This post was originally published on http://www.petercleasby.com on 16 May 2016
It’s a truism that politicians (and not only politicians) love making good news announcements. Even when they have to announce bad news, it’s always presented as positively as the spin doctors can manage. Announcements which are then followed up by nothing at all are not unheard of – after all, it’s the fact of announcing something that generates the media coverage, and then the circus moves on.
But what barely figures in the spin doctors’ handbook is the announcement which is then followed not so much by nothing as by a veil of secrecy. And here in Devon, we have a fine example.
On 24 November 2014, three district councils – East Devon, Exeter City and Teignbridge – announced that there were setting up a partnership to be called Greater Exeter, Greater Devon . The stated aim is “to drive forward economic growth” through “joined-up decision making on planning, housing, resources and infrastructure”. A Greater Exeter Visioning Board would meet every month “to define work priorities”. The Board’s membership would be the leaders, chief executives and economic development lead councillors of each of the councils.
Leaving aside the question of whether economic growth is the right objective, this seems a potentially useful measure. The three councils cover adjacent areas and face transport and land use pressures, particularly in Exeter and its surroundings.
In the course of keeping up to date with local initiatives I recently trawled the councils’ websites for news of the monthly meetings of the Visioning Board. Nothing at all. So, focussing on Exeter City Council, I looked for minutes of meetings that approved the setting up of the Board and received reports from it. Nothing at all.
Next step, ask the council. After the usual 20 days had elapsed, an Exeter City Council officer sent me a reply confirming the Board’s membership and setting out the dates each month on which it had met since its inception . However, the reply stated that the minutes of the Board’s meetings were not available to the public, though no reason for this was given.
So, here we are. A local authority body, promoted as a driver for economic growth and coordinating policies and planning on key issues, is announced with much fanfare and then vanishes into a cloak of secrecy.
Open government, indeed. I’ve asked the City Council a series of questions about the Board’s authority, functions and accountability. Watch this space for their response.
 The East Devon announcement is at http://eastdevon.gov.uk/news/2014/11/driving-forward-economic-growth/ The other councils issued virtually identical statements, though it no longer appears on Exeter City Council’s website.
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