29 February 2012
23 February 2012
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
Posted by niall connolly at 10:20
16 February 2012
The Western Gazette carries a decent piece on the Audit Commission Report in the Public Interest and some cracking quotes from Keenan and Canvin themselves. Keenan is quoted as saying that the Report is, “full of mistakes and serious inaccuracies.” but fails to provide any evidence of those "mistakes and serious inaccuracies". The only evidence that the Report details are the documents kept by the Town Council. Maybe Keenan and Canvin keep their own secret notes about what went on and, if that is the case, maybe they should produce them.
Canvin is reported as saying that, "all members of the then town council were aware of what was going on in regards to the sale, purchase and conversion of the hall." Canvin's only problem in this regard would seem to be that he can't prove that claim because it isn't substantiated by the Town Council's records. There is also the little problem of the request (documented), from 8 Councillors, for a public meeting to discuss the deal that Canvin organised. Cllr Jerry Rees informed me that Canvin went ballistic when he heard about the petition and made his views clear in no uncertain terms. Maybe other Councillors did know what was going on and didn't quite approve.
In the last week, one version of events was described to me where the Etsome Terrace/Tin Dunny deal was rigged-up because Edgar Homes didn't have the funds to buy the Etsome Terrace land. Instead, the idea was to unload the Tin Dunny onto the community in exchange for the Etsome land. If that is true then Somerton Town Council were, in effect, baling out Edgar Homes with public funds. Ex-Cllr David Harrison referred to this view in a letter to Keenan, dated 30th September 2008, when the deal first became public and his words are informative. In his letter Harrison suggests that local people have already commented to him that the purchase of the Tin Dunny is, "a stitch up deal between pals, all about helping mates of certain councillors, with the top priority of helping out a local builder rather than meeting the needs of the local community. In rough terms, a parochial Somerton version of the ongoing international bailout of overstretched bankers, using public funds." From where I sit, ex-Cllr David Harrison was talking to people who were a lot smarter and more perceptive than most of Somerton Town Council.
But, as with the bankers, the money is gone, the architects of the scheme have run away and the taxpayer is left holding the baby. From the limited information that I have received from the Audit Commission, the Report is the most expensive investigation of a Town or Parish Council. The funds that may have been spent 'unlawfully' could encompass the entire Etsome/Tin Dunny deal including the refurbishment which totals up to just less than £1,100,000 which is a pretty big baby.
Till next stitch-up deal, I'm Niall Connolly
Posted by niall connolly at 11:55
15 February 2012
As part of the Audit process, the Report in the Public Interest will be discussed at a Public Meeting and Somerton Town Council has arranged this for Wednesday 29th February at 07:30pm.
I hope that, by that time, the wider community will have become aware of the Auditor's Report and will have had the opportunity to consider its contents and findings.
Till next time, I'm Niall Connolly
Posted by niall connolly at 07:26
11 February 2012
With the publication of the 'Report in the Public Interest' detailing the failings of Somerton Town Council's Keenan/Canvin administration within fiscal 2008/9, I now wonder if there is a next step and what it might be.
What are the consequences of this Report? Well, with regard to those Town and ex-Town Councillors responsible for the events described (Gill Beale, Nigel Bisgrove, Tony Canvin, John Deering, David Harrison, Edna Holland, Paddy Keenan, Jackie Medley, Kevin Morgan, Cllr Ian Neale, Cllr Brian Raybould, Jerry Rees, David Smith, Martyn Smith, and Joy Webber) it would seem that there are to be none. Equally, Rodger Calderwood (the Town Clerk and 'Responsible Officer') receives no sanction in the Report and remains in post to collect his not insubstantial salary (c£40,000 pa).
It is also important to point out that the problems described in this Report did not appear overnight but reflected the established culture of Somerton Town Council where secrecy and exclusion were the norm. It is also significant to note that two of the Coucillors, Beale and Canvin, were at the time also District Councillors and Deering was an ex-Dictrict Councillor. They all approved the actions described in the Report which indicates that these problems are probably recognised and accepted behaviour at District level.
The expenditure and debts amassed by these town councillors remain for the community of Somerton to pay off and the Report also confirms the title deficiencies of the Tin Dunny (known in some quarters as the Edgar Hall). The value of the Dunny is cast into doubt by the two restrictive covenants held over it (one of which is held by ex-Vice Chair Canvin) and there is also the problem that ex-Vice Chair Canvin also owns the roadways serving the Dunny and has not granted a legal 'right of way' to the owners of the Dunny. If the Town Council were to dispose of the Dunny, who would buy it and would its sale price recover the investment made in it? That's a difficult one but the indications are that the Keenan/Canvin administration's 'valuation' (£1.3M) is fantasy.
There is, of course, one way out which would be for the key players, the Councillors noted above and the Town Clerk, to club together and buy the Dunny from Somerton at their valuation of £1.3M. At the same time, they could re-imburse the town for the cost of the External Auditor's Report. By my calculation that is £1,360,000 which, split 16 ways, would mean that they would each contribute £85,000 and remove the cost of their stupidity from the community. Now that would be something to celebrate but I suspect that hell will freeze over first.
Till next time, I'm still Niall Connolly
Posted by niall connolly at 10:10
9 February 2012
Now that the Report has finally been published it is probably best to give it some quiet consideration before passing any detailed comments but some initial comments are justified. What has come as something of a surprise is just how critical the External Auditor has been of the old Somerton Town Council (aka the Keenan/Canvin administration) given that the External Auditor is implicated in the problems in Somerton.
The problems that the External Auditor has described did not arise overnight but were part of the established culture of Somerton Town Council going back for some years. The External Auditor refers to this long established culture when referring to the Council's purchase of the Doctor's Surgery building in 2002. The External Auditor refers to the fact that the building was purchased as the site for a 'community hall' but the proposal was never enacted. Why was this not queried at the time? Equally, the documents surrounding the purchase of the surgery and also the purchase of the land at Etsome Terrace were, in my own view, misleading yet they were never questioned. Why not?
The fact is that Somerton Town Council was a delinquent Council and had been so for many years. The fact is that Councillors, and the Clerk (the Responsible Officer) accepted what went on and didn't either care to question or were fearful of questioning. Either way, no adverse comment was made.
The Council's Auditor for many years, Mr A J Bullen (also auditor for a number of other town and parish councils), raised no questions about how the Council administered its affairs and regularly signed-off the Council's accounts. I am sure that Mr Bullen would say that he did exactly what he was employed to do and that may well be the case. But is shows just how easy it is for a delinquent Council to circumvent control and regulation.
Then there is the External Auditor who looked over the accounts every year and duly signed them off. I am quite sure that the External Auditor will say that they did exactly what they were employed to do and that may well be the case. But, again, it shows just how easy it is for a delinquent Council to circumvent control and regulation.
And when someone comes along to raise concerns, as I did in 2009, its all too late. Previous year's accounts have been signed-off and can't be opened. How very convenient, for everyone involved, excepting, of course, the taxpayer.
Till next time, I'm still Niall Connolly
Posted by niall connolly at 14:43
8 February 2012
6 February 2012
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
Posted by niall connolly at 09:54
3 February 2012
Its interesting to compare the responses to Freedom of Information enquiries from different organisations. At present, South Somerset District Council are making something of a meal of my own enquiries regarding complaints lodged against councillors of the current Somerton Town Council. (SSDC didn't make the same meal of a similar enquiry from Mr Rodney Briggs in 2010 - but Rodney represents Somerton's Old Guard so he obviously gets special treatment.)
Compare my enquiry of SSDC to an enquiry I have recently made of the Audit Commission. That enquiry is quite extensive and is made of an organisation which is being wound up (thanks to that great localist Mr Pickles) and therefore short-staffed. Within 24 hours I received a very precise acknowledgement informing me that I can expect the required information within the statutory period (20 working days).
Till next FoI, I'm still Niall Connolly
Posted by niall connolly at 09:49