Democracy and Transparency at Exeter: part two

From the Exeter Observer:

“A core purpose of independent public interest journalism is to hold influence and power to account by gathering and reporting information that people in leadership roles and other powerful interests might rather remain hidden.”

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The excellent Exeter Observer offers “Independent public interest community journalism for Exeter and beyond”:

Exeter Observer – About Exeter Observer

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It has just released its first email newsletter:

Exeter Digest #1: Statistics in the balance – Dartmoor Line to reopen – Local elections are coming – Exeter Observer

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This is just the top of their newsletter – with many more interesting pieces listed later:

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TOP STORIES

STATISTICS IN THE BALANCE: Exeter City Council’s Chief Executive uses statistics selectively to show the city in a good light but in doing so presents an unbalanced account of Exeter’s economic and environmental status.

DARTMOOR LINE TO REOPEN: £40 million Department for Transport funding will enable passenger trains every two hours between Okehampton to Exeter by end of this year, with plans to increase to an hourly service during 2022.

ON THE WATERFRONT: Decisions taken behind closed doors in favour of commercial interests threaten a maritime and waterway heritage vision for Exeter’s historic quay, canal and canal basin.

PUSH NOTIFICATION: Exeter City Council has responded to an enquiry about disproportionate Church of England representation on the Liveable Exeter Place Board by accusing Exeter Observer of promoting a “partisan narrative” and claiming our public interest reporting “bears no resemblance to fact”. At the time of writing the council still hasn’t answered our questions.

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This last story shows that its investigative journalism, its penetrating questioning and searching stories have provoked some extraordinary prickliness from Exeter City Council:

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Council pushes back on Liveable Exeter Place Board scrutiny following membership change

Exeter City Council has responded to an enquiry about disproportionate Church of England representation on the Liveable Exeter Place Board by accusing Exeter Observer of promoting a “partisan narrative” and claiming our public interest reporting “bears no resemblance to fact”…

Exeter City Council established the Liveable Exeter Place Board in 2019 to support the delivery of its “ambitious and visionary” Liveable Exeter programme. At the core of this programme is the aspiration to build 12,000 new homes in such a way that a series of communities are created which include retail and employment options and so reduce the need to travel across the city. It is intended to support the council’s goal of reducing the city’s carbon footprint to net zero by 2030.

Exeter Observer’s July 2020 report on the Place Board highlighted legitimate public interest concerns about its role, membership and lack of transparency. The board is unelected, meets in private, does not publish its discussions or decisions and is taking responsibility for major policies which will determine Exeter’s future. In addition, a significant number of place board members have known property and land interests.

Following that report the council took action to increase the underrepresentation of women and of people of colour on the board, a move also urged by some members of the city council.

“Why does the Board contain two representatives of the Church of England (the Bishop of Exeter and the more recent addition of the Dean of Exeter Cathedral) and none representing any other faith organisation? Exeter’s population is diverse, so if faith is important to the Board, it seems odd to have the CofE [Church of England] so disproportionately represented?”

The city council’s reply was unexpected: “The board brings together leadership from across the city, public and private sectors, politics, personal views and backgrounds. All however give their time and energy freely to try to make Exeter a better city. Suggesting otherwise via a partisan narrative bears no resemblance to fact.”

Quite apart from the fact that we made no comment about the motives of board members, it is the suggestion that we have adopted a “partisan narrative” that bears no resemblance to fact.

A core purpose of independent public interest journalism is to hold influence and power to account by gathering and reporting information that people in leadership roles and other powerful interests might rather remain hidden. The only perspective from which this purpose might be considered partisan is that of those in leadership roles who do not enjoy being subject to scrutiny.

It is fair comment that Exeter Observer has been constructively critical of the lack of accountability and transparency surrounding the board, and that we have published material about it that it appears some people would prefer not to be in the public domain.

We make no apology for serving the governed, not the governors. We seek to inform, educate and empower the former while holding the latter to account by challenging their decisions in the public sphere. We aim to keep people who live or work in Exeter informed of what’s being done in their name, by whom, with the community assets they own and the taxes they pay.

Of course, the excuse offered by the city council may simply be a fig leaf intended to conceal its inability or unwillingness to provide a rationale for the Dean’s appointment. We do not know. Perhaps, as Exeter is among the country’s least affordable cities in which to live, the Dean will promote a recent commission set up by the Archibishop of Canterbury which said housing affordability must be linked to people’s incomes rather than discounting the market rate?

And what the board actually does remains opaque. The agendas we obtained by challenging the council’s refusal to disclose do, however, give an idea of the scope and range of its discussions. The board additionally met on six occasions during the period from 26 March to 4 June 2020 “to discuss matters related to the Covid-19 pandemic”. No agenda information was supplied for these dates.

Council pushes back on Liveable Exeter Place Board scrutiny following membership change – Exeter Observer

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As covered in these news pages last year:

Democracy and Transparency at Exeter – Vision Group for Sidmouth

   
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