23 February 2012

The wider issues……

The comments already published from Keenan & Canvin show just how out of touch some of our elected representatives are with the fundamentals of our democracy.

The External Auditor's report is a detailed description of how Somerton Town Council transacted its business within fiscal 2008/9 and it is clear that they, as a body, threw away their own rule-book. The Vice-Chair of the Council, A H (Tony) Canvin acted without the authority of the Council, the Town Clerk was fully aware of his activities and did nothing, and the Town Council colluded with the actions of the Vice-Chair and, ultimately, rubber-stamped the consequences of his actions.

Now, I am sure that there are a handful of people in Somerton who think that Tony Canvin is a force for good because 'he gets things done'. I am also sure that those same people believe, as does Tony Canvin himself, that everything that Tony Canvin did was for the good of the town. However, the singular characteristic of the manner in which Tony Canvin and the Town Council operated was to do so in secret, out of the public eye and well away from the scrutiny of the electorate.

H E (Paddy) Keenan, the ex-Chair, and Tony Canvin are very busy telling everyone they know (see 'Press Coverage' page, Western Gazette, 23rd February 2012) that the External Auditor either didn't listen to them or didn't talk to the other Councillors or didn't really understand what they were doing in Somerton. What Keenan & Canvin miss is that the External Auditor based their report on documentary evidence as reflected by the records of the Town Council (as has M&B where allowed!). Those records show quite clearly that Tony Canvin acted without the authority of the Council in, for example, organising the sale of the Etsome land. But it goes far deeper that 'acting without authority'. The culture of Somerton Town Council was that this sort of behaviour was acceptable and that led, directly, to the exclusion of the electorate, and the Town Council as a body, from the fullest consideration of decisions.

The myth of the 'Localism Bill' is that it will pass decision making down to community level and, in an ideal world, I'm sure that it might. But if a Town Council operates as Somerton Town Council did under the Keenan/Canvin administration, the 'Localism Bill' will make Town Councils less subject to scrutiny and will make the exclusion of the community more likely. And this doesn't just happen at Parish and Town Council level. You only have to look at South Somerset District Council's Area North Committee's decisions regarding Etsome Terrace (July 2011) and Badgers Cross (October 2011) to see that District Councillors are quite happy to ignore the views of the community, especially when the interests of an ex-District Councillor are under discussion.

Seemingly, the only way that Keenan & Canvin can rationalise what has happened in Somerton is to suggest that the Police investigation and the Auditor's investigation represent some sort of conspiracy directed at them personally. To the extent that they guided the Town Council into the wilderness and self-imolation, that is true, but they miss the real point. Neither the Police not the External Auditor would have become involved had Somerton Town Council followed the rules. Had there been transparency in the activities of Somerton Town Council, and had the wider community of Somerton been involved in the significant decisions then I doubt that there would ever have been any investigations.

In an ideal situation, the community will be included in decisions that effect them, certainly in decisions of the scale of Etsome Terrace and the Community Hall. This clearly doesn't happen at national level (although our MPs would disagree) but there is a chance that it could happen at Parish and Town Council level - the electorate are close enough to their representatives to have a voice, if they are allowed to use it. The culture of Somerton Town Council ensured that the community did not have a voice and when they did find one, the Town Council did everything in its power to muzzle it.

The problems in Somerton are endemic across our Town and Parish Councils and this reflects a culture of exclusion that starts at this lowest level of our democracy and infects the whole of the democratic process. Bringing accountability and transparency to our Town and Parish Councils is the only way to combat this culture and it is transparency and accountability that our elected representatives fear. In their fear they have a stalwart ally in Minister Pickles, who is doing everything he can to protect them.

Till next time, I'm Niall Connolly