Tag Archives: Open government

Scrutiny can work

Surveys are not always reliable.  Yet if you asked the usual representative sample how they liked to spend time, attending local authority committee meetings is unlikely to score highly.

This is understandable.  Public participation is strictly controlled.  In Exeter, members of the public can submit questions (3 days in advance) to be asked at any of the three City Council scrutiny committees; and interested parties are given speaking rights at Planning Committee meetings.  Exercising the self-discipline of sitting in silence while councillors say things you disagree with is not for the passionate.  Attempts to increase public participation in Council meetings have failed on the circular-argument grounds that people just aren’t interested [1].

Devon County Council operates with fewer constraints.  Unlike Exeter, members of the public can ask questions at full Council meetings or Cabinet meetings.

Exeter City Council’s attitude to openness is schizophrenic.  It claims to be open and transparent, and often is.  Conversely, there are some major issues on which it clams up, such as the Greater Exeter Visioning Board or the Leisure Complex business case (the latter is still in front of an adjourned Information Tribunal, and the whole project has stalled because the tenders received don’t match the budget for its construction).

So it was with no expectation of receiving anything more than a defensive brush-off that I submitted a question for response at the People Scrutiny Committee on 1 June.  The question was: “As none of the tenders for the construction of the leisure complex was within the budget for the scheme, will the Council explain why they did not estimate realistic costs for its construction before inviting tenders?”  The rules of procedure prevent supplementary questions, but do allow the questioner to speak for up to two minutes in response.  Naturally, I had prepared my response in advance.

I bowled up at the meeting, and was shown the seat to sit in when asking the question.  I read it out carefully, since the rules say that deviation from the submitted question may be penalised.  Councillor Bialyk, who is in charge of the leisure complex project and a man not known for mincing his words, launched into his response.

It was surprisingly informative.  Yes, the tenders were not in line with budget expectations.  But circumstances had changed since the invitation to tender was prepared, many due to Brexit.  Sterling was weaker.  The RICS building costs guidelines had changed several times.  There were uncertainties over labour supply in the construction industry.  In addition, one of the firms advising on the project had given poor advice, and had their contract terminated.  Other councils around the country were facing similar problems.

This is genuinely helpful information and makes the Council’s position understandable, far more so than the cryptic statement on their website: “But due to the nature of the tender returns submitted by contractors bidding for the contract, the council has announced that it needs more time to conclude the procurement process” [2].  It made my prepared response – which was critical in tone – largely redundant, and I abandoned most of it.

The City’s only Green Party councillor, Chris Musgrave, also used questioning to elicit the information that the Council planned to appoint a single operator for the Leisure Complex and all the other Council-owned leisure facilities in the city.

The lesson I draw from this is that openness works.  There will continue to be a small number of issues that need to be discussed behind closed doors, but these should be very few indeed.  Openness helps understanding, and understanding improves the quality of political debate.  We just need more people to break through the participation barrier, and start asking [3].

NOTES:

[1] See for example the minutes of the Exeter City Council Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee on 23 March 2017, item 16, available at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/mgAi.aspx?ID=37916

[2] Exeter City Council statement dated 2 March 2017 at https://exeter.gov.uk/people-and-communities/major-projects/a-new-bus-station/

[3] Guidance for members of the public on submitting questions is available as follows:  Exeter City Council at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=444&MId=3295&Ver=4&Info=1 item 7.  Devon County Council at https://new.devon.gov.uk/democracy/guide/public-participation-at-committee-meetings/

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Whose Vision is it anyway? Part 2

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.” [1]

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 [2].  The district councils like Exeter are at present secondary players in this, a position with which Exeter for one is not comfortable.

 

NOTES:

[1]  The full report is at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/documents/s52597/EXECUTIVE%20-%20Proposed%20Greater%20Exeter%20Strategic%20Plan%20-%2012%20July%202016%20-%20FINAL.pdf

[2]  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

Whose Vision is it anyway? Part 1

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 [1].  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.

 

NOTES

[1]  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.