Reference Library – England – Devon – Sidmouth

EDDC would rather we did not bother them with Freedom of …

The Herald reported in July how authority bosses were considering hiring an extra member of staff at a cost of up to 33,000-a-year to help process the hundreds of applications the council receives.

This has since gone ahead, but EDDC says it still expends a large amount of resource on handling FoI requests including time spent by senior officers, their staff and the council s legal team.

The FoI Act allows anyone to request information which is not already publicly available.

At present, people can lodge a request with a local authority or public body, so long as finding the information does not cost more than 450. Last year, Sidmouth resident Jeremy Woodward successfully used FoI requests to force EDDC to release confidential documents about its relocation from Knowle.

EDDC dealt with 486 requests in 2014/15 down from 563 the year before.

But at a meeting in December, EDDC leader Councillor Paul Diviani told members that the council still spends an awful lot of taxpayers money dealing with FoI requests .

The Herald asked EDDC exactly how much is spent, but a spokeswoman said it does not usually quantify officer time spent dealing with FoIs as part of their day-to-day work.

The spokeswoman added: We employ one permanent (part time) member of staff to deal with FoIs and complaints and have more recently taken on another post (fixed-term for one year) to assist in dealing with the volume of work in this particular department.

Approximately, over half of their time is spent on FoI requests as opposed to complaint handling. Of course, it is not just the time of the officers directly responsible for handling requests that should be noted.

The monitoring officer also has to spend time dealing with internal reviews and, perhaps more significantly (in terms of overall time), the time spent by other senior officers (and their staff members) in dealing with a request that involves their service, also has to be taken into account.

Finally, there is the time spent by the legal department in helping the information and complaints officers carry out their role.

Suffice to say, given the number of requests, the council expends a large amount of resource in dealing with FoIs.

Good heavens, the amount of money spent is miniscule when you compare it to the amount EDDC spends trying to keep things secret ( they also refuse to say how much last year s court case on FoI ( which they lost) cost where they also refused to cost the time of their lawyers and consultants in fighting it. Sour grapes Owl thinks! The more transparent things are, the less work the FoI officer will have to do.

And why engage another person when the number of requests have fallen? Are you anticipating a high number of new requests for some reason? The HQ move, shrouded in secrecy; the devolution deal being done behind closed doors; the meetings with developers that have things cut and dried BEFORE public consultation?


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Scrutiny at its best … excuses at their worst … “corporate relations …

Last night s Scrutiny committee meeting exposed two more examples of EDDC leaders instinct to make decisions without proper consultation. The ubiquitous Cllr Phil Twiss (Conservative, Honiton St Michael s) who, in addition to all his other roles, is portfolio holder for corporate relations, was summoned to explain why the democratic process had been so blatantly short-circuited by a council press release in September. Cllr Cathy Gardner (Independent, Sidmouth Town) asked him why she and the other Sidmouth ward councillors had been taken by surprise by an announcement in the Sidmouth Herald that the Council was considering building affordable housing on Mill Street carpark. There had been no consultation with interested parties like the town council, and ward members were sent copies of the press release 14 minutes before it was published!

Cllr Twiss replied that he had not been involved with the release, ( It wasn t me, guv ) but claimed it was a matter of urgency because a journalist had asked for a statement, and the deadline was pressing. Cllr Marianne Rixson (Independent, Sidmouth Sidford) retorted that this sounded very much like the journalist tail wagging the council dog and it was no excuse for not consulting democratically before arbitrarily publishing controversial initiatives. The Scrutiny Committee agreed and voted to remind Cabinet that there was a Protocol that councillors concerned should be consulted before press releases were authorised. It also welcomed guidance produced by the Communications Officer which made a similar point.

Silence remained about who had authorised the Sidmouth story but Cllr Bill Nash (Conservative Exmouth Town) may have been warm when he said only floods and other emergencies required urgent press releases. All other communications were non-urgent and should not be released if authorised only by the Leader and senior officers. In passing, Cllr Nash also slammed the Council leadership for publishing detailed pictures and maps of developments along Queen s Drive in Exmouth which were very different from any plans that had been consulted upon.

This was taken up by Scrutiny Chair Cllr Roger Giles (Independent, Ottery St Mary Town) who read a letter from two Exmouth residents complaining about pending planning applications for major works, including diverting Queen s Drive, part of the latest, much altered, waterfront development scheme. Exmouth Cllr Brenda Taylor (Lib Dem,Exmouth ) angrily commented that these plans proposed massive residential development which had never been agreed to by councillors. She felt she was wasting her time attending meetings when such arbitrary decisions were made in secret. At this point the Democratic Services Officer and a Legal Officer intervened to argue that the Scrutiny Committee could not discuss the Waterfront Project because planning was outside its remit.

Cllr Rob Longhurst (Independent, Woodbury and Lympstone) wasn t having any of this. The reputation of EDDC is nil in Exmouth, he said, because the current extravagant plans were being justified by a few hundred replies to a questionnaire about the different, more modest, Splash project. Cllr Megan Armstrong (Independent, Exmouth Halsdon) agreed. It s not about planning, it s about independent public consultation , she said.

It was about whether the people of Exmouth wanted or needed what the Council leadership was imposing on them. Cllr Val Ranger (Independent, Newton Poppleford and Harpford) said it was quite within the remit of Scrutiny to look at questions of process, on whether public consultation is being properly followed. The committee voted to do precisely that, once the current legal actions over Exmouth seafront businesses are resolved.

In the meantime, watch out for fireworks over Exmouth seafront at the full Council meeting on Wednesday 16th December.

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