District councillor’s report for December

Recently there have been allegations made about the operation of Teignbridge District Council.
At full council in September, an independent councillor pointed out that the constitution was changed sometime last year, apparently without consulting councillors. He raises 6 points which he believes are “material changes that erode the rights of Members of the Public and Members of the Council to scrutinise the work of this Council”. It is claimed this was deliberate and is being used to curtail their rights.
I take these allegations very seriously and as the representative of my community, I consider it my duty to investigate.
This relates to a decision the previous year which councillors did agree to, asking the monitoring officer (the council’s solicitor) to “tidy up” the constitution. The tidy up was needed, and was not supposed to materially change the content. This was done, but the new constitution was posted to the web site without consulting councillors again and without announcement. This was unfortunate, but I do not believe it was a deliberate assault on democracy. The officer did what they were asked to.
In September I and other councillors voted to affirm the new constitution provided there was a mechanism to review and reverse any material changes. I have since looked in detail at the 6 points. I see changes of course, but not so major as they were portrayed.
Previously the public could ask questions relevant to “the business of the council”. This was changed to “the business of the meeting” and the power has been removed, for a Group leader to insist that a change to the constitution is major if others claim it is minor.
I also found that the tidy up had failed to update the language so I brought a motion to full council in November proposing that the monitoring officer be asked to restore these two powers and substitute non-sexist gender-neutral language throughout.
At the full council meeting in September another independent councillor made a separate allegation, claiming to have evidence that a planning application heard at committee had been subverted by the applicant putting up ‘fake’ objectors. It was claimed that early registration for the 2 speaking slots had prevented genuine objectors from making representations.
My colleagues are still investigating this case as it is again a serious allegation. My own enquiries have revealed however, that speaking slots are not allocated on a ‘first come first served’ basis and could not be manipulated in this fashion. If they were, I would now be seeking to repair that.
Applications to speak at planning must be made by noon, on the third working day before the planning committee meeting. Ward Councillors and Parish Councillors are given first priority as elected representatives. The remaining slot(s) are then offered to the other applicants. If there are insufficient slots, the applicants are instead offered contact with each other and asked to mutually agree who will speak for them. If this fails, slots can be allocated randomly but in the career of the officer I spoke to this has happened only once.
While we continue to investigate the specific case (and still await the claimed evidence) I have confirmed that the system is not broken in the way it was claimed, and should provide fair representation at planning committee meetings.
As the community’s representative at Teignbridge, sometimes this means challenging officers, but sometimes it means supporting them. Unfortunately lies can be told very quickly. Establishing the truth takes longer, but it is vital that we do.