ANALYSIS DEMOCRACY & GOVERNANCE

Labour councillors appointed to all thirteen 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 thirteen 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?



Recent headlines
Recent headlines
Stagecoach subsidiary operating companies 2022-23 pre-tax profits bar chart

Stagecoach South West posts largest losses in sector despite greatest growth in journey numbers

Liveable Exeter Placemaking Charter cover image

Liveable Exeter Placemaking Charter consultation skewed towards only one of five 'core tools'

Empty studios at The Gorge

The Gorge stands 70% empty nearly six months after opening as mounting council tax liability looms

Spruce Close & Celia Crescent development aerial view

City council approves plans for controversial greenfield site housing

Longbrook Street student accommodation block illustrative elevation

Top to bottom King Billy student block redesign waved through as minor variation to consented plans

St Bridget Nurseries illustrative layout

Judge quashes planning permission for 350 homes at St Bridget Nurseries in Old Rydon Lane

Recent stories
Stagecoach subsidiary operating companies 2022-23 pre-tax profits bar chart

ANALYSIS  ⁄  TRANSPORT & MOBILITY

Stagecoach South West posts largest losses in sector despite greatest growth in journey numbers

Lowest year on year revenue rise compounded by above average staffing costs increase as £2 bus fare cap continues to prop up passenger demand.

Liveable Exeter Placemaking Charter cover image

ANALYSIS  ⁄  PLANNING & PLACE

Liveable Exeter Placemaking Charter consultation skewed towards only one of five 'core tools'

Private developers' forum and other major components of new charter not mentioned in council communications, but transparency and new 'culture of openness' to 'help build trust in the planning system' emphasised throughout.

Empty studios at The Gorge

COMMENT  ⁄  PLANNING & PLACE

The Gorge stands 70% empty nearly six months after opening as mounting council tax liability looms

Council development director claims developer interest demonstrates need for co-living in Exeter but works have yet to start on all other such schemes.

Spruce Close & Celia Crescent development aerial view

NEWS  ⁄  PLANNING & PLACE

City council approves plans for controversial greenfield site housing

Key details remain unresolved including future ownership and management of green space and public access restrictions during construction period.

Longbrook Street student accommodation block illustrative elevation

ANALYSIS  ⁄  PLANNING & PLACE

Top to bottom King Billy student block redesign waved through as minor variation to consented plans

Council throws out Design Review Panel interventions and reneges on commitment to planning committee while developers claim unauthorised destruction of protected medieval wall justified on safety grounds.

St Bridget Nurseries illustrative layout

NEWS  ⁄  PLANNING & PLACE

Judge quashes planning permission for 350 homes at St Bridget Nurseries in Old Rydon Lane

High Court judgement finds city council did not properly discharge duties or take material considerations into account, council officer seriously misled planning committee and county council failed in statutory local highway authority role.

On Our Radar
More stories
Illustrative elevation facing St Luke's campus

NEWS  ⁄  PLANNING & PLACE

Heavitree Road police station & magistrates court redevelopment appeal dismissed

Devon & Cornwall Police and Crime Commissioner and offshore development partner sent back to drawing board after attempt to overturn city council decision to refuse two huge student/co-living blocks fails.

Exeter City Council allotment fees increases 2016 to 2024 line graph

ANALYSIS  ⁄  CLIMATE & ENVIRONMENT

Council plans huge allotment fees increases to claw back cash from 1,500 city gardeners and growers

Plot holders provided with incomplete picture as consultation held which does not comply with council's own charter and delayed scrutiny report that omits key survey findings suggests council aims to turn profit from allotment provision.

, updated

Devon electric vehicle charging strategy cover

ANALYSIS  ⁄  TRANSPORT & MOBILITY

Devon County Council adopts charging strategy that provides for only 20% of EVs it expects by 2030

Local ULEV ownership has risen rapidly in recent years but many more vehicles have joined county's roads as local transport area ULEV growth lags behind rest of country and Exeter motor vehicle numbers alone top 87,000.

Land Trust garden community development of 3,000 homes at Beaulieu, near Chelmsford

ANALYSIS  ⁄  PLANNING & PLACE

Liveable Exeter 'garden city' branding is about government funding, not green space

New Exeter Local Plan policy 'principles' have little in common with historic vision revitalised for 21st century by TCPA for government programme, while consented Haven Banks scheme and proposed new town near Exeter Airport have even less.

Scrutiny Programme Board agenda extract 21 July 2022

SPECIAL REPORTS  ⁄  DEMOCRACY & GOVERNANCE

City council scrutiny board enabling illicit obstruction of democracy

Essential safeguard against misuse of power misdirected by Executive members and senior officers while backbench councillors persistently denied rights to examine high-risk schemes and citywide climate crisis response.

3D view of revised development proposal

NEWS  ⁄  PLANNING & PLACE

Student landlord submits new plans for Union Road HMO back garden block following appeal failure

Application for six bedroom, single storey purpose built student accommodation block made on site of refused ten bedroom, two storey scheme in garden of thirteen bedroom shared student house.

Spotlight
St Bridget Nurseries illustrative layout

Judge quashes planning permission for 350 homes at St Bridget Nurseries in Old Rydon Lane

High Court judgement finds city council did not properly discharge duties or take material considerations into account, council officer seriously misled planning committee and county council failed in statutory local highway authority role.

All topics

ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY   AIR QUALITY AIR QUALITY AIR QUALITY   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   COMMUNITY INFRASTRUCTURE LEVY COMMUNITY INFRASTRUCTURE LEVY COMMUNITY INFRASTRUCTURE LEVY   CONGESTION CONGESTION CONGESTION   COUNCIL TAX COUNCIL TAX COUNCIL TAX   CROWN ESTATE CROWN ESTATE CROWN ESTATE   CYCLING & WALKING CYCLING & WALKING CYCLING & WALKING   DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT   DEVON & CORNWALL POLICE DEVON & CORNWALL POLICE DEVON & CORNWALL POLICE   DEVON CARBON PLAN DEVON CARBON PLAN DEVON CARBON PLAN   DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL   DEVON PENSION FUND DEVON PENSION FUND DEVON PENSION FUND   EAST DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL EAST DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL EAST DEVON DISTRICT COUNCIL   EXETER AIRPORT EXETER AIRPORT EXETER AIRPORT   EXETER CATHEDRAL EXETER CATHEDRAL EXETER CATHEDRAL   EXETER CHIEFS EXETER CHIEFS EXETER CHIEFS   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 CLIMATE ACTION HUB EXETER CLIMATE ACTION HUB EXETER CLIMATE ACTION HUB   EXETER COLLEGE EXETER COLLEGE EXETER COLLEGE   EXETER CULTURE EXETER CULTURE EXETER CULTURE   EXETER DEVELOPMENT FUND EXETER DEVELOPMENT FUND EXETER DEVELOPMENT FUND   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 ST DAVID'S EXETER ST DAVID'S EXETER ST DAVID'S   EXETER CITY CENTRE EXETER CITY CENTRE EXETER CITY CENTRE   EXTINCTION REBELLION EXETER EXTINCTION REBELLION EXETER EXTINCTION REBELLION EXETER   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   HOUSING CRISIS HOUSING CRISIS HOUSING CRISIS   LGBTQIA+ LGBTQIA+ LGBTQIA+   LIBRARIES UNLIMITED LIBRARIES UNLIMITED LIBRARIES UNLIMITED   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   NET ZERO EXETER NET ZERO EXETER NET ZERO EXETER   NORTHERNHAY GARDENS NORTHERNHAY GARDENS NORTHERNHAY GARDENS   OXYGEN HOUSE OXYGEN HOUSE OXYGEN HOUSE   PARIS STREET PARIS STREET PARIS STREET   PARKING PARKING PARKING   PENINSULA TRANSPORT PENINSULA TRANSPORT PENINSULA TRANSPORT   PLANNING POLICY PLANNING POLICY PLANNING POLICY   PRINCESSHAY PRINCESSHAY PRINCESSHAY   PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT   PUBLIC CONSULTATION PUBLIC CONSULTATION PUBLIC CONSULTATION   PUBLIC HEALTH PUBLIC HEALTH PUBLIC HEALTH   PUBLIC PARKS PUBLIC PARKS PUBLIC PARKS   PUBLIC REALM PUBLIC REALM PUBLIC REALM   PUBLIC TRANSPORT PUBLIC TRANSPORT PUBLIC TRANSPORT   RAMM RAMM RAMM   REFUSE & RECYCLING REFUSE & RECYCLING REFUSE & RECYCLING   RETROFIT RETROFIT RETROFIT   ROYAL DEVON NHS TRUST ROYAL DEVON NHS TRUST ROYAL DEVON 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 JAMES NEIGHBOURHOOD PLAN ST JAMES NEIGHBOURHOOD PLAN ST JAMES NEIGHBOURHOOD PLAN   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   STAGECOACH SOUTH WEST STAGECOACH SOUTH WEST STAGECOACH SOUTH WEST   STUDENT ACCOMMODATION STUDENT ACCOMMODATION STUDENT ACCOMMODATION   TEIGNBRIDGE DISTRICT COUNCIL TEIGNBRIDGE DISTRICT COUNCIL TEIGNBRIDGE DISTRICT COUNCIL   TRANSPORT POLICY TRANSPORT POLICY TRANSPORT POLICY   UNIVERSITY OF EXETER UNIVERSITY OF EXETER UNIVERSITY OF EXETER   WATER LANE WATER LANE WATER LANE  

More stories