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Are Mid Devon council's decisions illegal?

Thursday, 16 November 2023 08:54

By Bradley Gerrard, local democracy reporter

Mid Devon District Council's HQ (image courtesy: Lewis Clarke / Geograph)

One councillor is shocked

Tension at a Devon local authority is escalating after claims that a vote on how it makes decisions could be illegal.

Mid Devon District Council has agreed to enhance the decision-making system that it currently uses, but one councillor believes this at odds with a motion passed in February for a wholesale change.

Councillor Nikki Woollatt (Ind, Cullompton St Andrews) expressed her shock that an agreement earlier in the year to switch to a committee style of decision-making was ditched this month.

Cllr Woollatt tabled February’s motion to change from the current executive structure, which includes a leader and a cabinet, to a modernised committee system, and this was approved.

However, some who voted for it suggested they did not think it was a cast-iron agreement.

A committee system, which can be set up in multiple ways, is viewed by the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny (CfGS) as enabling “more consensus decision-making,” with the leader-cabinet system less so, and a mayoral system less so again.

“The current leader, Luke Taylor, seconded my motion in February, and it was a momentous decision,” Cllr Woollatt said.

“It’s a very personal issue for me, as I have campaigned on it for 12 years, including with [the late] Councillor Jenny Roach, who died in 2018.

“This U-turn is very disappointing to say the least.”

Cllr Woollatt said her motion had been “clear and unambiguous”, and therefore was surprised that a report at this month’s meeting provided an option to essentially remain with the status quo.

“What we’ve been asked here I don’t think is legal, and I think it is highly irregular to vote on a decision that has already been made,” she said.

Confusion seemed to centre on what had actually been voted for in February.

Some felt that the motion was merely an indication that the council would investigate a possible move to a committee system, rather than a binding vote.

Councillor Polly Colthorpe (Cons, Way) said she felt officers had been asked to look at what would be required to change to a new system.

“Some of the wording in this report suggests a decision was taken by that council, but I do not consider that it was,” she said.

Councillor James Buczkowski (Lib Dem, Cullompton St Andrews) voted in favour of Cllr Woollatt’s motion in February, but said he did so in order for “further work with detailed options and a further final decision required by council.”

Monitoring officer Maria De Leiburne said she had made a “big caveat” at the February meeting as to the vote being an indication of what members might want, with the different options set to be brought back to full council another time for a proper decision.

Councillor Frank Letch (Lib Dem, Crediton Lawrence) raised the issue that most councillors this month were not present in February because a significant number were only elected in May.

Liberal Democrat leader Luke Taylor (Bradninch) supported Cllr Woollatt’s motion in February but said this was due to what he claimed had been “dictatorial practices” witnessed in previous administrations.

He said he preferred the hybrid-style the council uses now, which has policy development groups to support decision-making alongside the leader and cabinet. He also worries about potential “dither and delay” with the committee system.

He proposed to implement a more robust hybrid system, which was passed, although Cllr Woollatt, who voted against it, stated: “I believe that decision is illegal.”

A 2020 report by the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny (CfGS) says if a change in governance structure happens by way of resolution, the council is “effectively locked in to the new arrangement five years.

Cllr Woollatt believes that means Mid Devon District Council has to adopt a committee-style system, and this has to be done at its next annual general meeting by law.

A Mid Devon District Council spokesperson said the question of how the council was set up had been a hot topic for years, with a decision in 2021 being made to retain the cabinet system.

They added that when the issue re-emerged last February, the monitoring officer was “crystal clear” that if members voted for the motion, it would need to be brought back to full council.

“In debate, councillors heard and discussed that there were lots of options about what a ‘modernised committee system’ could look like,” the spokesperson said.

“This was precisely why the monitoring officer advised, before members voted on the motion, that this would not be the final decision – since she would need to work up these options for members to consider what exactly they were minded to move to.

“Members heard this advice, every indication is that they understood this advice, and voted in the context of having received it.”

The spokesperson added it was “unfortunate” that recollections of this differed, but that the tape recording of the February meeting “captures the clear advice at the time” that a final decision would be needed in the future.

The current council has a Liberal Democrat majority after the party gained 21 seats in May’s local election, giving it 33 of the 42 seats.

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