28 November 2006

Village Hall Meeting - 27th November 2006

Somerton never fails to surprise me. On the surface its a quiet west country town with quiet residents and a reserved demeanour. But still waters run deep as they say and last evening's meeting about the proposed town hall is a case in point.

The meeting was held under the auspices of the 'Somerton Community Hall Support Group' in order to report progress with 'the project'. The first half hour was taken up with an exhaustive Q&A session with a range of questions put to prominent town councillors. The questions dealt with the hall as if it were a live project yet the councillors made frequent reference to the fact that funding for the project would only be available if and when town assets were sold. And about that there was no certainty whatsoever.

That was an interesting position to take when, at the same time, the Town Council were also displaying three sets of drawings of what the proposed hall might look like. These drawings were not a set of rough sketches but a set of well laid out architects drawings, produced by Messers Boon Brown of Yeovil. So clearly, whilst the project hasn't any funding and whilst possible funding is entirely dependent upon other factors, the Town Council are issuing instructions to one firm of architects to draw up proposals.

Another interesting issue was that of a possible building budget. The figure mentioned last evening was £400,000 as this was the likely sum of money to be raised by the Town's sale of the Etsome Terrace site to the local Primary Care Trust. Now that deal has been abandoned before and there is no certainty that it will go through this time but the assumption is that the money raised in the sale will be used to build the hall. But there are a number of caveats around that sum of money.

Firstly, if the land is sold, any community hall project must be started within 3 years of the sale or the County Council has the right to claw back £140,000 of the capital. (They sold the land to the Town for the express purpose of building a new hall and this clause is inserted to make sure that the site or the funds arising from any sale will be put to that purpose.)

Secondly, the £400,000 is not unencumbered. Some £140,000 is 'profit' derived from the rise in land value since the Town bought the site. But the balance ie the purchase price, was funded through a loan which the Town is still paying-off and will be for some years hence. So, if £400,000 is brought to the party only about a third of that sum is 'free'.

Another point which was mentioned was how the building might be built or, more accurately, how the materials and labour might be purchased. It was proposed to the meeting that Tony Canvin, the well known builder and local and district councillor, would use his 'buying power' to negotiate the best deals. It was proposed that there would be no tendering evidently because tendering is a tedious process which doesn't offer any benefit.

Now this last point is interesting. If there isn't a tender document, how will the Town ever know what its getting for the money? If there isn't a tender document, how will the money be accounted for? If there isn't a tender document, how will the Town know what the specification should have been? The answer is that without a tender document the Town will never know what it paid for and there will be precious little accountability.

And this is 'local democracy' Somerton style. I wonder what the Audit Commission would make of it all?

More later.