1 July 2009

Right to a reply?

At last week's Town Council meeting, Cllr Paddy Keenan seemed very interested in the concept of 'right to reply' and its an interesting subject to discuss.

Take, for example, the right of a ratepayer/voter to be able to write to their Town Council and, not unreasonably, to expect and to receive a coherent reply. Its not a very complicated idea and its all about engagement with the community. Communication. Being accountable.

But that seems to be a bit too advanced for a clown show like Somerton Town Council. Even with a very well paid, full-time Town Clerk, Somerton Town Council can't manage to put toner to paper and reply to reasonable enquiries from rate payers and voters. The last blog carried a reproduction of a letter from August of 2008 which went unanswered and below you can see a letter from September of 2008 which also went unanswered.

But mere voters and rate payers aren't the only people who are ignored by Somerton's Town Council. In February of 2008 the letter below was sent to Mr David Heath, MP and, as a result, Mr Heath wrote to Somerton Town Council. Response? Nothing. The Town Clerk claims that an acknowledgment was sent but that isn't quite the same as a reply, is it?

Somerton Town Council are very well resourced, as the accounts prove. There is a full time Town Clerk, handsomely rewarded for duties which cannot be described as onerous. So why can't the Town Council reply to letters of enquiry. The answer is because the Town Council don't give a damn about the community. Somerton Town Council is only interested in doing property deals and using the community's money to make them happen.

Have a look at the Precept curve from a couple of blogs back and ask yourself what, if anything has Somerton received in return for the massive hike in Precept? At the same time, you might ask who were the councillors who engineered that hike? What was their agenda?

So when the awfully glib Cllr. Keenan rants on about a 'right to reply', once again, he would be well advised to take a long hard look in the mirror. But Muck&brass forgets one thing. Somerton Town Council's motto is 'Do as I say, not as I do.".

Till next time, look out for the pigs in the trough.


26 June 2009

'Conflict of interest'

What is a 'conflict of interest'? Think about it this way - you work for a large company. You are responsible for purchasing goods or services for that company. Your brother-in-law owns or works for a company which supplies goods or services that your company could purchase. You seek tenders for a purchase and you ask your brother-in-law to quote. At that point you occasion a 'conflict of interest' because you have a relationship with a supplier which could influence your decision making process.

(Wikipedia has a very good section about 'conflict of interest' which, whilst not definitive, is extensive and a good guide to the issue.)

How does this relate to Somerton Town Council? It relates to Somerton Town Council, and all other similar organisations, where there can be a 'conflict of interest' between, on the one hand, the activities of a councillor or elected official in their public activities and, on the other, the activities of a councillor or elected official in their private or professional lives.

In Somerton, possible 'conflict of interest', could be represented by Cllr. Tony Canvin's position, privately, as a well established local developer/contractor, and his public position as a local and district councillor. Now, before the lawyers start sharpening their pencils, it must be understood that the fact or possibility of a 'conflict of interest' does not automatically mean or infer wrongdoing. A 'conflict of interest' can exist without wrongdoing. However, public bodies generally seek to avoid 'conflicts of interest' because they call into question the independence of decisions which usually have an impact of public finance.

This blog started as a result of statements made by Cllr. Paddy Keenan at a 'Village Hall' meeting held on 27th November 2006. At that meeting, and in response to questions from the audience, Cllr. Keenan stated that a) the budget for the then proposed 'Village Hall' would be handled by Cllr. Canvin and b) there would be no competitive tendering. These statements were explicit. The position described by Cllr. Keenan would, at the very least, infer possible 'conflicts of interest'.

However, the 'Village Hall' as proposed at that meeting, never came to pass and, in 2008, Somerton Town Council embarked on a course of action where there many instances where possible 'conflicts of interest' exist and should be investigated.

Somerton Town Council decided to sell Etsome Terrace to Edgar Homes in 2008. The Town Council did not seek a mandate from the community for this course of action.

At the same time, Edgar Builders (who share the same directors as Edgar Homes) sold Unit 8, Cary Court to Somerton Town Council. Somerton Town Council did not seek a mandate from the community for this course of action.

The directors of Edgar Builders (and therefore of Edgar Homes) are known to Cllr. Canvin, Cllr. Canvin having sold the site at Unit 8, Cary Court to them in 2004 for £105,000.

Cllr. Canvin was also directly involved with the 'Heads of Terms' negotiations with Edgar Homes which defined the terms of the sale of the Etsome Terrace site to Edgar Homes.

Since the purchase of Unit 8 Cary Court, much, if not all of Somerton Town Council's expenditure on the building has been undertaken by Cllr. Canvin.

Now, the possible 'conflicts of interest' presented by this muddle do not infer or imply any wrongdoing but they do undoubtedly raise concerns. Somerton Town Council could have addressed these issues had it put in place strict controls, checks and balances but it did not do so. As a result of that failure to act, it is fair to propose that Somerton Town Council can be held directly responsible for bringing both itself and Cllr. Canvin into disrepute in these matters.

Seeking clarity in this matter, the following is a letter which was sent to Somerton Town Council on 8th August 2008. Points 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 are specifically relevant.

Somerton Town Council failed to answer any aspect of these enquiries and it is fair to ask why? Had Somerton Town Council provided satisfactory answers to these questions, then the taxpayer might have been able to have confidence in the impartiality of the decisions which surrounded the Etsome Terrace/Tin Dunny transaction. The fact that the Town Council, far from providing satisfactory answers, failed to offer any response whatsoever must raise very real concerns about the integrity of the Town Council's financial activities.

Till next time, may your God go with you.


24 June 2009

After the beasting.........

Meetings of Somerton's Town Council are curious affairs at the best of times but last evening's gathering at the Tin Dunny was, even by Somerton standards, curiouser than most.

The meeting got underway in the usual manner and carried on much as ever until around 8:00pm when the Chair suspended the proceedings in order that they would not be minuted. What then took place was what can only be described as a 'ritual beating'. Paddy Keenan, in his guise as master of ceremonies, invited as many councillors as were so minded, to give full vent to their feelings about Muck&Brass.

It wasn't a terribly edifying sight and the purpose of the action, even in the cold light of dawn, still remains a mystery. Did we learn anything from it? Yes. We learned that at least one of Somerton's councillors understands that Britain is not Iran. Beyond that we learned little, other than the fact that the line separating rational thought from incoherent rant is very thin indeed.

Till next time.


23 June 2009

Uplift clause and effect.......

Regular readers of Muck&Brass have asked for an explanation of an 'uplift clause', mentioned in a previous blog.

Imagine you owned a piece of land and you knew that it had development potential but you didn't want to undertake the development yourself. So you put the land up for sale and receive a variety of offers. Those offers reflect the value of the land 'as it is' and both parties know that there is additional value in the land were it to receive a beneficial planning consent.

To make sure that you, the vendor, can receive a share of that future value, you insert an 'uplift' or a 'claw-back' clause into the sale agreement. This means that if, within a defined period (say 25 years from the point of sale) the purchaser obtains a beneficial planning consent ie gains consent for development or increases the density of an existing consent, then you, the vendor, will share in that 'uplift' in value.

So, take the example of the Etsome Terrace site. When Somerton Town Council sold the land to Edgar Homes the land had planning consent for 13 houses so the value was predicated by that level of density of development. If Edgar Homes decided, at a later date, to increase the density of development through a new planning application, say to 28 houses, that would effectively double the value of the land. Sadly for the community of Somerton, because Somerton Town Council failed to insert an 'uplift' clause into the sale contract, were Edgar Homes to seek increased density on the site, Somerton will not benefit.

It is worth noting that when, in 2001, Somerset County Council undertook a valuation exercise prior to their disposal of the site, SSDC Planning Department indicated that they would like to see 30+ homes on the site. So there is very real reason to propose that Edgar Homes will seek to increase the density on the site.

It is therefore fair to describe the failure to include an 'uplift' clause as a potentially huge and costly blunder on the part of Somerton Town Council and on the part of those individuals who negotiated the sale agreement. (As Muck&Brass understands, it was Cllrs Keenan and Canvin who were involved in the 'Heads of Terms' negotiations.) Viewed from the other side, Muck&Brass is quite certain that Edgar Homes are 'uplifted' by the situation.

Till next time, when Muck&Brass will look at 'conflict of interest', may your God go with you.


Picture this.......

19 June 2009

Every picture tells a story

A couple of months ago, Muck&Brass visited the Tin Dunny and asked the Town Clerk if the Town Council was able to supply some information. Muck&Brass wanted to obtain the figures for Somerton's Precept going back as far as possible. The Town Clerk explained that the information wasn't available (no surprise there) and that he (the Responsible Financial Officer) had never collected that data.

Knowing that all sorts of obstructions would be placed in the way of a formal enquiry, Muck&Brass dropped the matter until the 4th of June when Muck&Brass made a Freedom of Information enquiry requesting the information. But this request wasn't made to Somerton Town Council, it was made to South Somerset District Council. SSDC responded with a courtesy phone call to discuss the details of the enquiry and yesterday, 8 working days after placing the enquiry, the information arrived electronically in spreadsheet form. (It's worth noting that no charges were imposed upon this enquiry and SSDC couldn't have been more helpful.) A picture is worth a thousand words and the information is reproduced below as a graph.

If you click on the graph it will open in a larger version which will make the information clearer but the graph paints a very interesting picture. For clarity, the lower (green) line shows where the Precept would be if the Town Council had increased it by 5% per annum from 1992. In 1992/93, Somerton's Precept was £30,300 which, today, would only just cover the Town Clerk's salary. Had that figure been increased by 5% per annum then, today, the Precept would be £69,448 but that didn't happen. Instead, and starting in 1999/2000, the Precept sets off in a seriously upward curve (the blue line) which only flattens out in 2005/06. The difference between the money that would have been collected had the Precept risen by 5% per annum and the actual figures looks to be just shy of £1,100,000.00.

Looking at this information, the rate-payer would be justified in asking exactly what Somerton has received in return for this huge hike in Precept. Looking at the current accounts of the Town Council, the rate-payer is receiving a huge increase in non-productive bureaucracy with administrative overheads spiraling. At the same time, there seems to have been a great interest in construction work in the last 10 years but there has been no significant expenditure on community driven initiatives. The Town Council has never given more than 3% of Precept to community groups to enable their activities and the figure is usually around 1%.

Muck&Brass now hears suggestions that the Tin Dunny is costing around £1,000 per week, whether it is used on not. So the rate-payers of Somerton can look forward to further hikes in the Precept to cover that overhead.

The next piece of research will be to consider the membership of Somerton Town Council across this same period. That may show which councillors have driven this massive increase in Precept and it may also indicate which councillors, if any, have benefited from it.

Till next time, may your God go with you.


17 June 2009

A protester writes...........

A Muck&Brass fan sent in a cutting from the Western Gazette which is well worth reproducing here. The cutting is a letter published by the Western Gazette, probably sometime in 2006 and was written by a Somertonian, Judith Badman. The text of the letter reads as follows:

Hall decision a bad one
At the public meeting in July, I heard the Chairman of the Community Hall Feasibility Steering Group presenting the figures for halls around Somerton.

Small village populations of two to three hundred had built halls recently of the capacity of their populations or more.

Somerton's population is now around five thousand. Yet our town council has turned down the Steering Groups proposed hall for three hundred seated and a flexible design to accommodate the needs they have uncovered in their diligent researches, for a smaller hall, without separate rooms for smaller groups to meet, and which will hold fewer people for limited events.

Why did the Council set up a steering group? Did it ask the group questions about its research so that council members could be better informed to take a vote? How was the decision made and when?

As a council taxpayer willing to have backed financially the steering group's proposals, I am left feeling, at the least, most disappointed in our elected councillors.

I write in concern for our town.

Judith Badman.

Along with this cutting, Muck&Brass also received a front page article from the Western Gazette, probably from around the same time, which makes very interesting reading. The following is an extract from the article:

Members of the Town Council say it cannot afford to pay for a large hall, and that if it applies for Lottery Funding the building costs could spiral in the three or four years that it would take to receive the money.

Hindsight is a very perfect tool but it is worth considering what was happening in the darkest corner of the Bancombe Trading Estate during and immediately before the period in question. In 2001, AH Canvin bought land from the Chant family to add to the Bancombe Road trading Estate. In April of 2004 AH Canvin sold a parcel from that land to Edgar Builders who started construction of Unit 8 Cary Court. By the time of the meeting referred to in the piece noted above, the Tin Dunny was nearing completion and, were Muck&Brass to be really cynical, maybe discussions were already underway behind the scenes to put the Tin Dunny in pole position as the 'Community Hall'. Now, for that to happen, the Community Hall Steering Group would have to be ignored and, ultimately, disbanded. And isn't that just what happened? Spooky huh?

Till next time, may your cement truck go with you.


15 June 2009

The Stasi Charge

As you may know from previous entries, Muck&Brass is trying to gain access to Public Documents held by Somerton Town Council. Somerton Town Council, for their part, are doing their best to obstruct those enquiries. This obstruction was formalised at last weeks Council Meeting when, under Item 14 (Freedom of Information Act) the Town Clerk read out what seemed to be a badly prepared statement. This waffled on with a rehash of the Town Council's earlier letter to your scribe (see the blog dated 22nd May) and was quite baffling. So much so that Muck&Brass visited the Town Council Offices on Wed 10th June to seek clarification and the following is the situation as explained by the Town Clerk:

1. Having published the Model Publication scheme in January of 2009, Somerton Town Council has introduced a charging process for access to documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

2. A Search Fee of £25 per hour will be charged (if required).

3. Photocopies of documents will be charged at 5p per black&white A4 copy.

However, at last week's meeting, Somerton Town Council introduced an additional charge which is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act and not mentioned in their published 'Model Publication Scheme' dated 16th December 2008. This additional charge is Somerton Town Council's 'Stasi Charge' or 'Guarding Charge'. This will add £25 per hour for each and every hour that a member of the public looks at documents. Muck&Brass pressed the Town Clerk to explain the basis for this 'Stasi Charge' and the Town Clerk was unable to either explain or justify the charge or explain where it was supported by the Freedom of Information Act.

So, whilst Cllr Keenan states, within the Council Meeting, that no-one will be denied access to documents, the fact is that Somerton Town Council are, at the same time, increasing their charging scale and it can only be assumed that the intention is to obstruct or deny enquiries.

There is of course, one other possible explanation. Muck&Brass has already found the records of Somerton Town Council quite impenetrable. Records are not kept in the way that one might expect and it is quite possible that the Town Clerk ( £30k per annum plus pension ) isn't very good at filing. Its quite possible that the records are in such a mess that the Town Council has to spend hours and hours locating documents. That being the case, is it fair to try and charge members of the public for the short-comings of Council staff?

Either way, it would seem that the Town Council is in a bit of a mess. Maybe members of the public could help them out by making more 'Freedom of Information' requests. That might force them to put their house in order.

Till next time.


13 June 2009

Look in the mirror.........

Our revered Chair, Cllr Keenan, seems to be a decent chap and its only within the confines of Somerton Town Council's activities that his flaws become apparent. Take the last meeting of the Town Council on the 9th of June where, in response to comments supportive of Muck&Brass, he observed that Muck&Brass's approach was, "Never mind the truth, make it interesting.".

Muck&Brass would humbly suggest that Cllr Keenan takes a good long look in the mirror before opening his trap with that sort of comment.

In the pages of the Western Gazette dated Thursday 28th May 2009, The Gazette's ace reporter, Dave Nichols, wrote a piece of garbage about the Tin Dunny and the first line of the piece read, "Finishing touches are being made to a new £1M community hall to benefit Somerton residents.". Both Roger Calderwood (Town Clerk, £30k pa plus pension) and Cllr Keenan are featured in this article so one assumes that they approved the figure of £1M for the Tin Dunny which is quoted in the article.

Muck&Brass would ask a simple question - Is that the true cost of the Tin Dunny to the community of Somerton? Muck&Brass believes that the figure is closer to, or in excess of, £1.5M. What is Muck&Brass's basis for that belief? Its really rather simple. Nowhere in any of the published figures has the Responsible Financial Officer (the Town Clerk) noted the cost to the Community of Somerton of the ownership of the land at Etsome Terrace which was swapped for the Tin Dunny.

That land cost Somerton Town Council £220,000 in 2003 and interest repayments till September 2008 probably added another £50k. Then there was the demolition and clearance of the site (cost currently unknown) plus the 'contamination clear-up' which cost Somerton Town Council another £130k. Looking at these figures, you quickly get to £400,000 and there are sure to be other hidden costs. One hidden cost is the failure of Cllrs Canvin and Keenan to negotiate an 'uplift clause' in the sale contract for Etsome Terrace. As a result, Edgar Homes are able to increase the density of development on the site without having to share the increased value with Somerton. (Muck&Brass thinks that this is a pretty odd mistake for someone with Cllr Canvin's experience to have made.)

Muck&Brass is not suggesting any wrongdoing here but Muck&Brass is stating quite clearly that the costs to the community of the Tin Dunny are far higher than are being reported. Either Paddy Keenan and Roger Calderwood don't know how to add up or they can't tell the difference between 'the truth' and a hole in the ground.

So, Paddy, the next time you bandy about the term 'truth', make sure that you know what it means.

12 June 2009

I'm in heaven...........

Today was a great day. Not because my blood pressure was 140/70 but because I was able to spend time at the best cafe hereabouts, ArtTeaZen in Langport.

Its a truly inspirational place which, apart from serving great tea and toasted tea cakes, has a really good feel. The decor is Indian textile funk with a splash of Bash Street Viz about it and the music is consistently excellent, varying everywhere between classic rock and jazz but always interesting. Because of the care and attention that Jack, the owner, has lavished on it, the place attracts an eclectic clientele who add greatly to the experience.

I was lucky enough to take tea there this morning and share the experience with a housewife/superstar, a textile artist and a woman with a smile which lit up the room. How lucky can a boy be? If you were asking my advice, I'd say, "Be there!".

And that set me up for the day so I meandered back to Somerton via Muchelney.......

.....then along the A372 and onto the backroads at Pibsbury.....

....and back onto the A372 then left along Hermitage Road.......

.....and right, onto the B3153 where I ended up in the Skate Park to look at the graffiti that has so exercised some members of the Town Council.

If I was thinking of doing something about the graffiti it would be to send someone to graffiti school so that they could do it better.

Till next time.