ANALYSIS  ⁄  DEMOCRACY & GOVERNANCE

Exeter City Futures secondment decision may be unlawful

Backbench city councillors denied scrutiny call-in powers to challenge controversial decision to send chief executive and senior director to work for private company.

Exeter city council  Exeter city futures  Exeter development fund  Net zero exeter  Accountability & transparency  Democratic deficit 

At the end of last year Exeter City Council controversially decided to send its chief executive, Karime Hassan, and another senior director, Jo Yelland, to work for Exeter City Futures for a total of five days a week while continuing to receive their council salaries.

The decision was ostensibly taken to support Net Zero Exeter plan delivery, although both are expected to focus on enabling Exeter Development Fund.

Neither the rationale nor the risk assessment provided by council leader Phil Bialyk in his report recommending the decision stood up to scrutiny.

It subsequently emerged that a cross-party group of backbench councillors attempted to challenge the decision under local government scrutiny call-in powers, but were told they could not do so.

The council claimed that the decision was for the full council, not its executive, to make and so was not subject to call-in.

However local government legislation appears to say otherwise, which would make the decision unlawful, ineffective and subject to judicial review.

Exeter City Council in session at Exeter Guildhall Exeter City Council in session at Exeter Guildhall. Photo: © Sandra Barrett, All Rights Reserved.

The legislation that governs Exeter City Council decision-making requires full council meetings to determine overall policy frameworks and budgets which its executive then implements (sometimes via executive sub-committees or council members and officials using delegated powers).

Accompanying regulations specify what local authority executives may do, what they may not do, and what they may only do in conjunction with the full council.

Backbench councillors are responsible for holding executive decisions and their implementation to account in scrutiny committees on which executive members may not sit.

Some other council decisions concerning regulatory matters including audit, planning and licensing are mostly made by non-executive committees.

Backbench councillors sitting on scrutiny committees have legal powers to “call in” executive decisions, delaying their implementation so they can be subjected to greater scrutiny, with the option to recommend that they are reconsidered and potentially overturned.

Statutory government guidance says that all council “members and officers should recognise and appreciate the importance and legitimacy the scrutiny function is afforded by the law”. It describes scrutiny as a “check and balance on the executive”.

Executive decisions which are likely to result in significant expenditure (or savings) against council-set budgets , or which are likely to have a significant effect on communities living or working in an area comprising two or more council electoral wards are called “key decisions”.

What constitutes “significant” in this context is not defined by the regulations. Many local authorities consider expenditure (or savings) of £100,000 or more to be significant, although Exeter City Council only applies this to expenditure above £1 million. The meaning of “significant effect on communities” is less clear.

Somewhat confusingly, local authority executives may also make decisions which involve significant expenditure but are nevertheless not key decisions, because the executive is restricted to recommending its decision to the full council for approval.

These are decisions which would be “contrary to or not wholly in accordance with the authority’s budget” or “contrary to a plan or strategy adopted or approved by the authority”. They are known as “departure decisions” and must be made by the full council.

The decision to send two council directors to work for Exeter City Futures relied on existing budgets, as the council leader’s report confirms, and it was not related to the council’s current policy framework, as the council’s constitution confirms.

As the decision involved neither budget nor policy framework changes it appears not to be departure decision. If so, it should have been taken by the executive and not the full council.

It apparently should also have been classified as a key decision as, according to the council, it affected all the city’s electoral wards.

As such it should have been subject to call-in too. However the non-partisan cross-party group of backbench councillors which attempted to challenge the decision under scrutiny call-in powers was prevented from doing so by the council on the basis that the decision was not an executive decision at all.

The local government legislation which binds the council appears to say otherwise, which would make the decision unlawful, ineffective and subject to judicial review.

We asked the council to tell us specifically which section of which schedule of the legislation it considers applies such that the decision to send the council’s chief executive and another senior director to work for Exeter City Futures did not constitute an executive decision.

We had to ask four times before we received an answer, more than two months after the decision was made.

Instead of referring to the legislation, the council quoted the sections of its constitution related to its powers to appoint its own chief executive and head of paid service (a statutory role played by the chief executive in Exeter).

These have nothing to do with its decision to send the chief executive and another director to work for Exeter City Futures.

According to the council’s externally-audited accounts, Exeter City Futures is neither a subsidiary nor associate company of the council. The council therefore has no powers to appoint the company’s staff, whether already employed by the council or anyone else.


 is editor of Exeter Observer and a director of its publisher Exeter Observer Limited.

Exeter in brief
Exeter in brief

Royal College of Nursing staff at the ROYAL DEVON NHS TRUST have resumed strike action alongside South Western Ambulance Service workers as healthcare professionals across the country stage the biggest strike in NHS history.

Detailed plans for the Honiton Road MOOR EXCHANGE RETAIL PARK have been submitted for approval. Outline planning permission for the development was granted two years ago.

The police inspectorate says DEVON AND CORNWALL POLICE must make urgent improvements after it was found to be inadequate in three of nine areas including responding to emergency and non-emergency calls and managing registered sexual and violent offenders.
Its assessment found two other areas required improvement while two more were graded “good”. A new chief constable was appointed in December after the force was placed under enhanced inspectorate monitoring last year.

DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL is consulting on its draft Exeter Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan, which is already nearly six years late, until the end of March.

UNIVERSITY OF EXETER staff have resumed strike action over pay, pensions and working conditions alongside Exeter school teaching staff with dozens more strike days planned during February and March.

EXETER CITY FUTURES published the agenda for its last board meeting on 30 January, two months after the meeting was held. It says it is “committed to being completely transparent and open about the things that are discussed at board meetings”. No minutes were included.

DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL is not making sufficient progress with its children’s services since they were judged inadequate in January 2020 according to the latest Ofsted monitoring report which found that key areas still require significant change and serious issues remain.

The UNIVERSITY OF EXETER has submitted detailed plans for its 1,700 bed West Park redevelopment of 50,000m2 of student accommodation.

Royal College of Nursing staff at the ROYAL DEVON NHS TRUST have resumed strike action alongside South Western Ambulance Service workers as healthcare professionals across the country stage the biggest strike in NHS history.

Detailed plans for the Honiton Road MOOR EXCHANGE RETAIL PARK have been submitted for approval. Outline planning permission for the development was granted two years ago.

The police inspectorate says DEVON AND CORNWALL POLICE must make urgent improvements after it was found to be inadequate in three of nine areas including responding to emergency and non-emergency calls and managing registered sexual and violent offenders.
Its assessment found two other areas required improvement while two more were graded “good”. A new chief constable was appointed in December after the force was placed under enhanced inspectorate monitoring last year.

DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL is consulting on its draft Exeter Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan, which is already nearly six years late, until the end of March.

UNIVERSITY OF EXETER staff have resumed strike action over pay, pensions and working conditions alongside Exeter school teaching staff with dozens more strike days planned during February and March.

EXETER CITY FUTURES published the agenda for its last board meeting on 30 January, two months after the meeting was held. It says it is “committed to being completely transparent and open about the things that are discussed at board meetings”. No minutes were included.

DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL is not making sufficient progress with its children’s services since they were judged inadequate in January 2020 according to the latest Ofsted monitoring report which found that key areas still require significant change and serious issues remain.

The UNIVERSITY OF EXETER has submitted detailed plans for its 1,700 bed West Park redevelopment of 50,000m2 of student accommodation.

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