In a previous post I highlighted the flamboyantly named Greater Exeter Visioning Board, announced with a fanfare of trumpets and then shifted off into the dark shadows of proceedings held behind firmly closed doors. This post reports the uncomfortable outcome of my further investigations.
Having been told by Exeter City Council that the minutes of the Visioning Board were not made public, I asked some more questions. The City Council’s answers are below.
Q1: Under what authority the board was established and who agreed its terms of reference?
A1: A Memorandum of Understanding was agreed by the Leaders and Chief Executives of Exeter City Council, East Devon District Council and Teignbridge District Council in November 2014. The Memorandum of Understanding is not a legally binding document but all parties use all reasonable endeavours to comply with the terms and spirit of the Memorandum of Understanding.
Q2: The reasons for its decision not to publish agendas and minutes?
A2: Many of the issues that are discussed at the Board relate to the growth of the Greater Exeter area. It is considered that the board needs to be able to have open discussions through which they can develop ideas, debate live issues and reach decisions. Disclosure of these discussions may inhibit the imparting or commissioning of advice, or the offering or requesting of opinions for consideration.
Q3: Whether it reports its proceedings to councillors and, if so, what opportunities are open to councillors to scrutinise its work?
A3: Council Leaders and Deputy Leaders from each of the three authorities sit on the board.
Q4: If it does not report its proceedings to councillors, to whom is the board accountable?
A4: See above.
Answer 3 was a little less than forthcoming, so I checked the website (again) to see if anything about the Visioning Board had been reported to any minuted meeting of a Council committee. Nothing found. I asked the Council if I was missing something, and the reply was that no such reporting back could be traced.
So, there we are. A body that is set up to “develop ideas, debate live issues and reach decisions” about the growth of Greater Exeter has been meeting in secret for over a year, with its members not even reporting back to the councillors they lead. It’s possible that the Exeter City Council members have been keeping the mysterious Planning Member Working Group informed, but since its proceedings are also secret, we do not know.
Having spent 30 years as a Whitehall civil servant, I’m ready to agree that politicians and officials need the space to discuss ideas openly without press and public in the room. But what is astonishing about the Visioning Board is that it was set up with a blaze of publicity, a formal MoU and regular monthly meetings. And it appears to have been taking decisions in secret that could have major implications for Exeter.
So what’s next?
We can at least now speculate what the Visioning Board was up to. On 12 July, the City Council’s Executive (the lead councillors) discussed a report by the Assistant Director City Development which set out proposals for establishing:
“a joint strategic plan for the Greater Exeter area which would be prepared in partnership between East Devon District Council, Exeter City Council, Mid Devon District Council and Teignbridge District Council with assistance from Devon County Council. The plan would cover the geographical area of the 4 partner authorities (excluding the area of Dartmoor National Park) but would be limited in scope to cover strategic issues and strategic allocations within those areas with local issues to be considered through linked local plans prepared by each partner authority for their area.” 
This was nodded through and then approved by the full Council on 26 July.
In a future post I will explore the challenges for serious public engagement presented by this form of joint working. For the moment, let’s just say that the gestation of this proposal behind closed doors, and the underlying assumption that joint planning is a technocratic issue rather than something which asks the communities what sort of Greater Exeter we want (if indeed we want one at all) does not augur well.
Or is there another agenda?
Of course, I might be completely wrong, and the Greater Exeter Visioning Board has been discussing something completely different. But if so, what? A Greater Exeter Unitary Authority perhaps? There is an obvious link between the joint strategic plan proposal and the so-called “Devolution” bid for spending powers to be transferred from central government to the “Heart of the South West”, made up of Devon County Council, Somerset County Council, Torbay Council and Plymouth City Council . The district councils like Exeter are at present secondary players in this, a position with which Exeter for one is not comfortable.
 I will have more to say about the “Devolution” bid in a later post . Meanwhile a useful update is at item 76 of the minutes of the Exeter City Council Executive meeting on 12 July, at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=112&MId=4469&Ver=4