17 April 2009

What's in a name?

14th April 2009 - Parish Rooms - Somerton
Somerton Town Council meetings can be hugely boring and, in truth, most are but, just when sleep is about to overwhelm the observer, something happens that shines a very harsh light on the Council, its culture and its members. The meeting of April 14th was one of those and its taken me a few days to digest what happened then form a view of the events and what they say about the participants.

07:35pm and kick-off with Apologies (two) and Public Questions. First came a question about the Council's intention regarding the possibility of land being made available for allotments. Probably because he hadn't instigated this initiative, Paddy K was tetchy and dismissive in his response. Then we had a long and impassioned plea for more dropped kerbs in Somerton to aid the elderly, wheelchair and zimmer frame users. Whilst I appreciate the problem, it seems that Somerton is facing a future where the image of the town will be dominated by signs and symbols associated with the elderly and infirm. Then we had a bit of chat about woodchippings, nut covers and pee-bowl failures in the public loos. Cllr Harrison then raised the issue of the Town Council charging for access to public documents, specifically with regard to my own enquiries. The Town Council was pleased to say that Cllr Harrison would not face such charges (but, by implication, members of the public, like myself, will).

07:45pm and Colin Mattingley raised a general point regarding the Council's position in the light of the vocal oppostion to the changes to the existing planning consent for what is to be known as Wessex Mews, another care-home for Somerton. This enquiry triggered a very interesting exchange where Cllr Harris sought to contradict Mr Mattingley about the nature of the community's response to the new proposal, which all goes to prove that Cllr Harris clearly lives in some sort of jolly parallel universe.

But there is another aspect to this subject. Paddy K was very precise in adopting an entirely neutral position towards the proposed development and he distanced the Council from the public meeting where the new proposal was discussed. Thus, the Town Council seems to have no view on the subject excepting for Cllr Harris's rather distorted view of reality. So, when might we see the Town Council adopt a position? Call me a cynic but I'd suggest that a position will appear when the developer has made clear their strategy with regard to the construction ie who will get the work. Of course, no contracts will be offered prior to the planning application being determined. That will ensure that any views expressed by anyone, Cllrs included, will be entirely independent. (Pass me the Librium, I'm having a seizure.)

We then had a discussion about street sweeping which took us to 07:52 when we had an entertaining exchange about the 'budget' which Somerton Town Council provided to South Somerset District Council in December of 2008. The discussion focussed upon the inclusion in that 'budget' of a figure for building the mini-Dunny for the Sports Club. What seems to be widely misunderstood is that this financial information, supplied to SSDC for publication, is only an indication of intent and not necessarily what the money will be spent on.

However, if you look at the figures that were supplied to SSDC in December of 2007 (describing the 'budget' for 2008/9) you find the clear indication that the Town Council had, by December of 2007, already decided to buy the Tin Dunny. In those figures, and without any public discussion or consultation, Somerton Town Council indicate its willingness to spend £750,000 on a 'community hall'. Not, of course, that they had the money but they had the confidence of the money because, a couple of days before they provided that information to SSDC, they had entered into an agreement with Edgar Homes to sell the land at Etsome Terrace to Edgar Homes. So, whilst the Town Council don't have to follow these budget decisions, they can if they are so minded. All very confusing for the poor taxpayer who might be worried about mismanagement of public funds.

So, once again I ask, "Who makes these decisions about where Public Money is going to be spent?" and, in answer, here's Toya. Budget decisions aren't discussed at Town Council meetings, there is no Finance Committee to discuss them and there are no Minutes to record their consideration. Importantly, Somerton's wider community is entirely excluded from any aspect of this decision making process but they are excluded not by law or legislation. The wider community of Somerton is willfully excluded from these decisions by Somerton's Town Council and its councillors, the very people who are meant to represent and reflect the wishes of that wider community. But there is one community that is, most definitely, included in these considerations and that is Somerton's business community. That's where the big decisions are made and that's the community who benefits. Its all about the money.

As a coda to this discussion, and in response to comments made by Cllr Ian Neale (with whom I found myself, strangely, in complete agreement) Professor Canvin sought to pour scorn on troubled waters by saying, "You can do the figures for next year and maybe we'll get it right." From where I sit Professor, Ian Neale couldn't do any worse.

07:58pm brought 'Declarations of Interest' (silence) followed by Agreement of Minutes (more fantasy) then Matters Arising arose. Here we had a discussion about maintenance contracts for the public loos and Professor Canvin seemed determined to support the maintenance of the current maintenance. Cllr Ian Neale was all for a bit of competitive tendering, something that the Professor didn't seem too keen on. No change there then.

08:09 and Planning Applications came and went, taking with them the Somerton Hotel, soon to appear in Greenslade's window as a bunch of residential units. Cllrs Rees and Bisgrove got out the violins and serenaded the passing of another commercial location but accepted that the current owners had no choice in the matter because of the economy. Everyone in favour? And it went through on the nod. Funny, from my memory the Half Moon faced a whole load more opposition. Maybe its the new reality or maybe its just that the Somerton Hotel was 'friends of ours' (see 'Donny Brasco').

Cllr Beale got in on the act and serenaded Cllr Canvin's stalwart efforts at 'Greystones', "Tony has spent many hours up there.....and he has got it right". It was starting to feel like a Love-In from the 1960s.

08:23 and it was Committees & Representatives reports. 08:37 and the highlight for me was Cllr Dave 'Invisible' Smith's report on trees. "They are still growing." Its nice to see a sense of humour in the gathering darkness.

08:38 and Cllr Gill Beale thundered into action (OK, so I exaggerate) with what seemed like a bitchy comment aimed at Cllr Harrison and regarding a light in Belvedere Grange. Cllr Harrison, in reply, explained that there were 26 different types of light fixture in Somerton which made it hard, at times, for parts to be sourced. Watch out Cllr Harrison, that was useful information and Somerton Town Council doesn't do 'useful'.

08:55 and we arrived at what turned out to be the main event, the Chair's Report where Paddy waffled on about projects around the town including the play area at Etsome Terrace. Then he referred to Cllr Brian's enquiry about the Tin Dunny and its possible 'official' name which was suddenly proposed as 'Edgar Hall'. County Councillor Clark suggested that the name include 'Somerton' to aid geographical recognition and Paddy swept this sensible suggestion aside. Clearly this was yet another decision falling into the category of 'here's one that we prepared earlier'. Ian Neale reminded the meeting that "It's the Public's hall, not ours." whereupon Cllr Webber showed us all where her loyalties lay with her declaration that "We are indebted to the Edgar family. They could have pulled out and we'd have been in the......." Did she mention dog poo?

Ian Neale, much to his credit, stuck to his guns and reminded the meeting that, "Mr Edgar did a business deal." whereupon Tony Canvin came out of his corner looking more and more like a kettle fit to bust. (I think we need a Health & Safety risk assessment to deal with the possibility that Tony explodes whilst ranting at his colleagues. There could be a risk to the public.) Tony was at his bullying, angry, finger pointing best and, focussing on Ian Neale, he started to rave, "Do you know how many thousands of pounds worth of play equipment he (Chris Edgar, I assume) gave? The amount of kit he left here was amazing! He stood by the deal when he could have walked away ........ leaving us paying the interest on public land." Tony rounded off his defence of 'the Deal' by saying, "I'm just telling you what the guy done for Somerton."

At that point, Paddy K, in his role as the Professor's sidekick, moved the matter to a vote. There was some reference to a list of possible names (obviously a secret list) but Paddy didn't bother to discuss alternatives because there clarly were none. The proposal was that the hall be named 'Edgar Hall' and the vote looked to me like 8:4 in favour although I am told it may have been 8:5. Either way, the Tin Dunny is now known (at least officially) as 'Edgar Haul'.

Cllr Holland made a brave effort, in the face of Messers Bully & Sidekick, to discuss the public perception of the Tin Dunny but Sidekick was having none of that. He slapped Cllr Holland down with a dismissive comment about not caring about conversations overheard in Supermarket checkouts.

At 09:05 a member of the public asked if there had been any other bids to purchase the Tin Dunny (besides that made by Somerton Town Council) and they were informed that there were (I'd like to see them). And with that, this shameful chapter in the history of Somerton Town Council was brought to a close. The votes for the Tin Dunny's 'official' name showed the depth of contempt that Somerton's Town Council holds for the wider community of Somerton. And those votes can also be seen as a pointer to the future. How long will it be before Chris Edgar joins the Town Council? How long before Tony Canvin is telling everyone that Chris Edgar gave the Tin Dunny to the town? How long before someone proposes a 'blue plaque' to celebrate Chris Edgar's generosity. None of these would surprise me.

In truth, it is depressing to chronicle these events and, at the same time, to recognise the damage that these events do to the spirit of the town. Whilst a name might massage an ego, it also sends a very clear signal. Paddy K might be well advised to take supermarket conversations more seriously because, as he well knows, they actually reflect how the wider community feels about Somerton's Town Council.

Till next time, may your God go with you.