A group set up to finally deliver the third phase of the Exmouth seafront regeneration project will meet in private – but only until the end of the year.
Councillors on Wednesday night agreed to dissolve the Exmouth Regeneration Board, that currently meets in private, and that an Exmouth Queen’s Drive Delivery Group to be established in its place.
The group will have a renewed focus to deliver a viable and high-quality attractions for the final phase of the Queen’s Drive site.
But following concerns over the ‘secretive’ nature of the new group, East Devon District Council’s cabinet agreed that while the group would meet in private until January 1, the situation would then be reviewed as to if it could be opened up to the public.
The recommendation of officers was that the group meet in private to ensure that confidential or commercially sensitive matters can be discussed, but meeting notes will be published through the council’s Cabinet papers.
But Cllr Nick Hookway slammed the recommendation and said he could see no justification whatsoever for the meetings to be in private.
He said: “The meeting should be held in Exmouth and should be open to the public. I see no justification whatsoever for having them in private. Residents are very suspicious when meetings are held in private. There are lots of questions it raises if it is in secret and behind closed doors. We must embrace openness and transparency.”
The cabinet were told that it was entirely within their gift to open the meetings up to the public, but in doing so it could preclude the ability for councillors and officers to speak openly and frankly and that it is normal practice for commercially sensitive items to be discussed in private.
Cllr Ian Thomas said that there was a balance between being seen to be open and actually being as open as you can to discuss things. He asked whether the group could operate and meet with a part 1 and 2 agenda, like a council meeting does, so some discussions could take place in public.
Henry Gordon Lennox, the council’s Council Solicitor and Monitoring Officer, confirmed that would be an option, but Cllr Kevin Blakey, the portfolio holder for economy, said that as the majority of the discussions would be around financial or land use issues and if it was a council meeting they would be discussed in private due to the commercial confidentiality of them, he didn’t feel that holding meetings in public would be of much benefit.
Cllr Ben Ingham, leader of the council, proposed that until January 1, the group meets in private, but that the situation is then reviewed afterwards to see if it could be opened up to the public.
Chief Executive Mark Williams said that this would give the group a window to ‘do some delivery’ and get the ball rolling on the next phase of the Queen’s Drive project.
The item was brought to the cabinet as an urgent item, something that Cllr Hookway was unhappy about, but Cllr Ingham has they waited until the next meeting, it would have caused a further delay and would have pushed things back into 2020 when they could be having further consultation in November and December.
Cllr Hookway and Cllr Andrew Moulding also criticised the remit of the group as being too narrow as there were other issues in Exmouth that the regeneration group were looking into.
Cllr Hookway said: “We need a fresh approach to phase 3 and this group must deliver phase 3 as it has been going on for far too long, but the remit of the group is too narrow. For all the work of HemingwayDesign, we must consider and explore other alternatives.
“I understand there is still no developer willing to commit for the phase 3 site and I am not surprised at that. It is not a location people are willing to invest a large amount of money and get a return.
“We must get the views of locals and stakeholders as the seafront is used by a large number of interest groups and we must listen in a much more effective way than we have done.”
Cllr Moulding added: “The Exmouth Masterplan went further than just Queen’s Drive and included some considerable work that still needs to be done. That work should not be forgotten by the council and the people of Exmouth will be very disappointed if the work isn’t continued.”
But Cllr Ingham said: “This is not the end of the journey at all and this doesn’t preclude us going on an addressing a number of those items that you have mentioned in the future.”
The cabinet agreed to dissolve the Exmouth Regeneration Board and Exmouth Regeneration Project Executive and that an Exmouth Queen’s Drive Delivery Group be established in its place.
The Project Delivery Group will hold its first meeting during September and receive the latest information on the work of the external professional advisors, HemingwayDesign Ltd and Lambert Smith Hampton.
A report will then come to the Cabinet meeting in October outlining the current position and a timetable of next steps.
Any decision over the future use of Queen’s Drive would be taken by the cabinet or full council in public.