Below is a sample of the (written) questions sent in advance from one EDDC Councillor, Cathy Gardner (East Devon Alliance); the answers she received from the Leader of the Council, Paul Diviani; and her supplementary questions put at yesterday evening’s meeting. More answers, and more questions from others, will be reported on SOS soon.
East Devon District Council Meeting on 21 December 2016
Agenda Item No 9
Question 10: Procedure Rule 9.2 to the Leader from Councillor Gardner
It is my understanding that apart from some Officers, only the four Councillors on the Office Accommodation Executive Group are party to the details of the contract with Pegasus Life. Given the significance of the sale to the future finances of this District and the fact that the agreement to sell the Knowle to Pegsus Life is conditional upon them gaining planning consent, is there a timeframe in the contract for this to be achieved? In other words, how long do Pegasus Life have to meet this objective before the contract expires or is the contract open-ended?
It is correct that the four Members whom attend the Office Relocation Project Executive Group, together with key Officers, are aware of the details within the contract between the Council and PegasusLife.
This Contract is commercially confidential. I can advise, however, that the contract reflects such events, as you have identifies, and associated timeframes.
The Leader has not answered my question: This is especially concerning since 55 members of this council are asked to endorse decisions relating to a contract they have not seen. Does the contract with Pegasus Life have an expiry date or is it open-ended?
Question 11: Procedure Rule 9.2 to the Leader from Councillor Gardner
Can the Leader confirm that the price agreed with Pegasus Life for the Knowle cannot be renegotiated now that their first planning application has been refused and if it can, at what point the site would be remarketed?
The Council is considering its options going forward with regard to the Knowle site and Pegasus Life will be doing the same following the recent outcome for their planning application and the detail of the decision notice issued by the Planning Authority. We will be meeting with Pegasus to consider the way forward.
Beyond that, this becomes a matter of commercial confidentiality which senior officers will manage and working to the Relocation Executive Group. As has always been the case, the final decisions will be taken by Cabinet and Council.
Again the Leader has not answered my question. Can the price agreed by PegasusLife for the Knowle be renegotiated?
Agenda Item No 9
Question 12: Procedure Rule 9.2 to the Leader from Councillor Gardner
Recently, cost underestimates of over £650,000 for Exmouth Town Hall and £1.6 million on Queen’s Drive Exmouth point to serious flaws in EDDC’s project planning capabilities – will this be addressed by Audit and Governance Committee, SWAP and/or KPMG for analysis as to why this is happening and how it can be avoided in future or is this an issue for Scrutiny to investigate?
In recent detailed reports the Council has been advised of the latest state of play on the two key projects of relocation and Exmouth Town Hall and Exmouth Queen’s Drive and the fact that both important investments in the town have necessitated an increase in their budgets. The budget variances on both projects were explained and debated at Cabinet.
Moving from estimated project cost to detailed costings following site investigation and contractor pricing is not a perfect science especially when there is significant delay imposed outside of the Council’s control which has been the case in both the examples cited.
Risk reviews, regular and dedicated project management can help but not necessarily guarantee that projects always run smoothly. EDDC has throughout its life delivered complex and important projects for its communities and will continue to do so.
Back in 2015/16 the Council has already decided to ask SWAP as part of it’s 2016/17 Audit Plan to look at and advise on the achievement of major projects. Their report will be presented to Audit and Governance Committee on 5 January 2017.
I am afraid that cost increases of this magnitude do not support the idea that this council is managing these 2 projects effectively – does the Leader not agree that a change of project manager would be a prudent move to protect council tax payers from further cost increases?
Question 13: Procedure Rule 9.2 to the Leader from Councillor Gardner
At a meeting of the Office Accommodation Executive Group in September 2015, it was agreed to seek ‘real-time publication (2-3 months) of agendas, minutes and associated papers.’ However, as of this Wednesday, no documents relating to either the Executive or Officer working groups have been uploaded to the Council’s website since October 2015. Given the Councils supposed commitment to transparency and criticism from the Information Commissioner, can the Leader please explain why relocation documents are still being held back from public and Councillor view in this way?
Relocation documents have been made available up to May 2016 in confidential and unredacted form for Members to study and further documents will be uploaded for Members in the same form early in the New Year.
With regard to the wider publication of relocation documents this is a more complicated and time consuming process. It requires several senior officers to devote a significant amount of time to reading and evaluating in detail the documentation of both the Relocation Executive and Officer Groups. The review process met in November 2016 and officers have subsequently been collating the papers and making the necessary redactions in preparation for publication. As with the Member’s versions, we expect to publish the outstanding set of papers early in the New Year.
For those who are interested the public archive of redacted documents is available on our website and goes as far back as late 2009.
Proper public scrutiny of the project and adherence to the principle of transparency cannot be achieved if documents are not revealed for more than 12 months. Does the Leader agree that the Councils approach to transparency is to release only documents that no-one is interested in seeing and holding on to the rest?
Question 14: Procedure Rule 9.2 to the Leader from Councillor Gardner
a. Will the Leader reaffirm the independence of the Development Management Committee, acting for the Planning Authority, in judging applications based solely on policies in the Local Plan?
b. Will the Leader condemn the deputy CEOs criticism at Cabinet on 14 December of a recent DMC decision in that it “stymied” the Councils plans for relocation?
The Development Management Committee (DMC) itself affirms its independence time and time again.
It is a fact that applications for the development of the Knowle site have twice been turned down by DMC and this impacts the Council’s plans as landowner to see the Knowle site redeveloped and to relocate.
As the Deputy Chief Executive advised Cabinet last week, DMC made its decision regarding the Pegasus application purely on planning grounds as it should do. Nevertheless the Council has a strategic and operational logic and commitment to relocate from this site and, for the Council as landowner and service provider, the decisions of DMC are a consideration in that.
I know I’m not the only Cllr who was concerned about the very public expression of personal views by a Senior Officer at Cabinet on 14 December. This Officer was appointed to oversee the relocation project but should remain impartial when advising members; can the Leader explain how this matter will be dealt with under the code of conduct for employees which states that they must not let their own personal opinions interfere with their work?