10 February 2009

Secrets and Lies

Amongst many questions that plague me about the behaviour of Somerton's Town Council, the curious opacity of the Minutes has always bothered me. They rarely reflect the significance of any of the Council's decisions but they do reflect the complete absence of robust debate. In its turn, that absence depends on two factors, firstly, the absence of any significant community presence at any Council meeting and, secondly, the sheep-like behaviour of the majority of the Council who follow instructions and vote with the leadership. Nothing has quite illustrated this process like the manner in which the Tin Dunny (aka Unit 8 Cary Court) was purchased.

Back in 2006, the Somerton Community Hall Support Group, possibly the only body in living memory to be even vaguely representative of Somerton's wider community, presented its research and consultation which sought to establish what sort of community hall would suit Somerton's needs. I was present at a Public Meeting on 27th November 2006 and the absurd events of that meeting (see the archive) caused me to start writing this blog.

In preceding months, the SCHSG had done excellent work in drawing together all of the various local interested groups and had formulated a vision for a community hall. At the meeting on the 27th, the then 'leadership' of the Council (Cllrs Canvin, Keenan and Gardiner ably assisted by Cllr Langmaid) derailed the concensus that the SCHSG had gathered. Those Cllrs made it quite clear that a) the SCHSG's 'vision' was beyond Somerton's funding ability, b) that irrespective of the SCHSG's report, nothing was going to happen without the approval of Somerton's Town Council and, c) in the final analysis, Somerton Town Council, not the community, would decide what, if anything, was going to happen.

Much of this was reported in the Western Gazette at the time and specific mention was made of the Town Council's refusal to consider making a Lottery application for additional funds. Yet the meeting warranted not a mention during the Council Meeting of the following evening, 28th November. The Minutes of the next meeting, 19th December, suggest that, rather than the SCHSG doing all the work, it is now Cllr Langmaid who is co-ordinating interest in the project - a very good example of Stalinist Revisionism.

And there the matter rested until, in September 2008, Somerton Town Council announced, with all the usual self-congratulatory fanfare, that they had managed to swap the Etsome Terrace site for the Tin Dunny. But it was the price that was placed on the transaction that got my attention.

Back in 2006, Tony Canvin, the undisputed Leader of the Council, was raving about Somerton only being able to afford £400,000 and that wouldn't build a hall of the desired size. Yet two years later, with property and land values in freefall, Somerton Town Council 'pay' £700,000 for the Tin Dunny with (at the time of writing) some £130,000 spent in alterations and the hall unfinished. When the cost of purchase of Etsome Terrace is factored into the equation, along with interest charges, the Tin Dunny will have cost Somerton's ratepayers well over £1million.

Now, you would have thought that this would warrant some discussion by the Town Council but no, there is absolutely no mention of it in the Minutes. The decision to spend £750,000 on a Community Hall is not recorded anywhere in the Minutes. The decision to spend £750,000 on the provision of a Community Hall is only recorded in an outline budget presented to South Somerset District Council in December of 2007. That budget was never publicised by Somerton Town Council and Somerton's wider community were never given a chance to consider it.

So, when you read the Minutes you would think that the Town Council's time is taken up with worrying about litter bins and street lighting and crockery and allotments. Reading the Minutes, you wouldn't think that the Town Council is busy spending a cool £1,000,000 of ratepayers money on an industrial shed in the back of beyond. And this contradition between what the Minutes record and what the Council is actually doing is just one of the reasons that so many members of Somerton's Community mistrust Somerton's Town Council.

Till next time.