Independent report finds an ‘unacceptable culture’ of behaviour and ‘poor working relationships’ at East Devon District Council

An independent report has uncovered ‘unacceptable’ behaviour and claims of bullying within East Devon District Council.

East Devon District Council has had an “unacceptable culture” of behaviour, an external auditor has found, writes local democracy reporter Will Goddard.

There were allegations of bullying by some council officers and elected Councillors, according to an independent report from audit firm Grant Thornton, which looked at a period between April 2021 and March 2023.

The report found “poor working relationships” meant there was a “significant weakness” in how the council was governed.

The firm heard suggestions some Councillors didn’t stand for re-election because of behaviour and culture at the council, which at the time was controlled by a political group called the East Devon Alliance.

On a positive note, the auditor found “many excellent examples” of officers and Councillors working well together during the pandemic and said relationships between “most officers and portfolio holders were generally effective.”

Grant Thornton has given the council several recommendations on how to fix problems in the way it is governed.

These include having a zero-tolerance policy on bullying, and revising the code of conduct and the protocols for how councillors and officers interact to include examples of unacceptable behaviour and sanctions.

The council’s management said it already had such a policy, and that refresher training would be provided.

Cllr Helen Parr (Conservative, Coly Valley) found the report “extremely concerning” and said: “It’s all very well doing training of new Councillors, but it goes back to the people who were in the council at the times you looked at and whether they have changed their behaviour.

“I think it’s very questionable whether all this training has made behaviour changes.

“Culture comes from the top and that’s where we needed to have changes.

“It’s upsetting that we are a council with this problem when three, four years back we got the Investors in People platinum award.

“This council was an excellent council and now we have a report like this. I’m extremely worried about it.”

Cllr Charlotte Fitzgerald (Independent, Budleigh and Raleigh), who was elected in May, described the report’s findings as “foreign” to her experience so far.

She said: “I’ve only been on the council for eight months, I wasn’t here at the time that this report covers.

“I don’t recognise an unacceptable culture in any of my interactions so far. The officers have just been absolutely positive and constructive.

“We have had a change of Councillors, we’ve had quite a lot of turnover in the last election. There’s also been a turnover of a significant amount of the senior executive leadership team in the last six to 12 months.

“I don’t want to dismiss or diminish the concerns that are raised here. But… it does seem to me that a lot of action is and has been taken in the last year or so to address some of these issues.

“I’m really looking forward to the next report… so we can actually see Grant Thornton’s external assessment of how we’re tracking against some of the recommendations that have been made.”

Councillors voted to keep track of the auditor’s recommendations to see whether they are implemented.

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