Exeter Labour’s vote share fell 1.5% in this year’s local elections but it won five fewer seats than last year, apparently because the Liberal Democrats and Greens finessed their electoral strategies to address the failings of the First Past the Post electoral system to which Labour’s national leadership still clings.
Because the party only had to win two Exeter wards to retain overall control of the city council, its net retention of seven seats at these elections leaves council leader Phil Bialyk in control of a majority block of 25 votes among 39 council seats, as last year.
So when appointments to the council’s committees for the coming year were made at Tuesday’s annual council meeting, alongside the appointment of the Lord Mayor and his deputy, there was no surprise that Labour councillors were again appointed to all thirteen committee chairs.
Nor has much changed on the council’s ostensibly decision-making Executive committee. Bob Foale has replaced Amal Ghusain, who left the council after a single term, and Duncan Wood has been sent back to leisure services, switching with Josie Parkhouse who takes over responsibility for the council’s climate crisis response.
Apart from some minor portfolio alterations, the rest of the Executive stays put.
More significant changes have taken place elsewhere. The council’s Governance Review Board has been unceremoniously scrapped: prematurely as it has yet to report the outcome of its work over the past year and worryingly considering the council’s governance woes.
At the same time Phil Bialyk has quit the planning committee, and removed Emma Morse from it too, after failing to follow Local Government Association guidance that neither should sit on it for several years.
Exeter Observer first challenged the council on its approach to planning committee appointments in 2020 when, extraordinarily, eight Executive members occupied nearly two-thirds of its seats.
We did so again after last year’s local elections when he moved six of the Executive members elsewhere but retained his seat and kept Emma Morse in the chair, then again last month, when he openly admitted he was choosing to ignore the guidance.
The following week he led the charge against an application to develop a site just 160 yards from his house from his seat on the committee before apparently, finally, seeing the light. We applaud the eventual decision, but not the facility with which it was made.
Unfortunately the council leader’s approach to scrutiny hasn’t kept even this pace.
Instead of opposition councillors chairing the council’s key scrutiny committees, as at other local authorities such as Devon County Council, councillors from his own party occupy these seats. Matt Vizard will continue in one while Yvonne Atkinson will take the other, raising eyebrows all round.
These committees are charged with protecting the council from Executive overreach by providing a crucial check and balance on its actions: they are much less likely to fulfil this function effectively when led by members of the same political party as the people they are supposed to be holding to account.
Worse, the council’s secret Scrutiny Programme Board, which fundamentally thwarts the purpose of local authority scrutiny, continues to meet this year, allowing council directors and Executive members to interfere in scrutiny decision-making in which they should take no part.
The board will be chaired this year by Naima Allcock with a built-in Labour majority provided by Matt Vizard and Yvonne Atkinson.
Since it first met in 2019 it has enabled senior officers and the council’s chief executive to direct, defer and avoid scrutiny of the council’s climate crisis response, its relationships with companies such as Exeter City Living and major schemes such as St Sidwell’s Point, among other things.
The council’s chief executive even attended to present details of his own proposals for scrutiny of Exeter Development Fund, a financing scheme intended to expose council property assets to private investors that was being promoted by a company of which he was also CEO at the time.
They spelled out who would be invited as witnesses, what they would talk about and what the outcome of the scrutiny sessions would be.
This board has also enabled the council leader, the Executive committee and individual portfolio holders to direct scarce council scrutiny resources towards maintaining the status quo, prioritising issues that do not require the interrogation and deliberation that scrutiny is intended to involve and so preventing their use for this purpose.
This is how the Standing Overview Group that should have been created nearly a year ago after scrutiny councillors voted to inaugurate it to examine the city-wide response to climate change has not yet met, but Executive member Duncan Wood’s Plant-Based Task & Finish Group met four times within a few weeks of being proposed despite its unquantifiably small impact.
This approach to scrutiny could not be more different to the model proposed by the council’s external auditor – the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee – before which witnesses called to give evidence fear to appear.
The key characteristics of this committee, according to the auditor? That “it is chaired by a member of the official opposition and its members, of all political parties, are required to demonstrate robust challenge”.