Towns across East Devon have joined forces with MP Simon Jupp in calling for the district council to fully reopen its tax-payer-funded headquarters to the public.
A cross-party letter signed by around 30 town representatives has been sent to East Devon District Council (EDDC), putting pressure on the authority to reopen its Honiton offices – which have remained closed to the public since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.
The district council said it was ‘actively recruiting’ for customer service roles to operate a demand-led reception service at Blackdown House.
East Devon MP Simon Jupp urged the district council to fully reopen the offices within weeks.
He said the current appointment system and virtual service was ‘not good enough’ and excluded those without access to technology.
Simon Jupp, MP for East Devon, said while cross-party pressure had been successful in securing the reopening of Exmouth Town Hall to the public in December, the multi-million-pound office in Honiton remains closed.
He said Blackdown House was a ‘one-stop-shop’ for council enquiries before it was closed to the public at the start of the pandemic.
The MP for East Devon said previous calls to fully reopen the building to council taxpayers have been ignored by the current administration, led by the East Devon Alliance Party and Liberal Democrats.
Mr Jupp said the current administration was ‘recently defeated’ in a vote to keep holding council meetings virtually, and Councillors recently returned to Blackdown House after opposition parties worked together to put an end to virtual ‘consultative’ meetings that deferred decision making to unelected council officers.
Mr Jupp said: “Cross-party pressure led to the council finally agreeing to reopen Exmouth Town Hall but it only adds to the case to fully reopen Blackdown House too.
“It is unfair to council taxpayers to keep the council office closed for residents in Honiton, Axminster, Seaton, Sidmouth, Ottery St Mary, Whimple and Cranbrook.
“I hope the council will rethink their indefensible decision to keep the council’s doors closed to the people who pay for it.”
East Devon District Council confirmed it was actively recruiting to fill vacant roles within its customer services team.
An EDDC spokesman said: “Assuming we are successful in our recruitment then we will look to provide a reception service at Blackdown House on a similar demand-led basis to that which we have recently announced for Exmouth Town Hall.
“We will give advance notice of this in due course.
He added: “The council continues to operate an appointment system at both of its offices in Exmouth and Honiton for people to meet with officers.”
Around 30 Councillors from towns across East Devon put their name to a letter sent by the MP to EDDC leader, Paul Arnott.
The cross-party letter urged action before the end of the year, calling for the ‘vital’ face-to-face service to reopen fully.
The letter said: “Dear Cllr Arnott, we are glad you’ve listened to calls to reopen Exmouth Town Hall to the general public.
“Thank you for making this an earlier date than many of us feared. In similar vein, we are writing to ask that East Devon District Council now looks to reopen Blackdown House to the general public on 5th December as well.
“We believe it is vital to get a face-to-face service up and running serving Honiton and surrounding areas before Christmas.
“But as you know, EDDC’s Cabinet – which you lead – have decided to keep the doors closed at Blackdown House and the so-called ‘appointments system’ for visitors until at least February 2023.
“This is not good enough.
“There are digitally excluded residents in and around Honiton as there are in and around Exmouth, and we also fear for the public who wish to speak at or observe face to face meetings, being let in and out by a door guard is hardly an inviting way for residents of the district to be welcomed in to observe or participate in local democracy.
“We call on you to immediately reverse the decision made at September Cabinet and reopen the Blackdown House offices to the public. It’s what we believe council-tax payers expect.”
The letter, sent on November 3, was signed by:
Simon Jupp MP Member of Parliament for East Devon
Cllr Philip Skinner Conservative Group leader, Councillor for Tale Vale
Cllr Sam Hawkins Cranbrook Voice leader, Councillor for Cranbrook
Cllr Jake Bonetta Labour Group leader, Councillor for Honiton St. Michael’s
Cllr Mike Allen, Councillor for Honiton St. Michael’s
Cllr Dean Barrow Councillor for Honiton St Paul’s
Cllr Kevin Blakey Councillor for Cranbrook
Cllr Kim Bloxham Councillor for Cranbrook
Cllr Colin Brown Councillor for Dunkeswell and Otterhead
Cllr Alasdair Bruce Councillor for Feniton
Cllr Fred Caygill Councillor for Exmouth Brixington
Cllr Maddy Chapman Councillor for Exmouth Brixington
Cllr Iain Chubb, Councillor for Newbridges
Cllr Alan Dent, Councillor for Budleigh and Raleigh
Cllr Bruce de Saram, Councillor for Exmouth Littleham
Cllr Ian Hall, Councillor for Axminster
Cllr Marcus Hartnell, Councillor for Seaton
Cllr Mike Howe, Councillor for Clyst Valley
Cllr Stuart Hughes, Councillor for Sidmouth Sidford
Cllr Ben Ingham, Councillor for Woodbury and Lympstone
Cllr Paul Jarvis, Councillor for Budleigh and Raleigh
Cllr David Key, Councillor for Dunkeswell and Otterhead
Cllr Richard Lawrence, Councillor for Whimple and Rockbeare
Cllr Tony McCollum, Councillor for Honiton St Paul’s
Cllr Paul Millar, Councillor for Exmouth Halsdon
Cllr Andrew Moulding, Councillor for Axminster
Cllr Helen Parr, Councillor for Coly Valley
Cllr Phil Twiss, Councillor for Honiton St. Michael’s
Cllr Tom Wright, Councillor for Budleigh and Raleigh.