East Devon Council secrecy row at office move revival
A freedom of information battle is looming over a refusal to disclose details of behind-the-scenes plans to revive the sale of a council headquarters.
East Devon District Council (EDDC) failed to convince its own planning committee to rubber stamp a proposed scheme to fund an office move by converting its historic parkland home into housing and a care home.
The Conservative authority was branded “farcical” by critics after it spent £250,000 drawing up the proposals, which were finally turned down in March.
The process which was marred by a series of embarrassing blunders – including miscounting the number of staff – forced officials back to the drawing board three times.
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Nevertheless, the council is adamant that its antiquated and expensive-to-maintain suite of offices at The Knowle, in Sidmouth, will be sold and is now formulating fresh plans.
A request under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act for details of the progress of the plan, via minutes of meeting of the working party along with a redacted version of a report to cabinet, has been refused.
The council says disclosure of the minutes would “prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs by inhibiting the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation”.
It adds that without commercially sensitive information, the report would be meaningless.
Independent district and county councillor Claire Wright, who made the request, said unless the authority reconsiders, she will take the case to the Information Commissioner.
She said the “massively expensive and unnecessary project” was “shrouded in secrecy”.
“It is outrageous for a council to conduct plans to leave its offices and build new ones, almost entirely behind closed doors,” she added.
“Hundreds of thousands of pounds have already been spent without the benefit of public scrutiny.”
The controversial plan to pave over large swathes of the popular countryside setting of The Knowle and relocate to Honiton produced a strong reaction among the public.
Some 4,000 people marched in protest and 1,800 objections were raised to a scheme which was called “grandiose”, “wretched”, “seriously flawed” and “an act of corporate vandalism”.
Following a three-hour meeting, a scaled-down planning committee of nine said it was were “swayed by the eloquence” of a series of heartfelt appeals and ditched the project by six votes to three.
EDDC is adamant that it is not indulging in secrecy but simply protecting information that could have a “negative impact on our ability to get the best deal for the council”.
Richard Cohen, deputy chief executive, said publishing action points from an internal council working group without significant decision-making powers “does not add any value”.