ANALYSIS  ⁄  DEMOCRACY & GOVERNANCE

Labour councillors appointed to all fourteen city council committee chairs at annual meeting

Council leader falsely claims "overwhelming majority" voted Labour in Exeter local elections while circumvention of council decision-making scrutiny continues.

EXETER CITY COUNCIL   LOCAL ELECTIONS   ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY   DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT  

Exeter City Council holds its annual meeting each May, when the Lord Mayor and Deputy Lord Mayor are appointed and the council leader for the following year is confirmed. Appointments to all the council’s committees are also made.

Notwithstanding the resignation of several Labour councillors and the party’s loss of three seats to the Greens at the local elections, this week’s annual meeting confirmed that Labour councillor Phil Bialyk continues as city council leader.

Speaking at the meeting he said he had recently reminded Green Party councillor Diana Moore, who is now opposition co-leader, that “democracy was the subjugation of the minority by the majority”.

This followed a claim he made last week, published as council news then used as a headline by Devon Live, that “the overwhelming majority” voted for Labour at the elections on 5 May.

However just under 20,000 votes were cast for Labour while nearly 24,000 were cast for the other parties combined, although the First Past the Post electoral system meant Labour won twelve of seventeen seats.

Comparing proportional ballot shares for the leading candidate in each party in wards in which more than one councillor was elected (of which there were four this year) to mitigate the effects of some voters casting two votes yields very similar results: just under 46% of ballots were cast for Labour while just over 54% were cast for other parties.

The party’s largest vote share in annual city council elections for which records are available was in 2016, when the ward boundaries had just changed and all the council’s seats were elected at the same time.

It received just over 47.5% of the votes that were cast that year. It has received a minority of votes in every annual city council election since 2000.

The council leader’s intentions were apparently magnanimous, although his party’s supporters are, in fact, a minority subjugating the majority.

He said he recognised that not everybody had voted Labour and reminded the council’s annual meeting that “democracy is not always getting your own way”.

(His party’s supporter’s are also among a larger minority — of voters subjugating a majority of non-voters. Nearly two-thirds of Exeter’s 92,000 electors did not vote on 5 May.)

The council leader nevertheless appointed Labour members to all fourteen council committee chairs.

These include Emma Morse, who holds the executive portfolio for city development. She was appointed to the planning committee chair despite Local Government Association guidance which explicitly advises against the development portfolio holder holding any seat on this committee.

The council leader also continues to sit on the planning committee in defiance of the same guidance.

This practice has apparently become ingrained in Exeter: the description of Emma Morse’s portfolio on the formal appointments notice was “City Development and Chair of Planning Committee”.

Exeter City Council's 2022-23 executive portfolio holders and non-executive member champions. Top left to right: Naima Allock, Martin Pearce, Josie Parkhouse, Barbara Denning, Duncan Wood, Zion Lights, Amal Ghusain, Emma Morse, Phil Bialyk, Laura Wright, Ruth Williams. Exeter City Council 2022-23 executive portfolio holders and non-executive member champions (top left to right): Naima Allock, Martin Pearce, Josie Parkhouse, Barbara Denning, Duncan Wood, Zion Lights, Amal Ghusain, Emma Morse, Phil Bialyk, Laura Wright, Ruth Williams.

Labour committee chair appointments have most significance, however, in the party’s control of council decision-making scrutiny.

This extends to Labour members chairing not only all the council’s scrutiny committees but also the private board which controls which topics are subject to scrutiny, effectively wielding a veto over the process.

According to statutory government guidance, the council’s scrutiny function is intended to act as a “check and balance on the executive”, which is one reason why executive members are not permitted to hold seats on scrutiny committees.

The guidance also says: “The executive should not try to exercise control over the work of the scrutiny committee”, and that all council “members and officers should recognise and appreciate the importance and legitimacy the scrutiny function is afforded by the law”.

Exeter City Council’s auditor Grant Thornton recently reflected this view when it cited the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee as a model for council scrutiny.

It said the committee’s key characteristic is that “it is chaired by a member of the official opposition and its members, of all political parties, are required to demonstrate robust challenge”.

In order to fulfil the intended executive “check and balance” function of council scrutiny, legislation confers enhanced powers on councillors who sit on scrutiny committees.

These include additional rights to access exempt or confidential information that extend their existing information access rights as councillors as well as their common law rights under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.

Scrutiny committees are entitled to look at any issue which affects “the area or the area’s inhabitants”, offering a broad remit to intervene.

They can require councillors and council officers to attend and give evidence and can also call representatives of external bodies to give evidence and supply information.

Recommendations made under scrutiny powers require substantive responses and implementation within specified timescales and cannot simply be “noted” by council executives.

Perhaps most important is the power scrutiny councillors have to “call in” executive decisions, delaying implementation to subject them to greater scrutiny, with the option to recommend that they are reconsidered and potentially overturned.

Exeter City Council 2022-23 opposition progressive group members. Left to right: Diana Moore, Carol Bennett, Jemima Moore, Tess Read, Catherine Rees, Amy Sparling, Kevin Mitchell, Michael Mitchell. Exeter City Council 2022-23 opposition progressive group members (left to right): Diana Moore, Carol Bennett, Jemima Moore, Tess Read, Catherine Rees, Amy Sparling, Kevin Mitchell, Michael Mitchell.

However these powers are being circumvented by Exeter City Council’s approach to decision-making.

Instead of the council’s executive committee taking decisions as required by the legislation which governs it, most of its decisions are instead taken by the full council.

At first sight this appears more democratic, but actually has the effect of preventing the exercise of scrutiny powers and undermining the “check and balance on the executive” that the council’s scrutiny function is supposed to provide.

This is what happened when the council apparently breached the regulations in its decision to send its chief executive and another senior director to work for Exeter City Futures for a total of five days a week while continuing to receive their council salaries.

It also apparently breached this and other accountability and transparency regulations in a sequence of decisions regarding Exeter City Living, its private property development company, as well as its decision to purchase and redevelop the Guildhall shopping centre at an expected cost of £55 million.

Decisions taken in breach of the regulations may be unlawful and ineffective, could constitute maladministration and may be subject to judicial review, putting the council’s finances at risk.

2022-23 Lord Mayor Yolonda Henson with Deputy Lord Mayor Rob Newby 2022-23 Lord Mayor Yolonda Henson with Deputy Lord Mayor Rob Newby. She has chosen Exeter Dementia Action Alliance as her official charity.

The contrast between Exeter City Council and Devon County Council in their approaches to decision-making is instructive. Both councils are governed by the same decision-making legislation but only one appears to be implementing it correctly.

The county council’s April forward plan listed 30 prospective decisions of which all but three were to be taken by the cabinet (the count council’s equivalent of the city council’s executive).

At the same time the city council’s forward plan listed 52 prospective decisions of which just nine were to be taken by the executive.

The city council’s approach entails that what we might call the overwhelming majority of the decisions it takes are not subject to scrutiny in the way the legislation and guidance requires.

This is the very same legislation and guidance which Labour councillors recently invoked at County Hall in order to challenge a Conservative county cabinet decision which they believed should be subject to greater scrutiny.

Changes proposed by council leader Phil Bialyk at his first executive meeting after being elected leader in 2019 swept away the city council’s previous approach to scrutiny, which had been praised by the Local Government Association just two years before.

It is now time for the city council to rethink its scrutiny practices and adopt new arrangements which not only comply with the letter, but also the spirit, of the law.

This would involve correctly implementing local authority decision-making legislation so scrutiny committee members are empowered to perform their intended role as a “check and balance on the executive”.

It would also involved ceding the chairs of scrutiny committees, including the private oversight board, to opposition councillors to help safeguard the council against decisions which put its finances at risk.

Labour holds a commanding majority on Exeter City Council notwithstanding its recent losses, occupying 26 of 39 seats.

Why, in such circumstances, would it remain resistant to more effective scrutiny of its decisions?


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

Recent stories
Exeter 2020 net internal migration by age group bar chart

Exeter beset by unaffordable housing, low graduate retention and economically inactive over 50's

Church Road traffic congestions

Alphington "enhancements" will not mitigate traffic impact from massive South West Exeter extension

Exeter Statement of Community Involvement cover

Council rejects calls for greater community involvement in Exeter planning policy and decisions

Magdalen Road public consultation results option preferences bar chart

£900,000 to keep Magdalen Road one-way system despite decisive public support for low traffic street

Flowerpot Playing Fields

Will Exeter College fence off Exwick community playing fields?


Help power our public interest journalism

More Analysis
Exeter 2020 net internal migration by age group bar chart

ECONOMY & ENTERPRISE

Exeter beset by unaffordable housing, low graduate retention and economically inactive over 50's

Exeter City Council executive ignores key challenges flagged in major council-commissioned employment and skills research report.

Church Road traffic congestions

TRANSPORT & MOBILITY

Alphington "enhancements" will not mitigate traffic impact from massive South West Exeter extension

County council manipulates public consultation and allocates just 1% of £55 million grant to pedestrian scheme while spending 75% on new roads and increased road capacity for 3,500 new cars expected on greenfield housing estate.

Magdalen Road public consultation results option preferences bar chart

TRANSPORT & MOBILITY

£900,000 to keep Magdalen Road one-way system despite decisive public support for low traffic street

County council misrepresented and omitted key public consultation findings in report and did not publish results until after decision taken in favour of option with only 18% public support. Exeter Observer snapshot survey finds 90%+ motor vehicles passing shops are through traffic.

All Analysis
News
Exeter Statement of Community Involvement cover

PLANNING & PLACE

Council rejects calls for greater community involvement in Exeter planning policy and decisions

Council defends existing approach despite Statement of Community Involvement consultation producing just 17 responses, and won't do more to promote neighbourhood planning despite prospect of enhanced community powers.

Net Zero Exeter 2030 plan cover edit

CLIMATE & ENVIRONMENT

Exeter City Council abandons city 2030 decarbonisation "ambition"

Unannounced decision to exclude scope 3 emissions constituting around 43% of Exeter's carbon footprint from "net zero" plans effectively ensures city will not meet its decarbonisation goals.

Exeter Ukrainian refugee support hub Conversation Café

COMMUNITY & SOCIETY

Ukrainian refugee support hub opens in Exeter city centre

Conversation Café pop-up offers information, resources, events and meeting space to help cut through the confusion surrounding the Homes for Ukraine scheme and enable Devon's response to the crisis.

All News
Comment
Cargo bike carrying kids in Exeter

TRANSPORT & MOBILITY

If you think electric vehicles are the answer, you're asking the wrong question

Mike Walton of Exeter Cycling Campaign says we shouldn't be seduced by the motoring lobby into believing that electric cars can create the future we and our children need.

Net Zero Exeter logo

CLIMATE & ENVIRONMENT

Is Exeter City Council going to abandon its Net Zero 2030 target?

Review suggests alignment with Devon Carbon Plan, currently aimed at 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050, citing "technical and financial challenges ahead", although change in policy would require decision by councillors after 6 May local elections.

Centre for Cities Exeter City Monitor graphic

ECONOMY & ENTERPRISE

Selective use of statistics presents an unbalanced account of Exeter's economic & environmental status

Exeter City Council's Chief Executive uses statistics to show the city in a good light, but in doing so presents a picture which omits important information about the city's true position.

All Comment
The Exeter Digest

Exeter Digest #14: Exeter beset - Alphington impacts - Magdalen Road - Community involvement?

Our essential newsletter also covers continuing Exeter Development Fund scrutiny, missing meetings minutes from Exeter City Futures and Devon Climate Emergency Response Group, Liveable Exeter confusion and local design code reforms.

Exeter Digest #13: Flowerpot Playing Fields under threat - Scrutiny circumvention continues - Kidical Mass rides into town

Our thirteenth newsletter also covers city council spending on Instagram influencers, museum-fronted property development promotion, reports on local democracy and the role of councils in climate action and a government inquiry into the sustainability of local journalism.

Exeter Digest #12: Local elections special

Our twelfth newsletter also covers Devon Carbon Plan procrastination, hot air on the buses, county council transport insights and the continuing Exeter Development Fund scrutiny saga.

All Exeter Digest
All topics

ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY   AFFORDABILITY AFFORDABILITY AFFORDABILITY   AIR QUALITY AIR QUALITY AIR QUALITY   ALPHINGTON & COWICK ALPHINGTON & COWICK ALPHINGTON & COWICK   ALPHINGTON ALPHINGTON ALPHINGTON   BONHAY MEADOWS BONHAY MEADOWS BONHAY MEADOWS   CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE   COP26 COP26 COP26   COVID-19 COVID-19 COVID-19   CITYPOINT CITYPOINT CITYPOINT   CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE CLIFTON HILL SPORTS CENTRE   CLIMATE CRISIS CLIMATE CRISIS CLIMATE CRISIS   CO-LIVING CO-LIVING CO-LIVING   CONGESTION CONGESTION CONGESTION   COUNCIL TAX COUNCIL TAX COUNCIL TAX   COVERING CLIMATE NOW COVERING CLIMATE NOW COVERING CLIMATE NOW   CROWN ESTATE CROWN ESTATE CROWN ESTATE   CYCLING & WALKING CYCLING & WALKING CYCLING & WALKING   DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT   DEVON & CORNWALL POLICE & CRIME COMMISSIONER DEVON & CORNWALL POLICE & CRIME COMMISSIONER DEVON & CORNWALL POLICE & CRIME COMMISSIONER   DEVON CARBON PLAN DEVON CARBON PLAN DEVON CARBON PLAN   DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL   DEVON GREEN NEW DEAL DEVON GREEN NEW DEAL DEVON GREEN NEW DEAL   DEVON PENSION FUND DEVON PENSION FUND DEVON PENSION FUND   DURYARD & ST. JAMES DURYARD & ST. JAMES DURYARD & ST. JAMES   EAST DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL EAST DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL EAST DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL   ELECTRIC VEHICLES ELECTRIC VEHICLES ELECTRIC VEHICLES   EXE ESTUARY EXE ESTUARY EXE ESTUARY   EXETER AIRPORT EXETER AIRPORT EXETER AIRPORT   EXETER CANAL AND QUAY TRUST EXETER CANAL AND QUAY TRUST EXETER CANAL AND QUAY TRUST   EXETER CATHEDRAL EXETER CATHEDRAL EXETER CATHEDRAL   EXETER CITY COUNCIL EXETER CITY COUNCIL EXETER CITY COUNCIL   EXETER CITY FUTURES EXETER CITY FUTURES EXETER CITY FUTURES   EXETER CITY LIVING EXETER CITY LIVING EXETER CITY LIVING   EXETER CIVIC SOCIETY EXETER CIVIC SOCIETY EXETER CIVIC SOCIETY   EXETER COLLEGE EXETER COLLEGE EXETER COLLEGE   EXETER CULTURE EXETER CULTURE EXETER CULTURE   EXETER CUSTOM HOUSE EXETER CUSTOM HOUSE EXETER CUSTOM HOUSE   EXETER DEVELOPMENT FUND EXETER DEVELOPMENT FUND EXETER DEVELOPMENT FUND   EXETER EXTINCTION REBELLION EXETER EXTINCTION REBELLION EXETER EXTINCTION REBELLION   EXETER LIVE BETTER EXETER LIVE BETTER EXETER LIVE BETTER   EXETER LOCAL PLAN EXETER LOCAL PLAN EXETER LOCAL PLAN   EXETER PHOENIX EXETER PHOENIX EXETER PHOENIX   EXETER PRIDE EXETER PRIDE EXETER PRIDE   EXETER SCIENCE PARK EXETER SCIENCE PARK EXETER SCIENCE PARK   EXETER SHIP CANAL EXETER SHIP CANAL EXETER SHIP CANAL   EXETER ST. DAVID'S EXETER ST. DAVID'S EXETER ST. DAVID'S   EXETER TRANSPORT STRATEGY EXETER TRANSPORT STRATEGY EXETER TRANSPORT STRATEGY   EXETER UCU EXETER UCU EXETER UCU   EXETER CITY CENTRE EXETER CITY CENTRE EXETER CITY CENTRE   EXWICK EXWICK EXWICK   FOSSIL FUEL DIVESTMENT FOSSIL FUEL DIVESTMENT FOSSIL FUEL DIVESTMENT   FREEDOM OF INFORMATION FREEDOM OF INFORMATION FREEDOM OF INFORMATION   FRIDAYS FOR FUTURE EXETER FRIDAYS FOR FUTURE EXETER FRIDAYS FOR FUTURE EXETER   GENERAL ELECTIONS GENERAL ELECTIONS GENERAL ELECTIONS   GUILDHALL GUILDHALL GUILDHALL   HARLEQUINS HARLEQUINS HARLEQUINS   HEART OF THE SOUTH WEST LEP HEART OF THE SOUTH WEST LEP HEART OF THE SOUTH WEST LEP   HEAVITREE & WHIPTON BARTON HEAVITREE & WHIPTON BARTON HEAVITREE & WHIPTON BARTON   HEAVITREE HEAVITREE HEAVITREE   HOUSES IN MULTIPLE OCCUPATION HOUSES IN MULTIPLE OCCUPATION HOUSES IN MULTIPLE OCCUPATION   HOUSING HOUSING HOUSING   LGBTQIA+ LGBTQIA+ LGBTQIA+   LIVEABLE EXETER PLACE BOARD LIVEABLE EXETER PLACE BOARD LIVEABLE EXETER PLACE BOARD   LIVEABLE EXETER LIVEABLE EXETER LIVEABLE EXETER   LOCAL INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY LOCAL INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY LOCAL INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY   LOCAL ELECTIONS LOCAL ELECTIONS LOCAL ELECTIONS   MAKETANK MAKETANK MAKETANK   MARSH BARTON MARSH BARTON MARSH BARTON   MET OFFICE MET OFFICE MET OFFICE   MID DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL MID DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL MID DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL   MINCINGLAKE & WHIPTON MINCINGLAKE & WHIPTON MINCINGLAKE & WHIPTON   MOUNT RADFORD LAWN MOUNT RADFORD LAWN MOUNT RADFORD LAWN   NET ZERO EXETER NET ZERO EXETER NET ZERO EXETER   NEWTOWN & ST. LEONARD'S NEWTOWN & ST. LEONARD'S NEWTOWN & ST. LEONARD'S   NORTHERNHAY GARDENS NORTHERNHAY GARDENS NORTHERNHAY GARDENS   OXYGEN HOUSE OXYGEN HOUSE OXYGEN HOUSE   PARIS STREET PARIS STREET PARIS STREET   PARKING PARKING PARKING   PASSIVHAUS PASSIVHAUS PASSIVHAUS   PENINSULA TRANSPORT PENINSULA TRANSPORT PENINSULA TRANSPORT   PENNSYLVANIA PENNSYLVANIA PENNSYLVANIA   PINHOE PINHOE PINHOE   PLANNING POLICY PLANNING POLICY PLANNING POLICY   PRINCESSHAY PRINCESSHAY PRINCESSHAY   PRIORY PRIORY PRIORY   PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT   PUBLIC CONSULTATION PUBLIC CONSULTATION PUBLIC CONSULTATION   PUBLIC HEALTH PUBLIC HEALTH PUBLIC HEALTH   PUBLIC REALM PUBLIC REALM PUBLIC REALM   PUBLIC TOILETS PUBLIC TOILETS PUBLIC TOILETS   PURPOSE BUILT STUDENT ACCOMMODATION PURPOSE BUILT STUDENT ACCOMMODATION PURPOSE BUILT STUDENT ACCOMMODATION   RAMM RAMM RAMM   REFUSE & RECYCLING REFUSE & RECYCLING REFUSE & RECYCLING   RETROFIT RETROFIT RETROFIT   RIVERSIDE VALLEY PARK RIVERSIDE VALLEY PARK RIVERSIDE VALLEY PARK   ROYAL DEVON & EXETER NHS TRUST ROYAL DEVON & EXETER NHS TRUST ROYAL DEVON & EXETER NHS TRUST   SIDWELL STREET SIDWELL STREET SIDWELL STREET   SOUTH WEST EXETER EXTENSION SOUTH WEST EXETER EXTENSION SOUTH WEST EXETER EXTENSION   SOUTH WEST WATER SOUTH WEST WATER SOUTH WEST WATER   SOUTHERNHAY SOUTHERNHAY SOUTHERNHAY   SPORT ENGLAND LOCAL DELIVERY PILOT SPORT ENGLAND LOCAL DELIVERY PILOT SPORT ENGLAND LOCAL DELIVERY PILOT   ST. DAVID'S & HAVEN BANKS ST. DAVID'S & HAVEN BANKS ST. DAVID'S & HAVEN BANKS   ST. DAVID'S ST. DAVID'S ST. DAVID'S   ST. LOYE'S ST. LOYE'S ST. LOYE'S   ST. SIDWELL'S COMMUNITY CENTRE ST. SIDWELL'S COMMUNITY CENTRE ST. SIDWELL'S COMMUNITY CENTRE   ST. SIDWELL'S POINT ST. SIDWELL'S POINT ST. SIDWELL'S POINT   ST. THOMAS ST. THOMAS ST. THOMAS   STAGECOACH SOUTH WEST STAGECOACH SOUTH WEST STAGECOACH SOUTH WEST   TEIGNBRIDGE DISTRICT COUNCIL TEIGNBRIDGE DISTRICT COUNCIL TEIGNBRIDGE DISTRICT COUNCIL   TOPSHAM TOPSHAM TOPSHAM   UNESCO CITY OF LITERATURE UNESCO CITY OF LITERATURE UNESCO CITY OF LITERATURE   UNIVERSITY OF EXETER UNIVERSITY OF EXETER UNIVERSITY OF EXETER   YOUTH STRIKE 4 CLIMATE YOUTH STRIKE 4 CLIMATE YOUTH STRIKE 4 CLIMATE  

More stories