High Court rules for emergency elections in Exeter with scrapping of unitary status
Devon County Council was accused of ‘rubbing salt in the wounds of Exeter’ following a High Court ruling that forces Exeter City Council to organise ‘expensive and unnecessary’ emergency elections. Exeter City Council was also ordered to pay Devon County Council costs, as yet undetermined.
At a hearing on the morning of Monday, July 5 in the High Court, Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that the termination immediately of Exeter’s unitary hopes must also mean the termination of office for 13 of the city council’s 40 elected councillors.
Exeter City Council Leader, Cllr Adrian Fullam, said: “The process for considering Exeter’s Unitary bid has been botched from start to finish. Now people in Exeter face a set of emergency elections. This is an expensive and arguably unnecessary solution to a problem which should not have arisen. Exactly the same situation faces Norwich City Council.
“We have had to come to terms with the fact that Exeter will not become a unitary authority and now this is just rubbing salt in the wounds of Exeter. Was it really necessary for Devon County Council’s legal representatives to pursue this through to the death, especially during these testing financial times?”
As recently as March 25, as part of the legislation to create a new unitary for Exeter, Parliament had extended by one year the terms of office of these 13 councillors, in anticipation of an all-out election for the new unitary council next May.
The new Coalition Government is currently taking a Bill through Parliament to formally reverse the unitary decisions, and when finally approved by Parliament, that legislation would allow those councillors’ terms of office to remain extended until next May, when further city council elections would be held as a matter of course. The Bill may not, however, become law until after Parliament’s summer recess.
However, Mr Justice Ouseley’s ruling two weeks ago, that the Orders creating the Exeter and Norwich unitaries had themselves been unlawful, has intervened in this process.
Cllr Fullam added: “Following the consideration of complex legal arguments by the court this morning the judge has decided to totally quash the original Orders, with no special provision being made for the 13 councillors whose terms of office had been extended.
“This means that those 13 councillors now find themselves, as of today, disqualified as members of the City Council, through no fault of their own.”
These members include the Leader of the Labour Group, Pete Edwards, and the Leader of the Conservative Group. Yolonda Henson.
Emergency elections will now have to be held later this year in the seats and wards affected by this decision and, until either they or new councillors are elected, the city council will be reduced from a complement of 40 elected members to just 27.
However the Judge was not able to grant the city council’s request that elections be held ASAP on August 12, indicating that the city council would have to apply for a separate order to set the date of the elections.
Exeter and Norwich City Councils’ legal representatives had argued in court this morning for a solution which, while fully accepting the annulment of the unitary status, would nevertheless have avoided the need for immediate emergency elections, pending Parliament’s enactment of the Bill currently before them. Legal counsel for the Government also wished to see that outcome and adopted a broadly neutral stance on the arguments.
(from a press release)