Panel will look at business group’s ‘planning infleunce’


- Credit: Archant

A scrutiny panel will now be able to look into a controversial lobbying group’s influence on planning after a decision to widen its remit was narrowly voted through.

Ever since the task and finish forum (TAFF) was set up to look into the dealings of the East Devon Business Forum (EDBF) there have been claims of ‘gagging’, after legal advice hampered what it could look into.

Many had argued looking into EDBF’s influence on planning issues, specifically the amount of employment land in the draft Local Plan, was the ‘catalyst’ for setting up the investigation in the first place.

But at the TAFF’s first meeting East Devon District Council’s (EDDC) chief executive Mark Williams said it would be ‘inappropriate’ for the forum to make recommendations in these areas.

Mr Williams said it would be unlawful to look into individual planning decisions, with the TAFF’s chairman Councillor Graham Troman reluctantly agreeing to take these issues out of the panel’s scope.

Councillor Claire 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’.

“How can we do our job properly when the chief executive has gagged the committee on the most important subject of all?” she said.

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But the investigation into EDBF has been thrust back into the spotlight in recent weeks, after the resignation of former councillor Graham Brown following allegations of corruption, and is subject to an ongoing police inquiry.

He was also the business group’s chairman until standing down from this role as well last month, and had fended off claims of a conflict of interest as he also owns a planning consultancy firm.

At last week’s EDDC scrutiny committee councillors narrowly agreed to widen the TAFF’s remit after fierce debate, so the panel can now look into the business forum’s ‘close relationship’ with the council.

The EDBF itself held a crisis meeting last month to decide whether to continue in its current form, after the allegations surrounding it, the resignation of its chairman and the cancellation of its funding and officer support by the district council.

The TAFF is expected to next meet on Tuesday, April 16, at Knowle.

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