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Council challenged over ‘secret’ business meetings

December 9, 2012
Brian Norgate

Norgate “residents and businesses  suffered detriment over this”

The council’s use of ‘exempt business’ to  lock out the press and public from their meetings has been challenged by former Labour councillor Brian Norgate who claims the council are  ‘abusing’ their powers in order to keep the public in the dark over important business transactions.

Council meetings run as ‘exempt businesses’ regularly take place behind closed doors and details do not appear in the published agenda or minutes. The council say they only ever do this because the information is of a commercially sensitive nature or to protect the privacy of individuals in circumstances when:

“The public interest in not disclosing the information outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information”

Since 2007 the council has been steadily adding to its ‘investment’ property portfolio and the details of deals are sometimes discussed privately.

Press and public had been excluded from part of the council debate over the controversial multi- million pound decision to  purchase the Ageas bowl earlier this year so that discussion of the venue’s serious financial situation would go unreported.

Brian Norgate says he believes the council have used the exempt rules to fly similar deals under the radar as a way of avoiding public or business scrutiny in a way that is fundamentally undemocratic.

On Thursday’s meeting of the council Cabinet Committee Brian Norgate rose to his feet from the public gallery and attempted to dispute agenda item 17 which was listed as ‘exempt businesses’and had been described in the agenda only as ‘property transactions’.

He was however, quickly told he could not speak on the agenda item as, because it was secret, he couldn’t possibly know what it was about so he was only permitted to speak on agenda item 16 instead – which was a resolution to discuss agenda item 17  under ‘exempt business’.

Addressing the cabinet Mr Norgate claimed that Eastleigh’s allotment holders had previously complained to the Local Government Ombudsman that EBC had abused exempt business at council meetings to hide the sell off of allotments and green spaces.

Norgate also told the cabinet that neighbouring Southampton City Council had recently discussed controversial schemes like the closure of  the Oakland’s swimming pool and the Townhill Park regeneration project under exempt business but had still been able to disclose the identity of the sites under discussion which had enabled local people to make representations.

Mr Norgate challenged the cabinet chair – Council Leader Keith House – and the Chief executive Bernie Topham to explain the law on exempt business and how their justification for a total blackout complied with it.

Keith House maintained that the item had passed the test for exemption and it was not possible to discuss the business in the public arena.

The resolution was promptly passed and the public gallery cleared to enable the cabinet to go into private session.

Speaking after the meeting Brian Norgate said:

“I am shocked that senior EBC officers allow this kind of thing to go on.

“We all accept some things must remain confidential, but never all of the property transactions exempt all of the time. People have the right to know what their council is doing with their money and have the right to know where and when local issues important to them are going through the council.”

Norgate said he had spoken to a councillor who was familiar with the exempted item who had told him that only a small part of it needed to be exempt in their opinion.

The Eastleigh Labour Party man added he would be writing to complain to the Chief Executive and was prepared to take the matter to the Local Government Ombudsman if the CEO could not justify the decision to exempt the item.

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10 Responses to Council challenged over ‘secret’ business meetings

  1. Stephen Slominski on December 10, 2012 at 10:01 am

    As Keith House said Brian

    “Welcome back”

  2. Keith House on December 12, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    Brian always sees reds under the bed – it’s his Socialist heritage! The simple fact here is that Eastleigh Borough Council has one of the most open approaches to publication in the country and certainly much more so than Conservative Hampshire and Labour Southampton. We very carefully restrict exmempt papers to the absolute minimum. This one concerned a small commercial lease on commercial property. Simple!

  3. James Penders on December 14, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    FOI here we come. What is a small commercial lease? really really small paper.

  4. Molly Bennett on December 14, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    Why should any issue that concerns the spending of public money be held in secret!…lets stop this practice and get back to honest and open discussion.

  5. Stephen Slominski on December 15, 2012 at 1:23 am

    Please. Not a Starbucks ffs…

  6. Brian Norgate on December 15, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    We all know KH was doing i am not really listening by reading or sending texts as i spoke but KH is wrong.

    This is not the first time or i expect the last time that EBC have abused the exempt business rules
    its standard practice at EBC

    The Cabinet meetings i attended where we discussed Wildern Mill was no reds under the bed issue, not all of it was confidential, some of it was already in the public domain as EBC had lost at the Government inspectors and the High Court.

    if Town Quay developments were able to attend the exempt business they may have been able for KH to answer the questions not answered in the High court.

    Town Quay stated they had spoken to both KH and LB
    and the meeting hadnt gone well, this may well be wrong but the exempt business held at the cabinet if held as it should have been would have let the public know what the public should have known.

    EBC could have saved money as the Judge stated EBC defense was a waste of public time and money

    EBC accepted errors in the way they had hidden the cabinet exempt business for the allotments agenda item was mis leading, Tony Morrel missed it as you could not tell what the agenda item was about

    thats why i asked the CEO and KH to explain their exempt business policy

    this is important for the MDA, SDA and Chestnut park how can they attend the cabinet meetings to hear what is being said if they do not know when the meetings are and whats being discussed.

    No Keith its not Reds under the beds its people having the right to know what you are doing with tax payers money.

    remember your election address the Labour party are wrong No hidden parking charges coming to Eastleigh, Chris Huhne even went on radion Solent
    i am assured by the CEO that the council have no plans to bring in parking charges, you were wrong on that again or was it a joke a little play on words, we kept the exempt business quiet until an officer mentioned it at a public meeting.

    thats why you need to tell us what your policy and how it complies to the law that your use of the exempt business is correctly used and not abused as the allotment holders found out to their exepnse

  7. A Wilkes on December 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    I would like to understand fully the ‘exempt business’ qualification. Also, after witnessing EBC in action at a meeting – MOBILE PHONES should be banned especially amongst the officers who phone their partners and minions tell them what to say in response to arguments. This would not be tolerated in any other environment and would be a sackable offence..

    • Eastleigh Xpress on December 16, 2012 at 12:58 pm

      Agree with you. You’re not allowed to use them in Pub Quizzes.

  8. Alan Harris on December 16, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    The thing is that many of the Lib Dem Councillors cannot think for themselves and need instruction on which way to vote – democracy eh! so much for representing the people that vote them in!!

    • A Wilkes on December 17, 2012 at 8:34 am

      Which they willingly do because their allowance is much more important to them than representing the Electorate. As a consequence, they wont risk going against the Party line. That begs the question – who IS representing local public opinion when income is the over-riding factor for them standing. Many of these Councillors are truly lightweights and follow like sheep. Take note how many of them have anything original to say at a meeting (before they get the text message). Disappointing huh?

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