Wednesday, 10 December 2014

A history of the East Devon Business Forum, part six ....... Scrutiny committee task force "to produce an in-depth report on the EDBF, to include all business engagement and its relationship with the council"

The story so far:

The EDBF initially intended to engage with the District Council's scrutiny cttee:
Futures Forum: A history of the East Devon Business Forum, part one....... "It was the intention to go to the Overview & Scrutiny Committee with a strong team representing the Forum and refute the allegations made."

The make-up of the EDBF appeared rather limited:
Futures Forum: A history of the East Devon Business Forum, part two....... "It mostly represents a number of businesss that councillors and ex-councillors are involved in and those where councillors and ex-councillors own where land which was permitted to be changed from agricultural land to industrial land."

The relationship between the EDBF and the District Council's planning process seemed very close: 
Futures Forum: A history of the East Devon Business Forum, part three....... "Members of the Business Forum often underestimated its influence on policy at EDDC; an example was for the need for more employment land in the District."

The EDBF wished to influence the make-up of the scrutiny cttee's task force (or TAFF) as it prepared to look into the EDBF:
Futures Forum: A history of the East Devon Business Forum, part four....... "RESOLVED that the Chairman and Honorary Secretary be authorised to write to EDDC and express the Business Forum’s concern if it was found that the membership of the Task and Finish Forum contained members that they considered had preconceived ideas about the Business Forum and its operation."

The first meeting of the TAFF raised all sorts of - unanswered - questions:
Futures Forum: A history of the East Devon Business Forum, part five....... "It was not appropriate for the Scrutiny Committee to debate planning policy, because it wasn't independent."

Even before the TAFF first met, there was disquiet about its 'remit':
Business Forum getting nervous? | Sidmouth Independent News
10 reasons why everyone who is available should attend the EDDC TAFF on East Devon Business Forum – 11 December 2012 at 6 pm at the Knowle | Sidmouth Independent News
URGENT! Will TAFF on the EDBF go off course? | Save Our Sidmouth

... as also reported in the press at the time:

Task force will not consider planning issues

By Western Morning News | Posted: December 11, 2012

Campaigners are angry after a Tory council task force set up to investigate a business group, which was branded a lobby for developers, ruled out any consideration of planning issues.

Opponents of the East Devon Business Forum (EDBF) claim it influenced council policy to secure planning permission to build in protected countryside. A special committee created in September by East Devon District Council after a series of complaints is to meet for the first time tonight.

But there is anger after the published agenda for the Task and Finish Forum (TAFF) limited its scope to how the council "engages" with business. Claire Wright, independent councillor for Ottery Rural and a member of the TAFF, said she was "amazed" by the change and claimed the remit needed "a complete rewrite".

The council said the terms of reference were based on legal advice.

"Issues such as whether any councillors may have unduly influenced a planning decision are a matter for the monitoring officer," a spokesman added. "Any complaint that there may have been undue influence over planning policy would be more properly dealt with by the Local Government Ombudsman."

Task force will not consider planning issues | Western Morning News

There was considerable reaction immediately after this first meeting in December from the Sidmouth Independent News site:
Whitewash and Hogwash – the continuing story | Sidmouth Independent News
Whitewash and hogwash 3 | Sidmouth Independent News
TAFF Committee on East Devon Business Forum correctly gagged? | Sidmouth Independent News
My TAFF, your TAFF | Sidmouth Independent News
So, who was the author of the EDBF one page paper at the TAFF? | Sidmouth Independent News
Why we may soon be needing a TAFF to look at TAFFs! | Sidmouth Independent News

And there were several issues arising:
Reflections on the meaning of “transparency” | Sidmouth Independent News
The influence of the East Devon Business Forum on the Local Plan | Sidmouth Independent News
What does the “Economic Development Manager” actually DO? | Sidmouth Independent News
The Cardiff Bay Business Forum – nothing new under the sun | Sidmouth Independent News

The SIN blog looked to the next meeting in January:
Whitewash, hogwash – there isn’t a wash word good enough for this joke of a TAFF agenda | Sidmouth Independent News
SOS Crystal Ball prediction proved right: Watchdog on East DevonBF has been muzzled! | Sidmouth Independent News
Something stinks – and it stinks very strongly in the Sid Valley | Sidmouth Independent News
Whitewash? Hogwash? You decide. EDDC’s Chief Executive gives his view? legal opinion? opinion? who knows! | Sidmouth Independent News

Further comparisons were made with other Business Forums:
East Devon BF and Mid Devon BF : some comparisons | Sidmouth Independent News
Overview and Scrutiny – too little overview, too little scrutiny, too much pressure to bury the truth | Sidmouth Independent News

But the next meeting was cancelled - due to bad weather:
This evening’s anti-whitewash demo at Knowle postponed. TAFF meeting cancelled. | Sidmouth Independent News

This is what the Express & Echo had to say on these matters:

Task group's agenda changed

By Exeter Express and Echo | Posted: January 24, 2013

By Fran McElhone

A PROMINENT East Devon District councillor has raised concerns that a task group set up to scrutinise the workings of the East Devon Business Forum is not doing what it set out to do.

As previously reported by the Echo, councillors on the Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC) ruled in September that a Task and Finish Forum (Taff) committee be set up to investigate the forum branded by critics "a lobby for developers".

The idea was suggested by Cllr Graham Troman, a member of the council's OSC, who told members the forum had faced widespread public criticism that it wielded undue "influence".

The committee had been handed a dossier co-written by Sidmouth resident Tony Green, in which it is alleged that 16 of the most active forum members are involved in large-scale planning and development and point to "a rash" of planning applications approved since 2007. Mr Green told members that the forum had "relentlessly and successfully campaigned for more industrial land and less protection for the countryside".

At the time, forum chairman and Tory councillor Graham Brown defended the forum's integrity and independence.

But ahead of last night's second Taff meeting, on Wednesday, January 23, group member, Cllr Claire Wright said the agenda did not reflect the original remit to scrutinise the forum, but rather focused on business in general.

A protest was also due to be staged before the meeting by campaign group Save Our Sidmouth. Members had planned to dress in overalls and carry cans of white paint marked "hogwash" and "whitewash", to represent their claim that the process of the scrutiny of the forum is being "whitewashed".

"When I saw the draft scope ahead of the first Taff meeting in December, I was surprised because it was more to do with business in general than the forum and the area for discussion was how the council engages with business," said Cllr Wright. "That's not what was agreed at the OSC meeting.

"The minutes said the Taff was being set up to look at the forum agendas and subject areas," she continued. "Most of Graham's points weren't listed. I couldn't believe it. At the subsequent OSC meeting in October the resolution for setting up the Taff was amended to read, "to produce an in-depth report on the forum, to include all business engagement and its relationship with the council". When I saw the agenda for the first Taff meeting last month, the scope set out reflected the former, wrong, resolution."

After discussion with Cllr Troman, Cllr Wright re-wrote the scope of the task group ahead of the meeting.

She has also branded it "unjustified" that, according to the council chief executive Mark Williams, legalities are restricting the task group from discussing planning issues – a central concern which led to the setting up of the group.

"Public concern on these issues is paramount," Cllr Wright continued. "And we have to act on that otherwise we're not fulfilling our duty. What seems to have happened is that the emphasis has once again been taken away from the forum to focus on business in general. But we were set up to scrutinise the forum and we're not being able to fulfil this."

Cllr Troman, said he would be addressing the issues about the agenda at last night's meeting but preferred not to comment further so as not to preempt the debate.

Mr Green added: "Residents were angry that the agenda for the meeting has been taken out of the hands of the chairman and committee and controversial subjects, agreed at the first meeting, such as lobbying, membership and conflicts of interest were removed and replaced by vague platitudes like how to "engage with a joint body". Scrutiny committees are supposed to be independent watchdogs holding the council executive to account. Any bid to prevent this happening raises serious constitutional questions."

A spokesperson for the council said it was up to an independent planning inspector to look at any complaints relating to the Local Plan, not for the Taff. He affirmed that, as the group is made up of council members, it is not for the group to assume the actions of an independent body to investigate decisions taken by members of the same council.

Task group's agenda changed | Exeter Express and Echo

See 'Scoping report' from Minutes of meeting of 12th December 2012:

All sorts of questions followed - again courtesy of the SIN blog:
Is it really true that Overview and Scrutiny can’t discuss planning matters? | Sidmouth Independent News
Is the relationship between EDDC and EDBF that of a “joint body”? | Sidmouth Independent News
So what is the East Devon Business Forum up to these days? | Sidmouth Independent News
Why does EDBF get to see EDDCs budget before the rest of us? | Sidmouth Independent News
“The A3052 corridor” – When is discussing planning applications NOT discussing planning applications? | Sidmouth Independent News

And the next meeting of the TAFF appeared on the horizon:
Task and Finish Forum | Sidmouth Independent News
Will EDDC’s Chief Executive sit as a full member at Tuesday’s TAFF meeting? | Sidmouth Independent News

But just before the TAFF was to meet, something happened:
Councillors for hire who give firms planning advice - Telegraph

EDBF Chair

11th MARCH 2013

Should suspended councillor Graham Brown continue to chair the East Devon Business Forum or should the job go to Vice-Chair Roy Stuart who resigned as an EDDC councillor in 1990 after a highly critical Local Government Ombudsman report?

When Councillor Stuart resigned, Councillor Brown resigned in sympathy with him. Might Mr Stuart now do this for Mr Brown (or is he still Councillor Brown)?

And will the National Farmer’s Union still wish Councillor/Mr Brown to represent them at future EDBF meetings?

EDBF Chair | Sidmouth Independent News

Mr Brown resigns from East Devon Business Forum

Friday, 15 March 2013 3 Comments by Claire

The Express & Echo reports that Graham Brown has now resigned from East Devon Business Forum…. http://www.thisisexeter.co.uk/councillor-Graham-Brown-resigns-chairman-East/story-18424282-detail/story.html#axzz2NdhPUKfp...................................................................

AN East Devon Tory councillor who resigned his seat after he was secretly caught on camera boasting how he could secure planning permission, has now resigned as the chairman of the East Devon Business Forum.

Former Conservative councillor for Feniton and Buckerell, Graham Brown, who owns planning consultancy firm Greygreen Planning, was secretly filmed by undercover reporters who were examining how councillors across the country are offering themselves for hire to property developers.

Despite the potential for a conflict of interest, it is not illegal for councillors to work as paid consultants.

Shortly after he was suspended from the East Devon Conservative Party and removed as the council’s member champion for business and tourism, Mr Brown resigned from his position as councillor.

A council spokesman confirmed that the matter has been referred to police and the council is waiting to see if an investigation is launched by the force until it makes a decision on whether to launch its own.

Mr Brown has now confirmed his decision to step down as chairman of the East Devon Business Forum.

The National Farmers Union previously confirmed to the Echo that Mr Brown was their representative on the Forum which was set up to “improve communication” between businesses and the district council, to meet and agree, “so far as possible”, a common approach.

Mr Brown, added: “Although I still maintain my total innocence, the pressure was getting too difficult for others to work with me.”


1. At 08:41 pm on 15th Mar Sandra Semple wrote:

So, will the Vice-Chairman of EDBF, Roy Stuart of Hill Barton Business Park, who was forced to resign his EDDC council seat after a highly critical Local Government Ombudsman report into his activities in 1990, now become its chairman?

In 1990, when Mr Stuart resigned from EDDC, Councillor Brown resigned in sympathy. Might Mr Stuart do this now in sympathy with Mr Brown?

Please, let’s just allow EDBF to whither away now. But do NOT allow the EDDC Task and Finish Forum on its dealings to die too - we need that investigation more than ever now.

Our local police force has been cut so much, with experienced officers being forced to retire, they need all the help we can give them.

2. At 09:10 pm on 15th Mar Scott Grant wrote:

We will wait to see if he has done anything wrong.

3. At 09:49 pm on 15th Mar Mark Hawkins wrote:

I think there is a case for a refocused EDBF to be an asset, if all the rumoured dodgy dealings are fully investigated and exposed. 

The Task and Finish Forum is hamstrung by Mr Williams’ “legal advice”. Also it surely is not able to investigate potential conflicts of interests of officers, so should we be looking at alternative routes to overturn all stones?

We won’t know if he has done anything wrong unless there is a full investigation into his links with any relevant officers and councillors over the applications of his clients, patrons and EDBF friends. He has implicated Mr Harrison, and of course any connections with officers supporting controversial permissions should be fully investigated in order to clear the names of those who have supported his interests. 

We cannot research any pattern of councillor involvement because the DMC meetings are not properly minuted. There is no record of who has spoken to support any application or of who voted which way.

Mr Brown resigns from East Devon Business Forum - Claire Wright

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