Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The lack of scrutiny at East Devon ................................ Council's Scrutiny Cttee meets Thursday 16th October

A previous blog entry focussed on the presentation at the next Overview & Scrutiny Cttee of a report on the Knowle relocation project:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: report to be considered by Council's Scrutiny Cttee: Thursday 16th October

However, several other key issues are to be considered...
Overview and Scrutiny Committee agendas - East Devon District Council

Firstly, it will be interesting to see whether the Cttee will revisit some of the unanswered points raised at this evening's full Council meeting - with a preview from independent Cllr Claire Wright:

Tricky questions and their responses - for EDDC full council tomorrow evening

Tuesday, 14 October 2014 6 Comments by Claire

Below is a full list of the questions and answers for tomorrow evening’s EDDC full council meeting.

We will be asking supplementary questions. Some of the questions, as usual, simply have not been answered - again.

Question 1: Procedure Rule 9.2 to the Leader of the Council from Councillor Ben Ingham
Please can the Leader tell me when he and the EDDC Cabinet were informed that the EDDC CEO, Mark Williams has been called as a witness by the House of Commons Select Committee for their meeting on Monday, 13th October at 5.15pm when they discuss “Political and Constitutional Reform: Voter engagement in the UK” and in light of the event, what he was asked and how he responded?

The CEO is also the Council’s Electoral Registration Officer (ERO), and its Returning Officer. These 3 roles are deliberately kept separate and to maintain this independence/professional distance from the politics of the Council, there was no need for the CEO/ERO to inform the Cabinet or any other elected member about his attendance at the House of Common’s Select Committee. The CEO, along with the CEO of Mid Devon District Council, was requested to attend a meeting of the Committee in his capacity as the Electoral Registration Officer. The CEO provided an update to all members by email yesterday.

Question 2: Procedure Rule 9.2 to the Leader of the Council from Councillor Claire Wright
Information commissioner appeal process

a) What is the cost to this council of the appeal process, including the hearing at Heavitree Magistrates Court on 28 August, against the Information Commissioner’s decision to request publication of reports relating to the Knowle and office relocation.

b) Please provide a full breakdown of the costs.

The Council is engaged in complex legal argument with the Information Commissioner. The legal issues form a test case which is likely to involve the continuing involvement of Counsel, at the heart of which is this Council’s ability to be able to plan its relocation strategy effectively.
The Council had a legal right to Appeal the original decision of the Information Commissioner. The Council always wanted the matter sorted out by paper submissions. However the ICO requested an oral hearing and so as a consequence the costs issues for the Council are likely to be higher than expected but are not for comment whilst the matter is ongoing.
The cost issues will be reported to Members once the matter has been settled.

Question 3: Procedure Rule 9.2 to the Leader of the Council from Councillor Claire Wright
Please provide a full breakdown of the spending so far AND budget allocated for the costs associated with the office relocation.

As members will be aware from the most recent update report to the Overview & Scrutiny Committee figures are provided of spend and approved budget for the relocation project. There is also a limited breakdown of the elements spend to date. This allows members to understand the range of activities that the budget is being spent upon and also maintains commercial confidentially in relation to individual contracts.
Extract budget section of O/S report 16 Oct 2014: The current approved budget agreed by Cabinet on 4 June 2014 for the Relocation Project is £705,568.00, and this figure remains unchanged. Project spend as at 31 August 2014 was £475,669, leaving a balance of £229,899. The approved Relocation Project budget is included within overall relocation project cost calculations being part of the calculation to ascertain financial viability of potential options.

Question 4: Procedure Rule 9.2 to the Leader of the Council from Councillor Susie Bond
Given the importance of the 6-year land supply on planning decisions in East Devon, would the Council Leader arrange for the current housing figure to be put on the agenda of every DMC meeting and every full Council meeting as a standing item until such time as the Local Plan is adopted?

At the present time the Council undertakes a bi-annual update of five year land supply. It takes a significant amount of time to assimilate data to do calculations; demands on officer time mean more frequent assessment is not possible. It would not, therefore, be practical to provide a recalculated supply assessment for each Development Management meeting.
In any event the number of houses that are likely to be approved in a single month would not be sufficient to significantly alter the five year land supply figure and as such it needs to be calculated over a longer period than a month for each update to be meaningful. However a business case has been approved for enhancement to IT systems with the plan that assimilating data to undertake calculations is less time consuming in the future and more frequent reassessment will be possible. The ICT work is programmed to start in the New Year.

Question 5: Procedure Rule 9.2 to the Leader of the Council from Councillor Roger Giles
When does the Leader expect the completed Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) report from the consultants? What indication of the findings of the consultants` work has he received from the consultants? What arrangements does the Leader intend to make to allow the Council to debate and agree a course of action following the receipt of the SHMA report? What recent contact has there been between the Council and the Local Plan Inspector concerning providing the LP Inspector with the SHMA information? When does The Leader anticipate that the East Devon Local Plan will be adopted?

A report will be presented to Development Management Committee on 21 October that answers a number of the points raised. The SHMA is now programmed to be finished this autumn but there are currently no conclusions. The SHLA will be reported to Development Management Committee and full Council and it is planned will be subject to public consultation. Local Plan adoption is expected in 2015 and the Inspector will be advised on plan progress after the 21 October Committee meeting date.

Question 6: Procedure Rule 9.2 to the Leader of the Council from Councillor Roger Giles
What recent consideration has the Council Leader given to the possibility of unification of East Devon District Council with other local authorities? What discussions have taken place with neighbouring local authorities about the possibility of unification?

No consideration or discussions have taken place with regard to ‘unification’, which I assume means EDDC no longer being a separate local authority. I am quite clear that this is not up for debate.
The duty to co-operate is enshrined in the Localism Act. However the Leaders of East Devon, Exeter and Teignbridge are absolutely clear that the concept of a Combined Authority does not lead to a loss of individual sovereignty but will enhance our joint ability to provide our customers with the services they expect at a price we can afford.
We have always looked to develop good relationships with our neighbours. As part of that, the issue of sharing services, areas for future co-operation, development of policies for shared areas of concern, setting up the Strata company, etc are always ongoing. This is a common sense approach to the issues facing us.
My work with the LGA People & Places Board and the District Council Network affirms we are not only taking prudent and innovatory steps but are ahead of the game nationally. The world of local Government is moving on

Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: and the longer-term demise of district councils... part five... East Devon District Council "will imminently have no alternative whatsoever than to integrate anyway."

Secondly, an editorial on the front page of this week's ViewFrom/Pulman's Weekly draws attention to the extraordinary events at Westminster:

Editor Column
From The Editor's Chair

Have we missed something?

14 October 2014

IF I was a district councillor in East Devon I think I might be asking a pertinent question or two about why elected members had no previous knowledge that chief executive Mark Williams had been summoned before a Government select committee. 

So I have some sympathy for the view expressed by experienced Ottery St Mary councillor Roger Giles when he said: “I would have thought that it might just have been of passing interest to the members of EDDC”, noting that in his 19 years of service he could not remember the chief executive being invited to meet with such an august body as the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on Voter Engagement in the UK. 

Why Mr Williams was summoned before the parliamentarians yesterday (Monday) is a matter of interpretation, as is often the way in local government. 

The matter was first raised by Paul Freeman, a member of the East Devon Alliance, a pressure group which rarely shies away from rattling a few cages at Knowle, making the alarming claim that 6,000 names had gone missing from the electoral roll in East Devon before the European elections.

Mr Freeman asked a question about the matter at the last full meeting of EDDC back in July and the Alliance claims he was given, and I quote, “an arrogant brush off” by Mr Williams. 

Mr Freeman did not let the matter rest and maintains that Mr Williams had been invited to Westminster to “explain himself”. 

As to be expected, the communications department of EDDC put a very different spin on it. 

They say Mr Williams had been invited in his capacity as returning officer for East Devon “to give evidence on voter engagement in rural areas”. 

Furthermore, EDDC claim that the 2013 Electoral Register in East Devon achieved a 95 per cent registration rate without house-to-housecanvassing. They have now recruited canvassers with the target of calling on every house in East Devon. 

From recent television coverage, appearing before select committees never seems to be a very comfortable experience and it often annoys me that parliamentarians who have been caught with their fingers in the till, and still continue to milk the system, act in such a high and mighty fashion. 

Politics, both at national and local level, is all about transparency these days and local government officers have to be squeaky clean to stay ahead of the game. 

A great deal of council business is delegated to unelected officers and that often means the flow of information to councillors, and indeed the public, leaves much to be desired. 

Roger Giles, somewhat tongue in cheek, commented: “Have I missed something?” Clearly he had - like the rest of us. 

Philip Evans

Have we missed something? | East Devon Alliance
View from Sidmouth pulls no punches in today’s editorial | Save Our Sidmouth

And lastly, the East Devon Alliance has been looking at the general issue of scrutiny - or lack of it - at local government:
Performance of officers and councillors being much more heavily scrutinised and heads roll | East Devon Alliance
Scrutiny and where it is lacking | East Devon Alliance

... quoting a recent letter in the Western Morning News questioning the ability of the current system to hold local government to account:


The Western Morning News has given prominence to this letter, dated 7th October, from EDA member, Tim Todd.

‘Dear Sir,

May I comment on your lead article on Sunday Oct 5th.

The ‘arrogant’ leadership problem was known about back in 2000 when the Joseph Rowntree Foundation presented a report entitled ‘Hung Authorities, elected mayors and cabinet government’. Whilst perceiving the problem as a country wide one, one paragraph from the report struck me as expressing precisely all that is wrong in this regard with my own East Devon District Council . If I may quote :

“The current incidence of one-party dominated councils is understandably causing concern. A survey of such authorities carried out by one of the authors of this report (Leach, 1998) revealed some characteristics which do not augur well for the Government’s democratic renewal agenda. Despite the lack of a significant opposition, it was rare for group discipline to be relaxed in a way that enabled majority party members to play an effective scrutiny role. Council and committee meetings were often brief rubber-stamping exercises, with the dominant group preferring to debate contentious issues in private, rather than in public. The expression of the local representative role was also largely confined to group meetings (see also Copus, 1999). There must be a real possibility that, if such behaviours perpetuated under a cabinet system, there will be even less public debate or scrutiny of key decisions than at present in some of these authorities – in which, moreover, there is often a dearth of effective electoral competition and associated low election turn-outs.”

Between its cabinet and senior officers, East Devon District Council has demonstrated time and time again that it is unwilling to ‘take advice’ from the DCLG , or anyone else, on any aspect of democracy or accountability so we can only look for change via the ballot box and or changes in the law such as that which forced local councils into accepting the public’s right to record meetings, (a right EDDC , until forced to accept, had delayed voluntarily implementing in full).’

Yours sincerely

Tim Todd


Paul says:
October 13, 2014 at 11:47 am

As posted as a comment to a previous blog entry, Eric Pickles the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said in a recent letter in answer to a question I asked:

“Local authorities are independent bodies and accountable to their electorate rather than Ministers, and it is right that councils are properly held to account by their electorate. To help the public hold their councils to account we have, for instance, changed the rules on openness and transparency of council decision making, most recently putting in place new rules to allow the public to report on council meetings. I consider this approach [i.e. localism], rather than centralist, top-down control, is the right one and allows an informed public to hold their council to account when exercising the ultimate sanction at the ballot box.

That is why it is important that when there is an election, the public take the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.”

So, there you have it!!! Stated in plain english, pretty much as bluntly as it can be phrased, by a senior Government Minister, a Secretary of State no less! If you don’t like secrecy, alleged corruption, lack of consultation, lack of accountability etc., then the only solution available is to use YOUR vote at the next local council elections (in May 2015) to vote in a different set of councillors.

..”We can only look for change via the ballot box” | East Devon Alliance

See also:
Futures Forum: "Claims for 'localism' are a fiction from a Tom Sharpe novel" - Growing disquiet across the West Country
Futures Forum: Independent politicians and the greenbelt ... and corruption in UK local government

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