6 February 2012

Under the influence..........

Bias is a very difficult subject to examine, mainly because everyone has a position and bias can simply be a different position, sometimes in opposition, taken on the same issue by others. But for some time now I have been considering whether or not South Somerset District Council adopts a neutral position on matters relating to Somerton.

In July of last year (2011) I attended the SSDC Area North Planning Committee when the Committee approved the Edgar Builders renewal application for their consent at Etsome Terrace in Somerton. There was scant support for the renewal and the Officer's recommendation was for refusal. Mr Tony Canvin, the 'architect' of the original deal, attended the meeting to speak in support of the Edgar's application. What was noticeable was the first name welcome that Canvin received from the Chair of that Committee, District Councillor Patrick Palmer. The Committee's consideration of the application was, in my own view, rather shallow whilst Cllr Pauline Clarke (a committed Canvin supporter) did little to represent the interests of the wider community and the application was duly rubber stamped.

Later, in October of 2011, Canvin's own application, for a B2 use at Badger's Cross, came before the same Committee and, whilst I did not attend the meeting, the facts are quite striking. From my own understanding of the application, there was: an Officer's recommendation to refuse; a Highways Authority unable to support the application; Somerton Town Council's opposition to the application and 137 letters of objection.

In response, the Area North Committee, some of whom would like to suggest that they support the Localism Bill (giving local communities more say in matters like planning) went ahead and passed the application. Very 'Localist'.

More recently, after the Western Gazette's piece about SSDC's 'investigation' of the current Chair of Somerton Town Council, I decided to make some enquiries of SSDC about the rumour of my being implicated in that 'investigation'. SSDC's response hasn't been quite what I expected. It is worthwhile noting that the Western Gazette was tipped-off about the investigation by an anonymous call, evidently one of many it has received about events in Somerton. My guess is that Somerton's Old Guard or their supporters like to keep stirring the pot and anonymous calls are one of their favourite methods (others being anonymous leaflets distributed by the likes of ex-Cllr Martyn Smith and anonymous websites operated by 'the warden').

Before proceeding I should make a distinction between South Somerset District Council as the administrative authority, made up of paid officers, and the District Council, made up of elected members. The investigation was approved by SSDC's 'Standards Committee', made up of the following elected members: Mermagen, Groskop, Palmer, Borland, Forrester, Lamont, Glaisher, Horsington and Townrow. However, my enquiries have to be made of the Authority and those enquiries are handled by paid officers who, I had hoped would behave in a neutral manner. But it would seem that I am to be disappointed.

My first enquiry was to obtain copies of any information associated with the 'investigation' where I am mentioned or referred to and, possibly reasonably, SSDC (the Authority) doesn't want to release any information that might prejudice the 'investigation'. (Such release might also be an embarrassment were such information to provide evidence that the complaint is a fabrication.) At present I am awaiting SSDC's release of whatever information they deem to be suitable for my eyes.

But, at the same time, I also enquired about FoI enquiries made about myself and it would seem that SSDC have received one such enquiry, dated 4th June 2010, which I believe to originate from one Mr Rodney Briggs, partner of Mrs Sherry Briggs (assistant to Somerton's Town Clerk and most popular candidate for 'mole of the year'). Rodney requests details of all complaints received by SSDC from myself and against members of Somerton Town Council and particularly against the ex Vice Chair, Cllr Canvin. Rodney also wants details of the costs involved in investigating any complaints. 

A precise and factual reply would have been  'None' and 'None' but SSDC's response to Rodney is interesting in that it is remarkably discursive and discloses information completely outside the scope of Rodney's enquiry. Most importantly, SSDC does not place any caveats or limitations on their response, simply making the information available.

Having looked at that enquiry and SSDC's response, I decided to mirror Rodney's enquiry albeit with a rather wider scope. I have enquired of SSDC to establish how many complaints against 5 named STC councillors SSDC have received from any of 22 individuals. My target group are all Somerton Old Guard and their supporters and SSDC's response is startlingly different to that received by Rodney.

In my case, SSDC seem to consider my enquiry as being "disproportionate" and likely to cost far too much money to answer and, if that is the case, then clearly SSDC's record keeping is as bad as that of Somerton Town Council. I'm also aware of the SSDC's concerns about 'ridicule' yet no such concerns were expressed in SSDC's response to Rodney which, in the case of my complaint against then County Cllr Clarke, Rodney proceeded to use in public in an attempt to ridicule me. Clearly at SSDC, sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander.

All I'm looking for here is an even handed approach and I'm not sure that SSDC, either the elected members or the Authority, is capable of delivering such. Area North seems to be rather partial to applications associated with or originating from ex-Councillors and Cllr Palmer has a place on both Area North and on the 'Standards' Committee. It occurs to me that if the Area North Committee might not be impartial then why would the same lack of impartiality not spread to the 'Standards Committee'. I have already suggested that the 'Standards Committee' is allowing itself to be an agent of the vicious campaign run by Somerton's Old Guard against the current Chair of Somerton Town Council. When the current investigation into the Chair of Somerton Town Council is concluded, I think that there should be an investigation into the operation of SSDC's 'Standards Committee'. 

Maybe the sad fact is that the Somerton Saga illustrates just how open to influence is our process of local government. I don't have any faith in the ability of District Councillors, or County Councillors for that matter, to act neutrally and the more I see of our process of local government, the more that I come to believe it is 'not fit for purpose' particularly in matters 'regulatory'. It is also clear that Mr Pickles, the Minister, isn't doing much to help matters by making sure that more decisions and all regulation will be passed back to organisations who will then become responsible for regulating themselves. Fat chance!

Till next time, I'm still Niall Connolly