11 June 2010

Who are they?

Its always been something of a mystery to me as to the identity, membership and purpose of the 'Somerton Community Association'. In order to inform myself I have written (twice) to the Chairperson of the Association, Mrs Sherry Briggs, but, in the tradition of the old Somerton Town Council, thus far there has been no reply. So I have to go with the information that I have to hand.

As I understand it, this organisation was established in the late 1990s and as a response to the loss of the function rooms to the rear of the old Red Lion Hotel. Around that time, the 'Community Association' registered with ENTRUST in order that it could receive Land-Fill Tax Receipts. In 2002, the SCA was recognised by Somerton Town Council as the body which would focus on generating funds to enable the building of the new Community Hall. More recently, the 'Community Association' published figures in the Viaduct showing that it has handled and distributed something over £185,000 of which around a third has been Land-Fill Tax receipts.

Beyond this, I know very little about the self-styled 'Somerton Community Association' and the question occurs to me as to what sanction this organisation enjoys from the actual community.

As a result of a Freedom of Information enquiry made of Somerton Town Council, I stumbled upon documentation supplied to Somerton Town Council, I assume, by the 'SCA' in or around 2005. This documentation states that, at the time, the 'SCA' enjoyed a membership of 37, including the 'executive' which is about 0.7% of Somerton's community. (Did Cllr Ian Neale suggest that, for credibility, the Somerton Historic Building Preservation Trust needed the support of 66% of the community to have any legitimacy?)

What makes more interesting reading is the Membership restrictions applied by the 'SCA'. Membership is not automatically open to residents of Somerton but is by invitation only and any applicant must be proposed by two existing members of the 'SCA'. So why does this organisation propose that it is the 'Somerton Community Association' when membership is exclusive and self-selecting - not what I would describe as a 'community association'.

Then there is the matter of the 'SCA's' registration with ENTRUST. ENTRUST is the body which regulates organisations seeking to receive Land-Fill Tax receipts for use on community projects. The 'SCA' registered in the late 1990s and, I understand from ENTRUST, has not updated its details since that time. So whilst the 'SCA' may have enjoyed widespread support at its inception, its current status is unknown.

But the basis of the registration with ENTRUST imposes certain restrictions, one of which is that no executive member of a registering body will occupy a paid position with a Local Authority. Since a 'confidential meeting' of Somerton Town Council in 2005, Mrs Sherry Briggs, Chairperson of the 'SCA', has been a paid employee of Somerton Town Council (in breach of ENTRUST regulations), raising the spectre, once again, of 'conflicts of interest'.

As an example of this possible 'conflict of interest' I am reminded of the hilarious events at the Somerton Town Council meeting on 13th January 2009 (in the time of darkness). High on the agenda was the great 'crockery saga' and Chair Keenan announced that the problem had been resolved by a secret benefactor who had donated £1,000 to the 'crockery fund'. The records of Somerton Town Council provide a letter, dated 25th January 2009, from Mrs Briggs to Rodger Calderwood and containing a cheque for the sum of £1,000 towards crockery. (Oddly, this letter seems to have been received on 27th of March but that must have been a filing error.) So, was the 'SCA' the secret benefactor referred to by Chair Keenan?

So why should any of this bother anyone? Well, the self-styled 'Somerton Community Association' trades on the being Somerton's Community Association but exactly how representative is it? To whom does it answer? Who decides where the money goes and on what basis? Is there any public consultation? Using the 'Cllr Neale test', did the 'SCA' seek that authority of 66% of the community before it handed £40,000 to Somerton Town Council to be spent on the Tin Dunny? The 'Somerton Community Association' has traded on Somerton's identity in order to obtain funds, both public funds and public donations, but has it disposed of those funds with the sanction of the community whose identity it uses?

£185,000 would have been a good leg-up to building a community hall at Etsome and this was, after-all, one of the core objectives of the 'SCA'. But, since 2002, none of the funds handled by the 'SCA' were focussed on that objective. Would the community on whose identity the 'SCA' trades, would that community have approved of the manner in which the 'SCA' distributes Public Donations and Public Funds? Does the 'SCA' reflect the ambitions and views of the wider community or the views and ambitions of the the Chairperson of the 'SCA', who just happens to be the 'assistant to the Town Clerk'?

Oh, and one final question. Who, exactly, is the 'SCA' answerable to? Although its literature suggests that it is some form of Trust and that it has 'trustees', it is not fomally recognised as such. Neither is it a registered charity so what exactly is the 'SCA' and who regulates its activities?

Till next time, I'm Niall Connolly