Exeter City Futures has falsely claimed that it previously disclosed documents related to Exeter Development Fund after the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) imposed a deadline for its response to Exeter Observer information requests.
Jo Yelland, an Exeter City Council director who has worked for the company three days a week since January, responded to the ICO’s deadline by claiming that information requested by Exeter Observer under freedom of information legislation was provided during face-to-face meetings with Exeter City Futures staff.
No such meetings were held. Instead, two telephone conversations took place with company staff during which neither disclosed any of the requested information.
The requests, which were made in January under the Environmental Information Regulations, were for details of meetings and unpublished documents related to Exeter Development Fund, a private debt-driven Liveable Exeter property development financing scheme that Exeter City Futures has been working on since 2017.
The fund came under fire from councillors in July who say it is based on insufficiently-evidenced assumptions and won’t meet Exeter’s housing needs.
We made the information requests after the publication of a truncated version of the outline business case for the fund for discussion at a council meeting in January.
This document, which was marked as a draft despite having been signed off the previous August then clumsily edited to disguise its age, was only shared with councillors after meetings with senior council staff in which Exeter Observer applied pressure to disclose the details of the scheme.
We were concerned that councillors and the public had been kept in the dark because of the risks the fund presents to publicly-owned land and property assets, the sale of which it proposes to raise private finance to build thousands of rented flats.
Despite then-council leader Pete Edwards committing to the fund nearly five years ago, it has not been mentioned in any of Labour’s local election manifestos since, and current council leader Phil Bialyk said “it was too early in the process to bring forward any detail” when asked about it by Green Party councillor Diana Moore at a meeting on 18 October last year.
However a Liveable Exeter Place Board meeting that the council had repurposed as a “deep dive on the proposed fund” to “establish a common understanding on the work that is being done”, to which board members and their finance directors and estates managers were invited, had already taken place.
The council’s invitation to attend the three-hour workshop “devoted to this single issue” included a copy of the same truncated version of the outline business case for the fund, minus clumsy edits and marked as version 1.0, that was presented to councillors for the first time, as a draft, the following January.
The minutes of this meeting are among the information we requested.
A longer version of the outline business case for the fund was subsequently published by Global City Futures, Exeter City Futures’ parent company, in May – but this does not contain the information we requested either.
In July we made a formal complaint to the ICO about Exeter City Futures’ failure to meet its statutory obligations. In October the ICO notified the company that it was a public authority under the Environmental Information Regulations, and so subject to their provisions, and gave it ten working days to respond to our information requests.
The company’s response was to falsely claim it had provided the information nine months before, putting it on course for a collision with the Information Commissioner’s Office in the new year.
Exeter City Futures’ obligations under the Environmental Information Regulations include routinely and proactively publishing a wide range of information.
This includes any “policies, plans and procedures relating to the environment” as well as “facts and analyses of facts that are relevant and important to major environmental policy proposals” such as Exeter Development Fund and its discredited Net Zero Exeter plan.
The company also says its board is “committed to being completely transparent and open about the things that are discussed”.
But when it published the minutes of its August meeting – at the end of September – they referred to but did not include an accompanying report which “identified areas of weakness in relation to governance” that needed “immediate attention”.
When we asked for the unpublished report it appeared on the company website a week later as if it had been there all along.
Among other issues, the report found that there was “no formal procurement or other arrangement in place between Exeter City Futures and Global City Futures for work Global City Futures, as a commercial consultancy, may undertake on behalf of Exeter City Futures partners”.
These partners include Exeter City Council, the University of Exeter, Exeter College and the Royal Devon University Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust – it is now more than a year since there has been a Devon County Council board member – and this work includes Exeter Development Fund, for which the council transferred £38,000 to the company during the 2012-22 financial year alone.
In addition, despite Exeter City Futures’ board agreeing that Global City Futures staff could “work on joint contracts with Exeter City Futures to avoid the need for Exeter City Futures to pay VAT on work undertaken by Global City Futures on Exeter Development Fund”, the report found that “there were no delegated powers in place to allow any officer to actually sign joint contracts”.
It said that there was “no real demarcation about who is the actual employer” and added that as the motivation for the arrangement “appeared to be VAT avoidance” it “could lead to reputational risks for Exeter City Futures board members”.
If the company’s board has met to assess progress on addressing these risks we wouldn’t know: no records of any meetings have since been published.
Meanwhile Exeter City Futures’ inability to deliver Exeter’s 2030 net zero policy is finally becoming apparent to council members and officers, three years after passing it, even though the greenhouse gas inventory it commissioned from the University of Exeter misrepresents the scale of the city’s emissions.
In September council climate change portfolio holder Duncan Wood admitted that Exeter City Futures had “limited resources to explore opportunities and drive the collaboration between stakeholders and residents to make the range of significant changes needed” and that the company’s approach to decarbonisation had “not been built on a credible budget and delivery plan”.
Last month council CEO Karime Hassan, who also began working at Exeter City Futures in January alongside Jo Yelland, acknowledged that Exeter City Futures has neither the “funding or legal powers to effect change”.
However he also said that Exeter City Futures is now “taking the time to look at what needs to be done now to hit 2030 targets for Exeter” by holding yet another series of workshops, echoing his July proposal to “invite” the company “to reflect on the challenges of resourcing the step change in activity to meet the net zero 2030 goal and to suggest options for meeting these challenges”.
This is not the sort of circular economy the city needs to tackle the climate crisis – Exeter City Futures has been responsible for city decarbonisation since July 2019.
As his and Jo Yelland’s £125,000 secondment to the company comes to an end he has an opportunity during his last days in the job to address its persistent evasion of scrutiny. He could commit the company to routine, proactive publication of the environmental information it holds and release the information we requested back in January for all to see.
As with the unelected and unaccountable Liveable Exeter Place Board, which meets in private without publishing its proceedings and for which he is also responsible, the council should not facilitate the development of major policy proposals with the potential to affect everyone who lives and works in Exeter without telling them what it is up to.