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Task group's agenda changed

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

By Fran McElhone

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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.

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