Yvonne Atkinson was already letting property on AirBnB when she was first elected to Devon County Council’s Alphington & Cowick division in May 2017, and continued to do so after first being elected to Exeter City Council’s Alphington ward in May 2019.
She lives in a five storey grade-II listed Georgian town house in a conservation area near Belmont Park, on the opposite side of the city from the people she represents.
According to her AirBnB listing there is a self-contained flat in the basement with “living room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom”. A converted garage at the rear of the house is “like a studio apartment” according to one guest and has “all the amenities we would expect to have: cooking hob, microwave, toaster, kettle” with a “bed, TV set [and] shower room” according to another, although the “toilet is a bit noisy” according to a third.
While planning permission was granted in May 2015 to replace the roof of this garage, and add garden-facing doors and a window, there is no record of permission for change of use or conversion to a living space on the city council’s website.
Fast forward to a December 2021 meeting of Devon County Council, at which backbench motions on the role played by AirBnB and other holiday rentals in Devon’s housing crisis are being debated.
It hears evidence that thousands of private landlords across the county are evicting tenants to turn what had been homes into highly profitable short-term lets, while exploiting tax loopholes that allow them to claim business rates relief instead of paying council tax.
It also hears an estimate that more than 21,000 properties in the south west are claiming 100% business rates relief instead of paying an estimated £35.5 million in council tax each year.
Yvonne Atkinson makes a case in support of AirBnB. She says it provides a “fantastic service to key workers and people who need short-term accommodation for working and studying” in Exeter and blames government policy for the region’s housing crisis instead.
A complaint to the county council follows, alleging that she has a personal interest in AirBnB rental property.
Andrew Yendole, a county council solicitor who is temporarily acting as its monitoring officer while a new head of legal services is found, carries out a preliminary investigation into the complaint then refers the matter to Devon & Cornwall Police.
An investigation ensues, which takes six months to complete. On receipt of the police findings in June 2022 Andrew Yendole refers the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service.
A county council standards subcommittee is hastily convened, meets less than three weeks later, and refers the matter to the county council’s full standards committee in parallel with the Crown Prosecution Service consideration of the police investigation.
Two months later, the Crown Prosecution Service writes to Andrew Yendole, apparently having decided not to seek a conviction through the courts.
The county council’s new head of legal services, Maria Price, then takes over as monitoring officer in October 2022. By the end of the year a draft report has been written and Yvonne Atkinson is invited to comment on its contents.
Three months later, in March this year, fifteen months after the complaint was made, the full county council standards committee meets.
It confirms that Yvonne Atkinson did indeed breach the county council members’ code of conduct in relation to declaring her private interests, under paragraph 1.3f, and in relation to providing written notification to the monitoring officer of any disclosable pecuniary interest, under paragraphs 6 and 6.1.
The committee resolves that Yvonne Atkinson “be required to issue a formal apology to the council”, that she undertake “relevant training” and that she “update her register of interests with immediate effect”.
Directly addressing local councillors, it says: “It is a criminal offence if, without a reasonable excuse, you fail to tell the monitoring officer about your disclosable pecuniary interests, either for inclusion on the register […] or to update the register […] or when you become aware of a disclosable pecuniary interest which is not recorded in the register but which relates to any matter that will be or is being considered at a meeting where you are present.”
It adds: “It is also a criminal offence […] to participate in the business of your authority where that business involves a disclosable pecuniary interest.”
It says the purpose of pecuniary interest disclosure is “to ensure that the public can have confidence that councillors are putting the public interest first and not benefiting the financial affairs of themselves or their spouse or civil partner from which the councillor would stand to gain.”
The punishment? “If you are found guilty of such a criminal offence, you can be fined up to £5,000 and disqualified from holding office as a councillor for up to five years.”
So Devon County Council standards committee found that Yvonne Atkinson breached its members’ standards code by not telling its monitoring officer about a disclosable pecuniary interest.
And such breaches amount to a criminal offence, according to the government, although this particular breach, which had been investigated by the police and referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, did not result in prosecution.
Why, then, did this issue not come up during her campaign for re-election in Alphington three weeks ago?
The answer is that Devon County Council did not publish the minutes of the March standards committee meeting until 9 May, four days after the results of the elections were announced.
We have asked the county council monitoring officer repeatedly why the county council did not publish these minutes for nearly eight weeks after the meeting, despite it taking place eleven days before the pre-election period began on 27 March, but she refused to answer.
We also asked her whether Yvonne Atkinson had issued a formal apology to the council and if so, when and what form it could have taken, as the county council meets today for the first time since the March standards committee meeting and so could not have heard her apology.
And we asked her in what ways Yvonne Atkinson’s entry in the county council register of interests had been updated following the standards committee’s decision, as the only apparent change since February is the removal of her spouse. (It had already been changed, before the committee met, to include her pecuniary interest in income from her home.)
The monitoring officer again refused to answer our questions. Instead, a county council PR officer said: “The monitoring officer has confirmed that this matter has been concluded and the subject member has complied with the sanctions in full.”
To make matters worse, the county council has redacted all the March meeting supporting documents so we don’t yet know the specific details of the police investigation or the basis on which the Crown Prosecution Service reached its decision not to pursue a conviction.
Nor do we have any more than a cursory summary of the proceedings of the county council standards committees that took part in this process.
We are, nevertheless, entitled to all the relevant information under the Freedom of Information Act and have already submitted appropriate requests, the responses to which we will use to publish a detailed report in due course.
Despite Devon County Council’s propensity for standards committee secrecy, the public interest in these documents and the special information access rights afforded to the purpose of journalism all but guarantee disclosure.
Since the minutes of the March meeting have been published, Yvonne Atkinson has been promoted from the city council backbenches, where she spent most of last year.
(She did, however, begin sitting on the city council’s strategic scrutiny committee in the autumn. The Devon Housing Task Force that was created “to tackle the flight to AirBnB and holiday rentals” after the December 2021 county council meeting was discussed with her present in November.)
She has been appointed chair of the city council strategic scrutiny committee and sits on both its customer focus scrutiny committee and its secretive scrutiny programme board. The principal purpose of all three is to hold the council’s decision-makers to account to ensure the successful functioning of local democracy.
Meanwhile at the county council’s annual meeting this afternoon she is to be appointed to six committees - four more than she sat on last year - apparently without making a formal apology to the council first.
We asked her whether the publication of the county council standards committee decision before the local elections might have influenced their outcome in Alphington where she was the sitting city councillor and standing for re-election.
We also asked her nineteen other questions about the circumstances surrounding the investigation. She failed to respond to any of them.
CORRECTION – 14 AUGUST 2023
Paragraph 24 of this story originally said: “And that breach amounted to a criminal offence, according to the government, which had been investigated by the police, although the Crown Prosecution Service did not pursue a conviction through the courts.”
Following a complaint it was changed to: “And such breaches amount to a criminal offence, according to the government, although this particular breach, which had been investigated by the police and referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, did not result in prosecution.”
This change was made to correct the false impression that the government’s view was that this particular breach of the Devon County Council members’ code of conduct amounted to a criminal offence, rather than that the government’s view is that such breaches in general amount to a criminal offence, which is the meaning that was intended.