East Devon: Council leader slams ‘slag off’ critics and rejects past bullying claims inside the authority as ‘red herrings’

The East Devon authority leader has hit out at critics of the district council, saying he was ‘slightly tired of being slagged off’ in some towns and villages amid past bully claims, which he rejected.

Paul Arnott has hit back at critics within some East Devon parish councils in relation to historic “red herring” allegations about bullying at the authority, writes local democracy reporter Bradley Gerrard.

Councillor Arnott (Liberal Democrat, Coly Valley), who was voted in for his fifth successive year as leader of East Devon District Council this week (Wednesday, May 8), said he was getting “slightly tired of being slagged off at some parish councils”.

“In the Corporate Peer Challenge [carried out by the Local Government Association this year]it said ‘there have been media reports about bullying at EDDC but the peer team did not find this to be the culture and staff said positively that they didn’t recognise this portrayal of EDDC’,” Cllr Arnott said.

“I hope and pray that all of us can move on from what was a complete set of red herrings flown in the interests of people no longer involved in the organisation.”

The Corporate Peer Challenge came after comments in a Grant Thornton audit report of East Devon surrounding governance at the council.

The audit report, released in December last year, covered the 2021/22 financial year but did include some analysis from the 2022/23 year too.

“Whilst it appears that relationships between most officers and portfolio holders were generally effective, it is clear that the relationships between some other senior officers and members were poor,” the Grant Thornton audit said.

“There were allegations of bullying by both officers and members. We saw evidence of some officers leaving the organisation, as well as suggestions that members did not stand for re-election as a result of the behaviours and culture that was reported within the council.

“Whilst different respondents had differing views and perspectives of the reasons for the behaviour and the various allegations, it is clear to us that relationships within the council had resulted in an unacceptable culture.”

It did, however, flag “many excellent examples” of officers and members working “effectively together in a cohesive manner to the benefit of the district, and responding to the challenges in very difficult and unprecedented circumstances”.

Addressing this week’s annual meeting, Cllr Arnott added that he appreciated all Councillors working together for the betterment of residents.

“I wanted to thank all councillors for their input into processes which some were opposed to in the first place but were then very creative with,” he said.

“That is, in particular, the LGA peer challenge, the involvement with the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny, the Planning Advisory Service, our own work across personnel committee and elsewhere looking at the challenges we’ve had, so I’d like to thank everyone for their involvement and it’s very much appreciated.

“It is very obviously the beginning of a new era, with a very new management team here, which is very talented, and I look forward, and you can all look forward, to us working together as one council moving forward.”

Just before the annual meeting, Councillors had approved the appointment of Tracy Hendren as its new chief executive.

Ms Hendren is currently one of the three interim co-CEOs and a director at the council. She is expected to begin her new role on June 1.

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