A false start at EDDC sees new ‘Independent Group’ relying on the discredited Tories rather than the East Devon Alliance, Lib Dems and Greens who local communities voted for in order to achieve change. And the Axe Valley is left out in the cold again.

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I was unfortunately unable for personal reasons to attend last night’s annual meeting of EDDC, but many Independent supporters who were there have expressed considerable disappointment. I have however close knowledge of the situation and offer the following comments.

Mandate for change

On May 2nd, after 45 years of increasingly dysfunctional rule by the Conservatives at East Devon District Council, the local electorate reduced their number to just 19 of the 60 councillors. Instead voters elected a majority of 31 Independents, including 11 members of the East Devon Alliance (EDA), 8 Liberal Democrats, and 2 Greens. 

A clear mandate was given by local people. Big gains by Independents – both EDA and others – Liberal Democrats and Greens all represented their desire for change. The best administration would have been a coalition of some of these groups, which could have formed a progressive majority of up to 40 seats out of 60.

A new ‘Independent Group’ excludes the East Devon Alliance

Before the elections, all Independent councillors including EDA members were part of the Independent Group, led by Ben Ingham. EDA expected this to continue and looked forward to working with other Independents to form a progressive new administration, possibly in cooperation with the Liberal Democrats and Greens. 

However on the day after the elections, Ben formed a new Independent Group, which EDA councillors were not invited to join. He was elected leader and Susie Bond deputy leader. As a result of this exclusion, EDA councillors formed their own group but continued to work for an alliance of EDA with the Ingham-led Independent Group. 

The Independent Group relies on the discredited Tories

Since the new Independent Group with 20 members is the largest group on EDDC, they had the right to take the initiative in forming an administration. In this light the EDA leader, Paul Arnott, was happy to second Ingham’s nomination as Leader of the Council.

However there was no justification for the Independent Group, with only one-third of all councillors, to form an exclusively Independent Group cabinet. Even the outgoing Conservative administration, which had an overall majority, was more inclusive, including some non-Conservatives in the Cabinet. 

In both the Axe Valley and the Sid Valley, the East Devon Alliance had routed the Conservatives, but in Ben’s selection of his new Cabinet and chairs of key committees, he could find no place for EDA Independents from these areas. The east of East Devon is once again drastically under-represented in the EDDC leadership.

Rewarding the discredited Tory party

Clearly there were personal issues here – Ben had left EDA after being voted out as leader in 2017 – but we had still collaborated in the old Independent Group.  Nothing can justify Ben’s apparent decision now to rely more on the defeated Tories than on his fellow Independents.

The Conservatives are the official opposition, entitling them to the Chair of the Scrutiny Committee. But the Independent Group have also allowed them to take the key positions of Chair of the Council and Chair of the Development Management Committee. In contrast they offered EDA only the position of Vice-Chair of the Council. In addition they appear to have voted members of the discredited Tories on to other bodies, at the expense of EDA and Lib Dem candidates.

At the very moment when the electorate voted for change, and the Conservative Party has lost all credibility nationally as well as locally, the EDDC Independent Group seems to have breathed life back into this exhausted party and allowed it to keep several important positions, while turning its back on the other advocates of change.

A way forward

The East Devon Alliance believes that many members of the Independent Group share our desire for change at EDDC. They must surely realise that yesterday was a highly embarrassing false start. 

Despite the way that group has chosen to form its administration, I know the EDA group will support them, as the Lib Dems have also said they will, when they propose positive policies for the benefit of East Devon, as well as seeking their support for our own proposals.

In particular, I welcome the fact that when questioned by Paul Arnott, Ben Ingham yesterday repeated his long-held position that EDDC should consider the option of a more collaborative Committee system, rather than the all powerful Leader-with-CEO and small Cabinet model which he has inherited, which leaves most councillors with little real input into major decisions (as I know from the County Council). 

In any case, EDA councillors will have healthy proportionate representation on key committees such as Planning, Strategic Planning, Scrutiny, Audit & Governance and Overview, and I am certain that this will give them many opportunities to change the district council in a collaborative and positive way.

We must now hope that despite yesterday, both groups of Independents together with the Lib Dems and Greens can do some real work for local communities in the new Council. 

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