Transparency and Democracy at East Devon: the Ocean Blue case

“The purchase of the site on Queen’s Drive [in Exmouth] was made back in March, but the reasoning and the process behind the acquisition were only presented to councillors last week.” 

“The EDDC elected councillors in the early 2000s had a growth agenda which included regeneration in Exmouth and Seaton – of which most of the electorate were unaware.”

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Councils are facing bankruptcy over Covid expenses:

Covid-19: Councils could spend £1.7bn over budget by March as costs rise – BBC News

Coronavirus: UK councils fear bankruptcy amid Covid-19 costs – BBC News

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It doesn’t help when councils play politics with central government for contracts:

Failure to win £20m Brexit bid for Portsmouth port would lead to ‘bankruptcy’ for council | The News

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And it certainly doesn’t help when councils also play the market – with central government having to step in to pick up the mess:

Croydon council on verge of bankruptcy after risky investments | Local government | The Guardian

Croydon council: Ministers send in taskforce as authority teeters on verge of bankruptcy | Evening Standard

Brick by Brick speaks out amidst Croydon Council financial crisis | Eastlondonlines

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This is what happens when ‘casino councils’ get into trouble for risking public money – but with minimum public oversight:

Futures Forum: ‘Casino councils’ looking for alternative sources of funding and loading up with debt to play the property market

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Two years ago, the East Devon council set up its own fund to ‘invest’ in the market – although no shopping centres or hotels have been bought – as yet:

Futures Forum: District Council’s £20m investment fund: “Property investment brings with it the potential for significant risk if things go wrong.”

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On the other hand, a ‘leisure complex’ has been bought…

Two weeks ago, we heard that one particular investment happened back in March this year – but without the council’s own members knowing very much about it:

The future of Exmouth’s Ocean Blue building is set to be discussed by East Devon councillors after questions were raised as to why the council bought it. The purchase of the site on Queen’s Drive was made back in March, but the reasoning and the process behind the acquisition was only presented to councillors last week. East Devon District Council’s cabinet agreed to note the report explaining the reasons why the building was bought – and said they wanted a further meeting where the future of it could be debated.

Future of Exmouth’s Ocean Blue building will be debated – Devon Live

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The East Devon News is a bit more forthright:

East Devon councillors have been told why £2.7million of taxpayers’ cash was splashed on the Ocean Blue leisure complex in Exmouth – seven months after the authority bought it. The seafront attraction was snapped-up by the council in March, but the rationale and process behind its acquisition was only presented to its cabinet at its October meeting.

The purchase of the Esplanade property was the first time the authority has used public money from a £20million Commercial Investment Fund.

Councillor Paul Arnott, who became leader of the authority in May, said: “I had demanded this report came forward. It is extraordinary that the council made this purchase and the only knowledge we had of it was with a press release. The point is not about the process but that we didn’t know about it, and it hadn’t been reported, and I still don’t understand why we weren’t told.”

East Devon cllrs (finally) told why £2.7m was splashed on Ocean Blue in Exmouth

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Here is a correspondent with a deep understanding of the ‘sad saga’ writing at length for the East Devon Watch blog – and they don’t hold their punches:

Large public sector projects soon acquire an unstoppable momentum. When things go wrong it’s the taxpayer who foots the bill. 

From one of Owl’s researchers

As an unimpassioned outsider, this longstanding EDDC council tax payer, has watched with interest the history of the Ocean, Exmouth. I had thought the saga was finished and hopefully regenerating Exmouth. I now find in 2020 that I have had to help pay £2.7 million for the building, plus a lot more along the way.

The EDDC elected conservative councillors in the early 2000s had a growth agenda which included regeneration in Exmouth and Seaton of which most of the electorate were unaware. Planning officers appear to have been recruited to carry this out.  To a casual observer the evidence shows this tactic worked. The now 18 year’s long bowling alley saga is an example of this…

How did it all start?

June 1993…

The sad planning saga of Exmouth’s Albatross, the Ocean Bowling Alley | East Devon Watch

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With more here of the sad saga:

Tim comments on Exmouth’s Albatross saga | East Devon Watch

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The biggest problem now for the District Council, apart from the crash in the value of the property, is that the main tenant of the Ocean Blue building is Leisure East Devon – which is now in serious financial difficulty:

East Devon leisure centres and pools could close without bailout cash

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photo: The Ocean, Exmouth © David Dixon :: Geograph Britain and Ireland

   
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