9 October 2009

Who owns our Democracy?

With the imminent election in Somerton, it is useful to consider the relationship between ourselves, the electorate, and our elected representatives. It seems to be a common view in Somerton (and probably across the country) that once a member of the electorate casts their vote, their job is done. They have voted, discharged their responsibilities and now its up to those elected to get on with the job. So how has that model of 'un-engaged democracy' worked here in Somerton? Not very well based upon the performance of this Town Council.

Across the last 10 years, and with only minor interruptions, Somerton Town Council has gone about the job of wasting public money and its about the only job that its done at all well. There has been a complete absence of community engagement and, from my observations, the only members of the community that Somerton Town Council welcomes are those who are willing to indulge in 'brown nosing'.

Somerton Town Council has actively discouraged the community from taking any significant interest in their activities and they have been enabled in this strategy by the acquiescence of the community itself. The community has taken a step back, at the encouragement of the Council and its leadership, and left them to get on with it. And the drifting hulk of the Tin Dunny is the biggest monument to the Council's ineptitude. But Somerton should look beyond the Tin Dunny and consider how much money has slipped through the community's fingers in the last 10 years (setting the Dunny deal to one side).

Based upon figures supplied by South Somerset District Council, Somerton Town Council (aka the community of Somerton) has received (and spent) £1,645,500 in precept and of that figure, £1,047,500 has been received (and spent) in the last 5 years. Now the leadership (if you can call it that) of Somerton Town Council would claim that they have been oh-so-clever in cranking up the Precept. They view it as 'free' money. They ask SSDC for more money each year (look at the graph published here on Friday June 12th, 2009) and they get it because, I assume, SSDC believe that the requests are genuine. But this money isn't free, it comes from you and me, the taxpayer, and the idea of the Precept is that it is a chunk of local taxation (from Community Charge) that can be spent at a local level to achieve local ie community objectives. If the Dunny is anything to go by, Somerton Town Council have failed miserably in that objective.

Now, take a look at this situation from the community's viewpoint. Today, Somerton has arguably the highest level of Precept in the whole of SSDC (when measured per capita and per household). Somerton also has a ridiculously inflated administration overhead with full-time Town Clerk, part time admin assistants and all the panoply of a burgeoning bureaucracy. That alone is soaking up 25% of the Precept. And what is happening to the other 75%? You tell me because Somerton Town Council won't explain where the dosh is going.

There is no public discussion of how budgets are made up and who makes them up. There are no minutes of committee meetings to show if any proposed budgets are questioned by councillors. In fact, there is no evidence whatsoever that any member of Somerton Town Council has done anything significant to question any of the budget decisions that have been taken over the last 10 years. And the reason that this has come about is that the community haven't held the Council and its Councillors to account.

And this brings us back to the original question, 'Who owns our Democracy?'. I would say that our Democracy is owned by 'We, the people' but if we park it in the garage and close the door after the election, don't be surprised if nothing changes.

See you at the ticking box.