31 July 2010
The recent brouhaha over District Councillor Tony Canvin's crass attempt to influence the consideration of his latest proposal to industrialise Badger's Cross derailed what was going to be the next entry in Muck&Brass. Having reread the draft I felt it well worth publication and here it is:
29th July 2010.
My brother is a pretty smart guy. He's always been smart, and capable, and bloody argumentative but underneath it all he's a smart guy. And we have argued over the years about 'democracy' and his view has always been along the lines of, 'if you don't like it, come up with something better', and I've never managed to come up with anything better because, at root, 'democracy' is a pretty good idea. My reading of 'democracy' is that 'we, the people' elect a smaller group of people to govern or regulate us and that government should be 'of the people, by the people and for the people'. The gist of it is that our elected representatives operate the mechanisms of government 'as if they were us' and with our interests and benefit in mind and foremost.
Stated like that, the 'democratic ideal' is a hard to beat proposition. So why have I been uncomfortable with it all of these years? Well, its only become apparent to me recently that its not the democratic ideal that is faulty but its the people who get elected who are the problem. Democracy would be great it it wasn't for our elected representatives and Somerton, over the last year or so, has been a perfect example of the failings of our democratic process.
The old Somerton Town Council wasn't a democratic forum, it was a mechanism through which specific aspects of local life could be influenced. The dominant voices on the Council were ex-Chair, Mr H E Keenan, and ex-Vice Chair, Mr A H Canvin. Of the two, Mr Canvin was the more significant and Mr Keenan was, for the most part, his gopher but, between the two of them, they managed to run local affairs in a manner which arguably excluded the wider local community.
Now, Mr Canvin is a very successful contractor and I celebrate his success but only if I can be sure that his success is entirely the result of his skill in business, carried out on a level playing field. And there is the problem. I didn't attend every Somerton Town Council meeting over the last two or three years but I attended enough meetings to see the manner in which Mr Canvin, at times through his gopher and at times on his own, managed the Town Council. For Mr Canvin there was no viewpoint more worthy than his own, no viewpoint more likely to be ignored than that of others.
So I suspect that Mr Canvin's resignation from Somerton Town Council wasn't greeted with universal joy, especially not by his colleagues at District and at County. When they had time to think about it they probably saw his resignation as a real challenge to the established order. And that 'established order' is one where the views of the electorate are rarely canvassed and consistently ignored. Because, from the viewpoint of 'vested interest', as represented by the majority of our elected representatives, positions and mechanisms of government are far too valuable to allow them to fall into the hands of the electorate.
So it will be interesting to see how the Area North Planning Committee deals with the latest planning application for Badger's Cross. This application will come to them with a recommendation from Somerton Town Council that it be refused. But the applicant will be their colleague, District Councillor Canvin so it will be very interesting to see which way they jump.
And be assured that I will be there and I will report their decision.
Till next time, I'm still Niall Connolly
Posted by niall connolly at 09:33
29 July 2010
I was going to write something about the state of our democracy and the part that scheming politicians play in that democracy but events rather overtook me. In the aftermath of last Tuesday's Somerton Town Council (Land & Property Committee) meeting, the Western Gazette carried an interesting piece which is worthy of comment (as usual, click on the image and it will open in a larger version):
This piece makes interesting reading because, as usual, Canvin would like us to believe that everyone else has got it wrong, "It was not said in that way." Oh no? How was it said, considering that Canvin wasn't there and we do (for a change) have some contemporaneous record of what was said. Or did Canvin write out a script for his gopher and maybe, for clarity, he'd like to publish his instructions to his boy.
Then there is that little comment, "If I was going to fiddle the Council how come I have never claimed a penny on expenses whilst I have been on the District Council?" Lets deconstruct this statement. Is Canvin saying that the way to "fiddle the Council" is to do it on expenses (it says so in The Sun) and as he claims not to take expenses then he can't be fiddling. Then we discover here that he is receiving his allowance of over 5 grand. Does this qualify as expenses? Probably not but it does cause you to wonder quite what he meant. Canvin would also like us to believe that he wanted to provide allotment land for the community yet he didn't make that offer a formal part of his planning application. Did he (or his agent) discuss the provision of allotment land with the planning department? That would have been a rather better approach and the legally binding nature of such an offer would have avoided what Canvin now characterises as a simple misunderstanding. Fortunately, Somerton's allotmenteers have been quietly getting on with the job and would seem to be approaching an agreement with a local landowner who, it would seem, doesn't want anything 'favourable' in return. Maybe Canvin should take note.
But, in the final analysis, this sort of shabby behaviour characterised the Keenan/Canvin administration. Secret meetings, in-camera meetings, confidential meetings, they were all part of the way that Keenan & Canvin ran the old Somerton Town Council and its clear that you can't teach a pair of old dogs any new tricks.Till next time, I'm still Niall Connolly
Posted by niall connolly at 17:43
27 July 2010
Some dates from the diary (not the Town Clerk's because he didn't keep one):
2003 - Somerton Town Council buys land at Etsome Terrace for "community use"
2004 - Canvin sells plot at 8 Cary Court to Edgar Builders
2004 - (September) discussions start about a Health Centre on Etsome Land
2005 - (November) Somerton Town Council unanimously in favour of community hall located at Etsome Terrace
2007 - (3rd August) Canvin terminates discussions with GPI for health centre at Etsome Terrace
2007 - (before 14th August) Without advertising the sale, Canvin solicits offers from his cronies for land at Etsome Terrace and also gets tenders (never published) for building a community hall. Edgar Homes get the gig on the basis of their bid for the land alone.
2008 - (June) Canvin brings 'opportunity' of Unit 8 Cary Court (owned by Edgar Builders) to Somerton Town Council
2008 - (August) Somerton Town Council bullied by Canvin & Keenan into selling land at Etsome and buying Unit 8 Cary Court
2009 - Canvin wants Unit 8 named 'Edgar Hall' because of "wot he's (Christopher Edgar) done for this town"
2009 - (October) Canvin resigns from Somerton Town Council stating, "I've been on the Council ............. and I think now that there are members of the public that don't like the way (I'm) running it as far as I'm concerned now I will let them have a go and I'll resign, as from now."
So, what can we make of this cronyology?
In 2001/02, Somerton was, quite legitimately, in pole position to buy Etsome from County when the old WS Atkins Depot was declared 'surplus'. Somerton Town Council bought the land specifically for 'community use'. Canvin, as a representative of the development community, saw the potential of the site were it in private hands. The future use of the land ceased to be for a 'community hall' and Somerton Town Council entered into pointless discussions (led by Canvin) with GPI over a health centre project only to pull the plug when it suited Canvin. He then, and without any formal authority from the Town Council, obtained bids for the land from his own private business network and accepted the Edgar bid. We don't know if the 'bids' themselves were engineered to put the Edgar bid on top but given Canvin's unregulated part in the process, that is clearly a possibility.
The bids for the land were accompanied by parallel 'tenders' to build a community hall based upon drawings previously prepared by Canvin's pals at Boon Brown. These parallel tenders were never publicly acknowledged. When the three bid/tender offers are compared, the Edgar bid/tender is the 'worst value' representing a net gain to the Council of £244,400 compared to £319,000 from the Brookvale bid and £426,000 from the West of England bid. (Obviously these 'gains' do not reflect the disasterous and unregulated 'refurbishment' of the Tin Dunny which might have been avoided had the 'community hall' been a tailored project rather than the botch-up that has been the Tin Dunny.)
Looking at the way the situation developed, its my guess that Edgars never had the cash to buy Etsome Terrace outright but, conveniently, they had the Tin Dunny and, again conveniently, they suddenly didn't need it. Canvin brought the 'opportunity' of the Tin Dunny to the Town Council (it was not offered 'for sale' on the open market) but didn't alert the Town Council to the 'restrictive covenants' or the lack of access (both of which he has influence over). Immediately prior to making the 'final decision', 8 councillors asked for a public meeting and Canvin (and Keenan) instructed the useless Town Clerk to circulate an entirely prejudicial document intended to put the fear of God into the switherers (and the useless Town Clerk did what he was told, without demure). The Town Council consequently and subsequently voted unanimously to sell the Etsome Terrace land to 'Edgar Homes' and buy the Tin Dunny from 'Edgar Builders'. Job done.
What was the net result of this manipulation - Somerton lost the best opportunity that it has ever had to have a community hall and a health centre on the same site near the town centre. What has it ended up with? Damn all.
Well done Tony Canvin, the developer's friend, and screw the community.
Till next time, I'm Niall Connolly
Posted by niall connolly at 01:00
19 July 2010
Did you see the Zac Goldsmith being interviewed on Channel 4 by Jon Snow? It seems that Zac may have a problem with his election expenses (what a surprise) and he came on Channel 4 to be interviewed by Jon Snow, Channel 4 having been a critic of Zac's finances.
From the start Zac went on the offensive but he wasn't attacking Channel 4 with facts supporting his election expenses. No, Zac was attacking Channel 4 and Jon Snow over whether or not he (Zac) had been invited to come on to the programme some days before. It was quite clear that Zac didn't want to go near the expenses issue and his petulant and tantrum-like ranting only drew more attention to his desire not to answer the questions. And I thought about the Rod&Sherry show from last week and the similarities were striking.
Rod Briggs is clearly a thoughtful and intelligent guy and he is faced with the problem of supporting the Keenan/Canvin administration and, to do so, his chosen strategy is to try to discredit the enquiry into the finances of Somerton Town Council under their leadership. His approach is to question the cost of the enquiry and to blame the person raising the objection ie myself. The strategy is a good one but Rod has a very real problem in that, if there was nothing to enquire into, then the External Auditor would have kicked the original objection into touch. The External Auditor isn't in the business of wasting taxpayer's money (unlike Rod's friends Keenan/Canvin et al) so maybe, just maybe, the scale of the enquiry indicates the depth of the problems.
Then there is the cost of Freedom of Information enquiries, something else that Rod complained about and here, again, Rod sought to blame the messenger and ignore the message. Rod's friends, Keenan&Canvin, ramped up the cost of Freedom of Information enquiries by trying to obstruct them. Rod's friends weren't interested in answering the questions because the answers were embarrassing. So Rod is trying, on their behalf, to deflect attention from the cost of their stupidity.
And then there is the chairperson of the Secretive Community Association, Mrs Sherry Briggs, who also happens to be the '(unnecessary) assistant to the (useless) Town Clerk'. This conflicted situation probably explains Rod Briggs' appointment as standard bearer for Messers Bully & Sidekick. The assistant to the Clerk, being a 'Public Servant' and paid from the public purse, probably appreciates that it would be difficult to fly the flag for the Suiciders without looking just a tad .......... prejudiced.
Sherry Briggs has made it quite clear that the Secretive Community Association has an awful lot to hide. Has the Secretive Community association published any formal accounts (not the list of 'grants' made by the Secretive Community Association) but yearly balance sheets? No. Has the secretive Community Association published any information about its membership numbers? No. Has the Secretive Community Association consulted with Somerton's community over how public funds and donations should be spent? No. Has the Secretive Community Association registered with the Charities Commission? No. Is the Secretive Community Association anything more than the 'Sherry Briggs Fund to prop up the old Somerton Town Council'? Probably.
And that brings me to an interesting possibility. When the old Somerton Town Council came up with the idea to appoint an unnecessary assistant to the useless Town Clerk, was it a bung?
Was the idea that the old Town Council would give Sherry the job in return for access to or influence over a chunk of the Secretive Community Association's dosh? Now that is an interesting idea. It would certainly explain why La Briggs pitched £50,000 of Secretive Community Association funds into the Tin Dunny without seeking the opinion of the community beforehand. Maybe Sherry was also led to believe that the useless Town Clerk's job would be hers when the Clerk finally tired of doing nothing. Afterall, who would turn down £40k+ pa for that kind of employment? But I guess that we'll never know because no-one took any notes at the many confidential/in-camera/secret meetings that used to be such a feature of the old Somerton Town Council.
Till next time, I'm still Niall Connolly
PS Out of respect for Rod Briggs, who seems to be a pretty smart guy, I'd like to make an open invitation to Rod to come to my home and he can explain to me where I'm getting it wrong. Maybe he can explain the documents that have turned up and he can also explain why there is so little documentation of the business activities of the old Somerton Town Council.
Posted by niall connolly at 09:59
13 July 2010
This evening's meeting of Somerton Town Council did bring Somerton a small step nearer to understanding what was going on within the Keenan/Canvin administration in fiscal 2008/09. The External Auditor has now provided to Somerton Town Council a 'statement of fact' with regard to my objection to Somerton Town Council's audited accounts for 2008/09. As I understand it, this offers the Town Council the opportunity to check the facts and make sure that the Council agrees with the facts as they have been collated.
We will have to wait a little longer for the Auditor's judgement on those facts and I for one, can't wait. Its been a very long haul from July last year and I hope that the wait will have been worth it.
One interesting aspect of the Public Questions and Comments part of the meeting was the contribution of Rod Briggs and Sherry Briggs who, I understand, are related.
Rod led off with a very eloquent plea for less democracy. He wanted an end to people being able to ask questions but, rather hypocritically, he's been using exactly the same tools as I have been using to ask his own questions. I'm only sad that he wasn't around to help me last year when the old Somerton Town Council were wasting so much taxpayer's money on pointless legal opinions. (I was reminded of that earlier today when I was collating information for the Standards Board.) Rod clearly isn't a great supporter of transparency, accountability, community involvement or, rather surprisingly, elections. So Rod is probably a fan of co-option, rather like his chums on the old Somerton Town Council. Go Rod!
Rod was followed at the lectern by Sherry Briggs who took off her 'assistant to the clerk' hat and donned her 'Chair of the Secretive Community Association' hat. Her three minutes (more like 6) were focussed on a large dollop of self-congratulation mixed in with an impassioned plea for less democracy (I see a theme developing here). Evidently Sherry and her buddies at the SCA don't like people asking questions, especially..........wait for it........... people who ask leading questions. They are just going to stamp their feet and keep their secrets. How very reminiscent of the old Somerton Town Council.
So Sherry shares Rod's view of the Freedom of Information Act and it makes me think that they'd make a good double-act - Morecambe & Wise, Flanagan & Allen, Rod & Sherry. Maybe they should start a politcal movement and I'd like to suggest a name for their party - Stamp Out Democracy.
Till next time, I'm still Niall Connolly
Posted by niall connolly at 21:48
11 July 2010
A few weeks back, 2nd June to be precise, I had another reminder that Somerton isn't the quiet, well behaved place that we read about in magazines. Around 11:00pm some of my fans arrived outside and indulged in what they do best - a little intimidation. This time it was air-pistols or sling-shots and they managed to smash one of the upstairs windows before driving off into the night, no doubt pleased with a job well done.
So what did this achieve? Precious little. It certainly isn't likely to discourage me from carrying on with my legitimate enquiries into the affairs of the old Somerton Town Council. And it won't stop me from commenting on the affairs of the old Somerton Town Council here, on Muck&Brass.
What it did achieve was to offer me further proof that the questions that I've asked make some people very uncomfortable. But what continues to confuse me is that I have only asked questions in public which many Somertonians have been asking privately for years. So what's the problem?
Till next time, I'm still Niall Connolly
Posted by niall connolly at 02:13
8 July 2010
There have long been reports of discontent within the membership of the old Somerton Town Council in the run-up to the decision to buy the Tin Dunny, even going as far as to suggest some outright opposition to the idea. Whilst I have never found any documentary evidence to support this proposal, I did find an interesting letter, dated 15th August 2008, addressed to the Chairman of Somerton Town Council and signed by eight of the councillors (Although I'm not familiar with their signatures, the signatories to this request seem to have been Cllrs Deering, Medley,Smith (M), Bisgrove, Rees, Holland, Neale and Raybould):
Of itself, this is a pretty innocuous missive from a group of councillors requesting a public meeting to consult the community before a final decision is made to buy the Tin Dunny. In the circumstances, and given the complete lack of consultation with the community on the subject, these councillors seem to have been making an attempt to involve the wider community and make sure that the decision would not be Somerton Town Council's alone. (Whilst I wasn't present to witness the immediate response, it is reported that Tony Canvin went into mega-rant mode when news of the letter was communicated to him.)
The 'executive' response to this request for democracy is reflected in a three page document, produced by the Town Clerk at the instruction of Keenan & Canvin, and dated 19th August 2008, 4 days later. The first two pages are the usual self-justifying garbage that Keenan/Canvin had long been notorious for, but it is the third page of this 'document' that is the most interesting:
It is difficult to fully explain the pernicious and deceitful nature of this response to the request from a majority (no matter how small) of the Council .
Was this an effort to apply undue pressure to other members of the Town Council? Yes!
Was this an effort to ensure measured and balanced consideration of the Town Council's options? No! (There was not one single positive outcome proposed should the Town Council not agree to buy the Tin Dunny.)
Was this effort to influence the other Council members successful? Yes. When faced with the proposals a) to sell the Etsome Terrace land to Edgar Homes and, b) to buy the Tin Dunny from Edgar Builders, the Council voted unanimously in favour.
Questions have been asked about the EtsomeTerrace/Tin Dunny swap and these documents simply re-inforce the perception that all was not quite right. Its quite laughable that Canvin supported naming the Tin Dunny after Chris Edgar "because of wot he's done for this town." From my reading of the situation, Somerton was doing the Edgars a favour, not the other way around.
And remember, those 8 councillors were only asking for the community to have a chance to express a view. Would that have been so bad? Well, yes, it might have been, had the community opposed the purchase. So was that the reason that the community were excluded from having a say? Maybe the fact was that the deal was stitched-up and the community needed to be excluded because they might have said NO!
Till next time, I'm Niall Connolly
Posted by niall connolly at 15:43