Investigation into lobby group accused of ‘whitewash’

The district council had to fend off claims of a ‘whitewash’ after it agreed an investigation into a controversial lobby group will not cover planning policy.

The first Task and Finish Forum (TAFF) into the East Devon Business Forum (EDBF) took place on Tuesday, but one of its members said it has been ‘gagged’ before it even began.

Councillor Claire Wright said influence of the group on planning issues was the ‘catalyst’ for setting up the investigation in the first place.

But when the draft scope for the TAFF was published last week, it was in the list of areas not covered by it review, along with the Local Plan.

East Devon District Council’s (EDDC) chief executive Mark Williams explained the decision, saying it would be inappropriate for the forum to make recommendations on planning.

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But several members of the 50-strong public gallery at Knowle spoke out against this, including Sidmouth businessman Barry Curwen, who said there was ‘insufficient separation’ between EDDC and EDBF, which had damaged the reputation of both bodies.

Cllr Wright said: “The draft scope was, in my view, a nice try at trying to get EDBF off the hook and attempting instead to shoehorn the committee into discussing the nice airy fairy subject of business in general in East Devon.”

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She went to the meeting armed with an alternative version, but was unable to find a seconder for her proposal to bring planning policy and the Local Plan back onto the table.

Councillor Graham Troman, the TAFF’s chair, said if there was the opportunity to look into those matters then he would gladly do so, but said he didn’t feel he could go against legal advice to exclude them.

But Cllr Wright said if the committee’s areas for discussion were going to be ‘squashed from the outset’, then people would come to the conclusion any report would be ‘a whitewash’.

She added: “How can we do our job properly when the chief executive, no doubt fully backed by the cabinet, has gagged the committee on the most important subject of all?”

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