Liveable Exeter Place Board is an unelected and unaccountable body that meets in private, does not publish its discussions or decisions and is taking responsibility for major policies which will determine the city’s future.
Exeter Observer first examined its composition and role in July last year, when we identified the significant number of board members with known, substantial interests in land and property and the extent of its involvement in the city’s post-pandemic recovery plan.
We also highlighted its role in relation to the “Liveable Exeter” property development scheme to build 12,000 new dwellings in the next 20 years, the “Net Zero Exeter 2030” decarbonisation plan and the Sport England local delivery pilot.
We then followed up in February this year when the council responded to our questions about a second Church of England member being appointed to the board by accusing us of promoting a “partisan narrative” and claiming our public interest reporting about the board, which is focussed on its lack of transparency and scrutiny, “bears no resemblance to fact”.
We have since sought to find out more about the how the board’s members are selected and appointed using freedom of information legislation.
We asked Exeter City Council to provide information about the criteria used to select board members for appointment. It said it does not hold information about this “in a recorded format”, then voluntarily added:
“The Liveable Exeter Place Board is not an Exeter City Council board.
“As we look to prepare our city for the challenges of the future and ensure both sustainable growth and resilience, the Liveable Exeter Place Board was established to bring the city together to achieve this, in line with ECC’s Vision 2040.
“The board allows the city a forum to discuss the key issues, including housing delivery, that affect both local government and local businesses, as well as other organisations, residents and visitors to Exeter and the region.
“Members were appointed because they are senior people in their organisations and the work that they’ve done shows their capability for bringing alignment to the task in hand. This is particularly the case with national representatives of organisations connected with the housing and the cultural agenda.
“Some individuals have been approached to provide sector insights, not as representatives but as individuals who may help illuminate subject matter and therefore provide a form of challenge and steer, such as small businesses and culture. Some individuals have been invited as a representative, such as the Chamber of Commerce.”
We also asked the council to provide information about the process by which the board’s chair was appointed. It again said it held no recorded information about this, adding:
“Sir Steve Smith was invited by Councillor Phil Bialyk and Karime Hassan to become the chair of the board because he is a respected figure within the city, region and, indeed, a national figure in education. Sir Steve is capable of convening leaders from across the institutions within the city and is an effective chair.”
These additional comments are unusual, though welcome, instances of the council going beyond its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. Given that no relevant information was held in recorded form it must be the case that the answers were prepared specifically in response to the requests.
The council subsequently told us that they were authored by Karime Hassan, its Chief Executive and Growth Director.
The council was less forthcoming on the matter of the considerations which led to the appointment of the Dean of Exeter Cathedral to the board, about which we also asked.
It claimed the information had already been provided by the council leader, Phil Bialyk, when answering a public question at a full council meeting in April.
Not quite. Councillor Bialyk’s reply was:
“Over the course of the year, the chair of the Liveable Exeter Place Board has invited a number of people to join the board, in part as a consequence of the issues that have emerged during this pandemic.
“This has been an extraordinary year and our leading institutions have been able to have frank conversations about the impact that COVID has had on their sectors and organisations. It has also raised issues that have highlighted gaps on the board and, no doubt, this will continue to be the case.
“The cathedral is a major institution in the city, at the heart of the tourism and visitor economy and probably the biggest visitor draw to the city centre. In a very practical way COVID-19 and the production of a recovery plan highlighted the value of having the Very Reverend Jonathan Greener, Dean of Exeter Cathedral, as a member of the board.
“Bishop Robert is also a significant figure in the spiritual life of the city and brings a unique insight and sensitivity to issues such as well-being, and provides a linkage to the wider Devon community and the role of the city in the region.”
Whether or not this is a polite way of saying that the council appointed the wrong Anglican cleric in the first place, it continues to dodge the issue of why no other faiths are represented.
When asked about the consideration which was given to appointing representatives of other faiths to the board, the council’s response was the bland and unhelpful statement: “The board is committed to ensuring inclusion and equality for all.”
Exeter City Council is well aware of how to make appointments in an open and fair manner. For example, the places on its new Harbour Board for non-councillors were filled after a selection process which began by publishing advertisements inviting people to apply and setting out the criteria against which applicants would be assessed.
A similar process was followed for the council’s new Council Housing and Development Advisory Board.
It would be normal practice for appointments to a body with a remit as significant as that of Liveable Exeter Place Board to be advertised widely and made transparently on the basis of objective assessment of candidates.
No such process applies to Liveable Exeter Place Board appointments, nor has it ever.
And the informal approach to membership continues, as evidenced in council leader Phil Bialyk’s April statement and in Exeter City Council’s insistence that it does not hold any paperwork in relation to the process of making board appointments.
Exeter Observer has nevertheless seen two letters inviting people to join the board, both of which constitute “information in a recorded format” which should have been released by the council on request under freedom of information legislation.
These make clear that the board’s chair, the unelected Sir Steve Smith, now has a role in making appointments, but neither explains how either invitation arose.
The absence of members who might, for example, speak up for open spaces and the natural world, and so balance the presence of extensive land and property interests on the board, is either a glaring omission or a revealing reflection of its priorities.
The failure to appoint board members to represent the many community and campaigning groups that comprise much of Exeter’s civil society, or those who have real experience of the hardship, disadvantage and poverty experienced by many Exeter residents, or the trade unions to which many of Exeter’s large public sector workforce belongs, not to mention the city’s non-Anglican faith groups, is similarly remiss.
It is a departure from good governance that appointments to a self-evidently important - or even evidently self-important - board should be made in such a secretive and informal manner.
While comparisons between the selection and appointment of Liveable Exeter Place Board members and the current Conservative government’s approach to appointments and procurement contracts, the much-criticised “chumocracy”, may be odious, they are unfortunately valid.
Exeter City Council nevertheless claims to be “committed to openness and transparency”, as its pro forma responses to freedom of information requests all say.