2. The second was about comments made last week regarding the weakness of EDDC’s Scrutiny Committee, when EDDC’s Electoral Registration Officer (ERO) and Chief Executive, Mark Williams was summoned to a Parliamentary Select Committee unhappy with his ERO performance. Richard Thurlow, Chair of Save Our Sidmouth, requested that the comments be addressed by tighter scrutiny of council officers.
Tim Wood read out a prepared (by whom?) statement to the effect that this was no concern of his O&S Committee, but purely a matter between the ERO and the Electoral Commission. Would he kindly check the LGA link below, which clearly states:
“Committees are able to investigate any issue which affects the local area, or the area’s inhabitants, whether or not it is the direct responsibility of the council’s Cabinet.”
See: s9F(2)(d) and (e), Local Government Act 2000, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2011/20/schedule/2/part/1/enacted
Cllr Wood and his O&S Committee members might like to re-read and reflect on what was said about them http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/political-and-constitutional-reform-committee/voter-engagement-in-the-uk/oral/14118.html
2 thoughts on “For urgent attention of EDDC’s Overview and Scrutiny Chair”:
October 17, 2014 at 7:13 pm
Worrying that Cllr Wood, with his experience of parliament and local goverment, seems unaware of the General Power of Competence provided by the Localism Act.
If I may quote from the Department of Communities and Local Government guide to the Act, “The Localism Act includes a ‘general power of competence’. It gives local authorities the legal capacity to do anything that an individual can do that is not specifically prohibited; they will not, for example, be able to impose new taxes, as an individual has no power to tax.”
By my reading of it, the Overview and Srcutiny Committee have the power to er, take an overview and scrutinise.
Rory Jones says:
October 17, 2014 at 8:33 pm
Tim is right, so the question arises: why would Tim Wood NOT want to look into this matter?
Who gains from his drawing a veil over his ERO/CEO’s curious strategy in the last week?
Well, Mr Wood himself – if he asserts that’s it’s nothing of his concern – stops looking foolishly excluded for not knowing his CEO was strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage at his own former workplace.
And Mr Williams – well, as you were, old boy, nothing to see here.
Because what’s in it for the Tories to lose their main man at such a delicate time, and why would they possibly want to constrain his seemingly permanent, unelected power? How can they?
The fact is, he’s Mr Wood’s boss now, not the other way round …
For urgent attention of EDDC’s Overview and Scrutiny Chair | East Devon Alliance
COUNCIL WATCHDOG TOOTHLESS
October 17, 2014
EDA followers will remember our report of the O&S Committe resolve made in January this year: http://sidmouthindependentnews.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/council-watchdog-shows-its-teeth-over-ballooning-costs-of-the-knowle-move/
Eight months on, there are signs that the Council watchdog has been undergoing obediency training…..
An apparently tamed Overview and Scrutiny Chair Tim Wood cast a deciding vote to accept an unelected council officers’ report last night. He made almost no contribution to his committee’s debate on the uncertainties, omissions, and setbacks in Richard Cohen’s latest update on EDDC office relocation, except to ask the approximate size of floorspace that a revamped EDDC would require. Richard Cohen’s answer: 3,300 sq metres.
How does this compare with the floorspace of the purpose built Knowle offices? We’ll remind readers on a following link to be posted shortly.
3 thoughts on “Council watchdog toothless”:
October 17, 2014 at 2:31 pm
I note that in the SIN web page, Richard Cohen is quoted as saying ”There is a difference between what is of interest to the public, and what is in the public interest.”
He is of course correct in his statement, but incorrect as to its application.
His inference is that whilst the public is (understandably) interested in the financial details of the Knowle move, having that information made public is not, in his opinion at least, in the public interest.
But that is not the view of, say, Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who seems to think that any public expenditure over £500 is DEFINITELY in the public interest because he has legislated to make this the case. Indeed, in the majority of cases of council administration (shall we say, as an example, the leasing of photocopiers), there is very little (if any) interest from the public, but if the council spends more than £500 on photocopiers then having details of the expenditure available for scrutiny IS in the public interest.
That is also not the view of the Information Commissioner who says: “The public interest can cover a wide range of values and principles relating to the public good, or what is in the best interests of society. Thus, for example, there is a public interest in transparency and accountability, to promote public understanding and to safeguard democratic processes. There is a public interest in good decision-making by public bodies, in upholding standards of integrity, in ensuring justice and fair treatment for all, in securing the best use of public resources and in ensuring fair commercial competition in a mixed economy. This is not a complete list”. So the ICO believes that disclosure of details of the Knowle move would (in general) be in the public interest if it meets ANY ONE of these several criteria – but in fact it probably meets all of them.
The Information Commissioner then says that “there is a public interest in fully understanding the reasons for public authorities’ decisions, to remove any suspicion of manipulating the facts, or ‘spin’. For example, this may well be a public interest argument for disclosing advice given to decision makers. The fact that the advice and the reasons for the decision may be complex does not lessen the public interest in disclosing it and may strengthen it. Similarly, the information does not have to give a consistent or coherent picture for disclosure to help public understanding; there is always an argument for presenting the full picture and allowing people to reach their own view. There is also a public interest in the public knowing that an important decision has been based on limited information, if that is the case.” As possibly the biggest decision and project for EDDC for several years, the Knowle move must surely be in the public interest under this rule. And it will also the public interest on the above basis because of the uncertain business case, the secrecy, the re-writing of reports (‘spin’?), the re-writing of reports presented to councillors (possible breach of the process on Mr Cohen’s part since all councillors are allowed full access to information by law), the refusal to release information when directed to by the ICO, the potential impact on the local economy, loss of local Small Business Office units at a time when EDDC states they should be making more available, hypocrisy of promoting a “whole of life” cost model approach when the costs of this are unknown, etc. etc.
The Information Commissioner also says “In carrying out the public interest test, the authority should consider the arguments in favour of disclosing the information and those in favour of maintaining the exemption. The authority should try to do this objectively, recognising that there are always arguments to be made on both sides. It may be helpful for the authority to draw up a list showing the arguments it is considering on both sides; this will help when it comes to assessing the relative weight of the arguments.”
The project leader Richard Cohen is not exactly independent, so his judgement about what is or is not in the public interest may not be objective. Mr Cohen has not, as suggested by the ICO, listed his arguments for and against disclosure either. Perhaps Richard Cohen could now explain his reasoning, both in general and for specific types of information, that details of the Knowle move are not in the public interest?
October 17, 2014 at 2:42 pm
The BBC defines says that public interest “includes but is not confined to: exposing or detecting crime, exposing significantly anti-social behaviour, exposing corruption or injustice, disclosing significant incompetence or negligence, protecting people’s health and safety, preventing people from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation, disclosing information that assists people to better comprehend or make decisions on matters of public importance.”
So several of these would seem to apply here.
Perhaps Richard Cohen would give us his definition of “public interest” so we can see if it differs from the BBC or the ICO or DCLG, and explain how his definition applies when it comes to the Knowle move?
October 17, 2014 at 2:52 pm
If I remember correctly, Richard Cohen has used the excuse that some information is “commercially confidential”. The Department of Justice says, in relation to Freedom of Information, “Generally speaking there is a public interest in the disclosure of commercial information in order to ensure that: there is transparency in the accountability of public funds”.
So, commercial confidentiality is a weak basis for an exception to disclosure.
Would Richard Cohen like to offer any other reasons for keeping this secret so we can see if they hold water or not?
EDDC scrutiny cttee votes against holding cabinet to account (which is its job, actually)
Thursday, 16 October 2014 4 Comments by Claire
EDDC’s overview and scrutiny committee tonight voted down proposals for securing some rules over decision-making on the controversial office relocation project
Instead, it voted in favour of “noting” the officer report.
The short report - at item 9 from the link below - raised more questions than it answered in mine and Cllr Roger Giles opinions and we asked many questions of the deputy chief executive.
I am not convinced that we received many answers, suffice to say that a new level of uncertainty appeared to emerge over the plans to sell off the Knowle and multiple other EDDC owned assets, to fund a new office build.
The meeting started off with several members of the public - Richard Thurlow from Save Our Sidmouth, Richard Eley (Sidmouth businessman) and Marianne Rixson (Sidmouth resident), all urging scrutiny committee members to fully scrutinise the proposals to relocate.
A reasonable request …. you would think.
Richard Eley expressed concern that the relocation costs may spiral up to £20m.
The council (at least the conservative group, most of the rest of us made vehement representations against) made a decision in February to start detailed negotiations to purchase land at Skypark to build new offices (land price alone almost £1m) Yet we are now in October and the deputy chief executive was unable to offer assurances this evening that the negotiations were successfully proceeding.
In fact when asked by Cllr Graham Troman about whether the plans to move to Skypark were still definite, the deputy chief executive replied in a rather vague manner, prompting me to probe further – eliciting more woolly responses.
To throw another spanner into the EDDC works to relocate, the supermarket which has expressed an interest to build an umpteenth such facility in Honiton, on the site of the relatively new and very valued East Devon Business Centre, now wants to build a smaller store, thereby reducing the potential income to EDDC, which it is relying on to fund new offices.
Add this to the town and village green application for the Knowle gardens – and the application for a public right of way (still unresolved) there are more than a few unknowns.
Of course there is still the long awaited decision from a judge about several reports into the state of the Knowle buildings that EDDC is spending tens of thousands of pounds on trying to keep secret, despite an Information Commissioner’s ruling, insisting the reports must be made public.
The council (despite repeated requests from me) is also refusing to release information on how much it is spending on barrister fees to fight its case for non disclosure. This has been going on for months.
It was confirmed this evening that officers were considering a loan of several million pounds to get them over any cash flow problems. Although when I asked what was the maximum loan that the council believed was acceptable to borrow, I was informed that it all depended on the sale of assets. This was an unsatisfactory response because the value of a loan should not depend on these things.
Surely the council should know in advance what figure would be acceptable – or not. Especially at a time of extreme financial restraint.
I wasn’t remotely assured. And judging from the comments at the back of the room, neither were the members of public present.
Cllr Roger Giles went through the report and asked about the staff survey, as well as the procedure for a planning application. Some councillors did not like this line of questioning and argued against it (?!)
I was quite alarmed by the final paragraph of tonight’s report, which indicated that a decision on the sale of the Knowle would be made by full council in December – just a few days before Christmas (17th). However, it sounded from the report that there would simply be an update on Skypark to accompany it.
It appeared to me that the council was proposing to sell off the Knowle potentially without securing a location to relocate to! This was very worrying and I asked what happened if we found we couldn’t afford Skypark land or things changed. How could it possibly be justified that we could sell the Knowle at such a time?
Also, I was concerned about the timing of such a decision. Just a few days before Christmas when people were very busy doing other things.
I was assured by officers that this was not the case, but I didn’t see how we could be in a position of certainty in just a few weeks time when the current situation is anything but. And we have still not been given any information about the possible costs of a new build.
So I proposed that the council made no decision on selling the Knowle and other assets associated with the relocation until there was complete certainty over a new location.
AND that no decision be made until all the costs were published – both expenditure and potential new build costs.
AND that no decision on the relocation be made until after December.
Cllr Roger Giles seconded my proposal.
I wasn’t sure how anyone could argue with these proposals , they seemed a bit of a no brainer to me – but of course some of the conservatives did!
Cllr John Humphreys seemed quite outraged that I had proposed some recommendations to cabinet when the report stated it was for “noting” only. He described the report as “excellent” and it was not our job to make recommendations where there were none on paper.
There was a mixture of chortling and outrage from the public gallery at this. It prompted an angry outburst from Cllr Roger Giles about the role of scrutiny – which is most certainly not to note reports.
The vote was a draw - five votes to five (all voting against were conservative). And unfortunately it was lost on chairman, Cllr Tim Wood’s, casting vote.
A subsequent proposal by Cllr Humphreys to note the report was a draw again, but this time Cllr Tim Wood supported it with his casting vote.
It is the overview and scrutiny committee’s statutory job to hold the cabinet (all conservative) to account and tonight it failed most miserably to even back a few basic proposals to provide a modest check on one of the most financially risky, secretive and controversial projects in recent years.
Here’s the link to the agenda and reports - http://new.eastdevon.gov.uk/media/427365/161014-os-agenda-combined.pdf
1. At 10:23 pm on 16th Oct Conrad Black wrote:
Well, if you seek to see transparency in local government, you need go no further than this meeting tonight.
If the (so-called) scrutiny committee does nothing more than ‘note’ reports, then they are a waste of time, space and cost. And, indeed, if any members of such a committee draw expenses or income of any kind from that activity, it should be considered to be fraud. The only possible job of a supervisory committee is to supervise and to investigate. If they do nothing they have failed their primary purpose. If they never find anything then they are not fit for purpose, It is abundantly evident that in planning matters there have been provable concerns for too long. What appears even to the layman to be inadequate ‘advice’ about inquiries into planning matters has, to my mind, quite improperly created a situation where a committee tasked with investigative responsibilities has been allowed to fail in its duty to the electorate - for they are not responsible to either the elected or the unelected officials. But it appears that the current Chair of the committee is seduced by the idea, so recently promulgated by the CEO, that they are responsible to nobody, or maybe just the Cabinet?
Better publicity for the stunning hypocrisy of the current administration might well create an interest in the electorate to take a more active interest in democracy - but, of course, it might also be a good reason for not going out to get new and unpredictable electors if you can rely on the current ones to stay traditional?
2. At 08:22 am on 17th Oct Paul Arnott wrote:
It’s not in my nature to write off a whole group of people because they happen to be fellow travellers under the same flag. So, to give credit where it is due, at a national level there are Conservative members who, whilst personally committed to policies to the right of centre - low-tax, smaller public-sector, pro-privatisation etc - also recognise that the way they do business must evolve. The current hone secretary, Theresa May, identified an element in the ranks as “the nasty party”, and she seemed to me at least to be sincerely imploring the membership at local level to shake off what she recognised was a deserved label.
This week, when Mr Paul Freeman spoke in PUBLIC SPEAKING time at full council, he was barracked as if in the Commons by Tories shouting “Put the question”, and the Chairman attempted to cut him off before his three minutes were up. He wasn’t there to put the question; he was the man who had personally forced the complacent CEO of the council to face a Westminster Select Committee, and to pull his finger out over door-to-door canvassing, thus ensuring that the less-advantaged in our district have a fairer chance of getting a vote next May, even if they missed out on the Euro elections.
The night before in Axminster Town Council, a hard-working town councillor was subjected to a co-ordinated humiliation by very senior district Tories, whilst at Colyton the Tory leadership strayed off agenda to deliver a gratuitous slap to another hard-working councillor.
Writing personally, I have now seen enough of this kind of conduct by the local Conservatives to conclude that this vertically integrated intimidation starts at the top of the district council and percolates down to the other ranks in towns and parishes across East Devon. This sometimes includes the arrogance of local clerks, who have taken their example from the unaccountable EDDC CEO and from the supine pages of the Alice in Wonderland Monitoring System, which has repeatedly sought to chop off the heads of good people and let the evidently thuggish run free.
The only current brake on this constitutional one party disaster is the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, and last night was the final confirmation that in fact they are functioning merely as a sub-committee of Cabinet, which itself seems to be some form of counsulting body for the over-reaching CEO and DEO of a council with no local plan, which is defying the Information Commissioner, strangely silent on its formerly dominant figures in Planning, and pulled up at Westminster for gross complacency in registering voters.
Inertia, complacency, falsity, and abuse run through those controlling the local party like blue veins through cheese. And this truckle has gone off.
3. At 10:04 am on 17th Oct Damien Mills wrote:
Firstly, I’d like to commend Paul Arnott for his excellent analysis of the current situation at the Knowle, with which I concur wholeheartedly.
That aside, there are a couple of further issues with which I am struggling to get my head around.
Savills’ brochure for the sale of the Knowle is available to view here:
On Page 8 it refers to the Knowle benefitting from a draft application of 50 dwellings in EDDC’s latest local plan submission.
At the top of Page 9 it says: ‘We are offering the Knowle for sale by informal tender. The District Council is seeking to maximise the sale price from the disposal of the site and will consider conditional offers [conditional on securing planning permission].’
I stand to be corrected but take this to mean that offers are being sought on the basis of permission for the aforementioned 50 dwellings being secured at some point in the future – of course, as we have seen before, this is by no means a given.
So, let’s imagine the council receives a conditional offer of, say, £10m as a result of which it decides at its meeting on December 17 that it is in a position to proceed with the sale / continue negotiations to relocate to SkyPark.
Where would that leave it if, at some point in the future, the planning application comes before the council and is turned down? Suddenly the council can’t count on the £10m it had been relying upon to finance the move but a significantly lesser sum.
Of course, in the scenario I describe, with the move to SkyPark dependent on planning permission for 50-odd homes at the Knowle, members of the planning committee will be under such pressure to grant approval that it may become a fait accompli. This, in turn, begs the question whether, in such circumstances, there is a mechanism whereby the application would have to be considered not by East Devon but an independent third party?!
In any case, that’s as maybe; my point is that EDDC appears intent on taking the decision to press ahead while there’s still a possibility – however remote – that planning permission won’t be granted and that it could be left facing a huge shortfall.
Now, if that isn’t a legitimate concern for the overview & scrutiny committee then I don’t know what is!
4. At 10:26 am on 17th Oct Paul wrote:
As I have mentioned elsewhere, this whole fiasco just demonstrates the rankest of hypocrisy by EDDC leadership.
1. No one knows how much this is going to cost and therefore no one knows whether there is a business case which says it is cheaper to move than to stay at the Knowle.
Yet Wednesday’s full council agenda states “embedding whole life cost assessments into decision-making prior to significant investment would ensure that the Council had a better understanding of the long-term revenue implications.”
How can EDDC say that and yet be undertaking the Knowle move not only without whole-life cost assessments but in fact without ANY cost assessments?
2. The Knowle project includes the sale of the East Devon Business Centre in Honiton in order to create capital receipts to pay for the move.
Yet both the recent annual report and the agenda for yesterday’s council both state that the council needs to provide more serviced office space for small businesses.
How can EDDC say they need more office units for small businesses at the same time as planning to destroy an existing one?
These are two obvious points that any Scrutiny Committee should be taking a close look at – but instead they decide to “note the report”.
So, not only is there rank hypocrisy in each of the two points above, with a clear intent to undertake the Knowle move regardless of the consequences, there is apparently even greater rank hypocrisy in the committee including the word Scrutiny in its name.
EDDC scrutiny cttee votes against holding cabinet to account (which is its job, actually) - Claire Wright