15 July 2009

Out to lunch.

It's often hard to understand Somerton Town Council's thinking and last evening's meeting (14th July) was yet another curio. A large chunk of time was given over to a discussion about a funding request from Somerton's Youth Club. From the information presented at the meeting it would seem that, as a result of the coincidence of a number of factors, the Youth Club finds itself very short of funds.

Now, there seems no disputing that the Youth Club is already functioning on a very tight budget and no-one at the meeting disputed the general view that the Youth Club is of very real benefit to the Community. The Club isn't profligate with its limited resources and already functions with significant support from volunteers. So, you might have thought that Somerton's Town Council would want to jump straight in and support the Youth Club in order to secure its future, for the next 12 months at least. The cost of such a gesture was suggested to be in the order of £3,000, not very much to ask for compared to the money that has been lavished on the Tin Dunny. So it came as something of a surprise to listen to the discussion and hear councillors debating whether or not to offer the Youth Club £500!

To his credit, CCllr Jimmy Zouche added his voice to the impassioned plea heard from Clive Dyer and, as the discussion progressed, Somerton Town Councillors managed to raise the bar a little and finally approved a grant of £1,500.

Now, given that these are public funds, and subject to scrutiny, its unreasonable for anyone to expect that the Council would throw money about carelessly. But the caution that the council displayed last evening stands in stark contrast to the way that money is spent in other areas. In this I'd remind readers of the invoice which was reproduced in an earlier blog. £2,174 for providing invoices when the Youth Club has to beg for £1,500. Something of an imbalance don't you think?

Till next time.


14 July 2009

Get three quotes ..............

Here are three great quotes from leading lights on Somerton's Town Council during the meeting of 23rd June 2009

Quote 1 from Cllr Paddy Keenan
"...... this summed up what you (Cllr Neale) have been complaining about. You cannot get the quotes. Its been like this for 10 years. We always end up doing it ourselves. Getting people to produce quotes is a waste of time."

Paddy has never been in favour of getting quotes, nor of competitive tendering. Paddy also seems to think that this is an experience peculiar to Somerton. By Paddy's way of it, you can't get trades to quote in Somerton. Maybe that is the experience of Somerton Town Council but it isn't the experience of the rest of the population so its fair to ask why Somerton Town Council has such difficulty in getting quotes. Maybe its because most trades in Somerton have the view that work for the Council is somehow pre-ordained, making it something of a closed shop. Maybe that's why Somerton Town Council experiences such difficulties.

Quote 2 from Cllr Martyn Smith
"We paid about £700,000 for this and its probably cost in round terms about £150,000 to convert it ........... lets say £200,000 so we've made £750,000 profit on the piece of land we've bought a building for £700 and converted it for another £200 so this building has cost us about £250,000 by my calculations and I think that we've got a bloody splendid building for 250 grand it must be worth on the open market at least 4 times that probably 5 so I think we shouldn't be slagged for spending the ratepayers money we should be slagged for getting the community hall at a very low cost because we could not have done this even if we had the land which we didn't."

Imagine you buy a house for £100k and spend £25k on doing it up. You sell it for £250k. How much profit do you make on the deal? Most people would think that you had made £125k but in Cllr Martyn Smith's mathematical model, you actually made £250k profit. That's the sort of accounting that almost destroyed capitalism 18 months ago.

Quote 3 from Cllr Tony Canvin
"The beauty of what we've done here I agree it probably isn't the right place but the beauty is if we'd spent the same amount of money in the middle of that sports field and it didn't work what would you do with the building if it doesn't work here you've got a £1.2M building for sale with that money back in the council's pocket we haven't took one risk with one penny I could have sold it tomorrow morning no problem."

There is a commonly held view that the Etsome Terrace/Tin Dunny asset swap was nothing more than a property deal. It had nothing to do with the community and, in fact, the community was actively excluded from having any say in the matter. So now, our revered leader, Cllr Canvin, lifts the veil just a tad and admits that it probably isn't in the right place. Well, I suspect that the Somerton Community Hall Steering Group could have told him that, had he been interested enough to ask.

The problem with the Tin Dunny is that its only connection with the Community of Somerton is that Somerton's Community is paying for it. So, if it fails it will fail because the Town Council ignored the community and did a deal. Lucky for the Town Council that it wasn't their money. Unlucky for the Community of Somerton that they will have to pay for the mistake.

Till next time, remember Rolf Harris and tie your Kangaroo down, sport.


12 July 2009

In the Court of the Kangaroo King

What: Meeting of Somerton Town Council
When: 23rd June 2009
Where: The Tin Dunny
With: 15 Members of the Public (MoP)

07:30 Apologes from Cllrs Bisgrove, Morgan, Smith (D) and CCllr Zouche
Public Q's for local Police. Sgnt Allan Bell introduced himself and discussed policing in the Somerton area. In summary, Somerton is below the National Average for crime reporting. ASBOs in Somerton are down significantly since last year. Judged by ASB stats, Somerton is a good place. Cllr Neale raised issue of speeding on Langport Rd and Sgnt Bell informed the meeting that a request has been made for increased Road Traffic presence. 07:35 and Cllr Neale raised the issue of alcohol consumption on the playing fields. Cllr Webber reported having been approached by an MoP regarding the sandwich board sign obscuring visibility at the Sutton Rd/Langport Rd junction. Cllr Keenan observed that this was not a Police issue. An MoP observed that Neighbourhood Watch in West End has made an improvement and congratulated local Police. Cllr Keenan echoed those congratulations. 07:39 Cllr Smith (M) referred to perennial problem of parking in West Street. An MoP raised the issue of disabled carriages and enquired about regulations for them. An MoP questioned the use of flashing speed signs and their effectiveness. 07:45 Cllr Neale raised issue of vandalism at Junior School and robbery at Costcutter cash machine. Regarding the latter, Sgnt Bell confirmed that arrests had been made out of town. An MoP stated that 'Lord Jimmy Zouche' doesn't exist. 07:48 Public Q's and comments. An MoP enquired about progress in cleaning up Etsome site (letter has been written). An MoP enquired about progress on Medical Centre (none). Cllr Neale raised issue of loos on sportsfield and enquired about progress. Cllr Keenan reminded Cllr Neale that the Council left it to Cllrs Neale and Rees some 6 weeks previously. Cllr Neale reported that one quote had been received. Cllr Keenan suggested that: "...... this summed up what you (Cllr Neale) have been complaining about. You cannot get the quotes. Its been like this for 10 years. We always end up doing it ourselves. Getting people to produce quotes is a waste of time.". There followed discussions about: quotes; the steps in New St; the paving slabs in the Square and the shrubs on the railway path at Behind Berry. An MoP raised the issue of 'dog mess' in the town and during the discussion Cllr Smith (M) observed that dogs can't read signs.

07:59 Cllr Keenan suspended the meeting and convened the Somerton Kangaroo Court which took up approximately 15 minutes.

08:15 and the meeting reconvened. Declarations of Interest attracted none. The Minutes of the last meeting were approved and Matters Arising covered: the lack of a bus stop on Behind Berry; thanks from Mrs Thomas for the flowers; the survey of the Parish Rooms for a water meter; (08:17) a discussion about the Portaloos for the sportsfield and, finally, the Town Clerk then provided the following, "Just an update on the previous Freedom of Information enquiry from Mr Connolly following the last meeting I sought some legal advice regarding the ability or otherwise to charge .... and the comment I had back was that if the Authority reasonably suspected that information might be tampered with, damaged or destroyed then there was grounds for there to be a member of staff there with the person and a charge could then be levied on the basis of the original charge or what is called a search fee. That information has been passed on to Mr Connolly .........". 08:22 and Finance saw the schedule of payments approved and Cllr Harrison suggested some clarity about the expenses for the hall. 08:25 and Planning Applications saw no applications for discussion. 08:26 and Correspondence dealt with: requests for grant support (£100 approved); invitation to bid for insulation grants for community halls, sustainable electricity generation and electric vehicles; a letter about verge cutting and a letter from the Arts Festival enclosing 4 tickets for a concert. 08:31 Cllr Keenan asked if there was any pressing additional post. 08:31 The Town Clerk advised the meeting, "A further FoI enquiry from Mr Connolly which I am currently checking as to whether any of the information he has asked for is exempt information under the Act. My initial comments back to me the enquiry actually relates to my personal contract of employment but I am waiting for a response in writing before corresponding further with Mr Connolly. Its that aspect which I would when I said earlier that I wanted to raise something within the Council meeting....... One of the recent blogs referred to the Council tax banding ....... in Somerton when he asked if I had information on precept levels over as many years as possible I said well I've been here over 20 years but didn't have the information ready to hand as it wasn't something that was collated in that form. Those of you who have read the blog will now see how it is now on the blog. ......so he went to the District Council and got it there. I in fact at the meeting suggested that the information would be more easily available at the District Council. I was not denying that we had the information. It was not on one single piece of paper. I did in fact get all the information within about 15 minutes but on the basis that the blog as other councillors have said has a certain spin on it I will seek Council's approval that in future I will not to talk to Mr Connolly but I will correspond in writing so that at least if there is any spin the opposite is available for correlation for a conversation taken out of context can never be proved either way. I have done this once in the past with another gentleman where he said I said something over the phone which I know I did not. The Council at that point approved any further contact to be in writing so I am seeking your approval." Cllr Keenan stated, "If I could just I would personally like to say and therefore there will be no insinuations of what was said or not said so if everybody is happy we will ask for all communications with Mr Connolly to be in writing please." Cllr Canvin stated, "That goes for all councillors. I think that goes for everybody sat round this table." An MoP asked if that applied to everybody who wants some information or just Mr Connolly. Cllr Keenan replied, "You can request anything at all, you can have it. Do not expect to walk into the Clerk's office and just say I want to see 20 years of accounts ...... that cannot be done that might happen at County Hall that might happen at District Council where there are swarms of people but up here there's one............We've asked for a vote of support for the Clerk......everybody show of hands." Cllr Neale then introduced the Core Strategy Programme which he described as being part of a "Regional Spatial Strategy" which may now be on hold due to legal challenges in the High Court. The Town Clerk confirmed that workshops relating to it were still on schedule. 08:40 and the Finance Committee made it to the floor. Cllr Neale proposed the setting up of a Finance Committee to oversee and regulate the financial activities of the Council. The Chair asked Cllr Deering to respond which he did, at length. There ensued an exchange of views between Cllrs about what work was being done for the Council, by whom and on what basis. 08:53 Eventually the proposal to set up a Finance Committee was approved and the Meeting moved on to the Approval of Accounts which it was informed have been approved by the Internal Auditors. 09:03 Market Towns Investment Group funding for replacement flags in Market Sq. Cllr Neale fronts this project and the Chair suggested he team up with the Town Clerk to co-ordinate it. 09:08 The Old Town Hall grant funding request. The OTH group made a presentation to the Council seeking £350 grant support which was referred to the Finance Committee. 09:21 Chair's report contained nothing which led to Agenda Items for the next meeting and The End at 09:22

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.