Etsome Terrace 2002 - 2008

My interest in Somerton Town Council came about as a result of the attitude displayed by the Town Council (or its representatives) in 2006 at a meeting of the now-disbanded Community Hall Steering Group. Since then I have assembled a selection of documents which show that the saga of Somerton's Community Hall, whilst it dates back to the mid-1970s, really covers a period from 2001, when the Town Council started to negotiate the purchase of the redundant Highways Depot at Etsome Terrace, to 2008, when the Town Council swapped part of Etsome Terrace for a building on the Bancombe Trading Estate.

When reading these documents, remember that the documents themselves are a matter of fact, however contradictory they may be. The interpretation that you put on the documents is entirely up to you.

The Dadson Scheme.
This proposal shows what the Etsome site could have looked like had Somerton Town Council committed itself to building a community hall near the centre of the town. It is also easy to see how a health centre could have been part of the development, replacing the housing proposed in this early scheme.

Somerton Town Council and the Doctor's Surgery.Whilst the focus of the Town Council's attention had been, since early 2001, the purchase of land at Etsome Terrace, in late 2002 that focus changed with the sudden decision to purchase the existing Doctor's Surgery in Cox's Yard. In comparison to the purchase of Etsome Terrace, the purchase of the Doctor's Surgery went through with lightening speed, being first floated in November of 2002 and completed by early February 2003. Within that extremely short period of time, the Town Council also arranged a loan of £350,000 from the Public Works Loan Board and the documentation supporting that loan makes interesting reading.

The first document is the formal description of the requirement for the loan and, in this case, the PWLB are being told that Somerton Town Council is purchasing a site which is going to be used as the location for a Community Hall. No mention is made of the fact that the loan is being used to purchase an existing building which is in use as a Doctor's Surgery and subject to a 10 year lease. More confusing still is the disclosure that the 'site' is to be used as the location for a 'Community Hall'.

At this time, Somerton Town Council had been in negotiations with Somerset County Council for almost two years in order to purchase the site at Etsome Terrace. It was the general understanding at that time that any community hall would be located at Etsome Terrace. The Somerton Community Association had undertaken consultations on that basis and had gone as far as having outline drawings made showing a community hall on the site. Yet, quite suddenly, £350,000 is borrowed to buy what seems to be an alternative site and this is done with little fanfare and no consultation.

Somerton Town Council and Etsome Terrace. Having rushed through the purchase of the Doctor's Surgery, the Town Council proceeded to focus upon the purchase of Etsome Terrace but, having bought the Doctor's Surgery site (!) for use as the location of a 'community hall' the purpose of buying Etsome Terrace couldn't replicate that intention. Etsome Terrace had to be bought for another purpose, explained in the second set of documents sent to the PWLB.

In these two documents, Etsome Terrace is now being bought because of its location near to existing play facilities with the intention, amongst other things, of turning it into a 'park'. Obviously some questions were raised by the and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Town Council presented further clarification of the objective of the purchase in an email to a member of staff at the ODPM.

No-one actually visited Somerton to verify the purpose for these two loans. The loans were 'verified' in the first instance, by the National Association of Local Councils in Taunton who simply rubber-stamped the applications on the basis that NALC knew Somerton Town Council, nothing more. The applications were then forwarded to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister where the NALC 'approval' was taken as certification. Once the ODPM had approved the application at their level, it was passed straight to the PWLB whose only concern is that the repayments (paid for from Precept) arrived on time. Other than that, no checking of any sort was undertaken.

To close this first chapter, there is an email from Somerton Town Council to the ODPM which seeks to clarify the reason for the second purchase. That email once again suggests that Etsome Terrace will be used, in part at least, as some sort of public park.

Chapter 2 - Somerton Town Council and GPI Ltd. With the purchase of the Doctor's Surgery and the redundant Highways Depot at Etsome Terrace completed by mid-2003, Somerton Town Council embarked on discussions and negotiations with GPI Ltd, a company who build healthcare facilities, regarding the construction of a new Doctor's Surgery on the Etsome Terrace site. These negotiations were to be carried on for some 4 years and took place in two distinct phases.

The first phase of the negotiations saw GPI Ltd draw up plans for a proposed health centre at Etsome Terrace and those plans remained largely unchanged, other than in detail, across the whole of the 4 years of discussions. In the first phase of negotiations, GPI Ltd offered Somerton Town Council £375,000 for land at Etsome sufficient to build the proposed health centre. The offer was confirmed in writing in October of 2005 at which time Somerton Town Council raised the price of the land to £400,000. This resulted in GPI Ltd being unable to match that price and, as a result, the negotiations were terminated. In November 2005 Somerton Town Council voted unanimously to locate a community hall at Etsome Terrace.

However, in parallel to these various activities, Vice Chair Canvin, in his business capacity, sold a site on the Bancombe Trading Estate to Edgar Builders who proceeded to build a large office/workshop building on the site.

The second phase of the Council negotiations with GPI Ltd started in March of 2006 when GPI Ltd reconsidered their position and sought to obtain funds to match the Town Council's new price of £400,000. Negotiations were restarted and GPI Ltd proceeded to a planning application for the proposed health centre. By early 2007 the negotiations had led to contracts being drawn up and, from the documents available, it was clear that the Town Council and GPI Ltd were on the verge of completeing the transaction. However, in August of 2007, Somerton Town Council informed GPI Ltd that the price for the site was now around £1,000,000, effectively ending any possibility of GPI Ltd proceeding. At the same time, bids were solicited from three local developers for a part of the site to be developed residentially.

Chapter 3 - Somerton Town Council and the residential development of Etsome Terrace. It remains unclear as to how the three bids for part of the Etsome Terrace site were obtained but the three bids were accompanied by three tenders to build a 'community hall'. Whilst the tender element was ignored, of the three bids for the land, the bid from Edgar Homes - £950,000 - was the highest and therefore accepted by the Town Council. A contract in favour of Edgar Homes was noted by the Land Registry in December 2007 and, at the same time, Somerton Town Council informed South Somerset District Council that Somerton would be spending £750,000 on a 'community hall' in fiscal 2008/9.

A review of the bids and tenders together presents a rather different picture than the one judged simply on the basis of the value of the bids alone. The accompanying chart shows that whilst the Edgar bid is the highest, the West of England bid and tender, taken together, represent 'best value'. Had the Town Council had a site for the 'community hall' then they could have sold the land to West of England who would have built a hall (somewhere) for  £353k

Negotiations with Edgar Homes extended into 2008 and, in June, Somerton Town Council was informed, by Vice Chair Canvin, of the availability of a building on the Bancombe Trading Estate which would be suitable for conversion to a 'community hall'. The Town Council greeted this suggestion enthusiastically and visited the building which turned out to be the office/workshop building owned by Edgar Builders. In a very short period, the Town Council agreed to 'purchase' this building from Edgar Builders. As part of this process, the Town Council had to apply to SSDC for a 'change of use' as the building had an existing planning consent for B2 (light industrial use) and the Town Council would need D2/B2 use to allow public activities. SSDC's Economic Development officer raised a query with regard to a perceived 'loss of employment space' and the Town Council put a robust case with regard to the suitability of the building and also the fact that the Council had no alternative sites available. This last point is contradicted by documentary evidence.

The sportsfield in Somerton was made available because the Mitchem family gave a 999 year lease on the land to SSDC who, I understand, lease it to Somerton Town Council. The terms of the original lease meant that there could be no building on the land but, in late 2006, the Mitchem family agreed to vary the restriction in the light of the Town needing a location for a community hall. Their agent was in contact with the Town Council as late as January of 2008 seeking to progress the variation and the Council did not follow up on the Mitchem family's generous offer. It is therefore difficult to understand why the Town Council, in their representations to SSDC's planning officers, would suggest that they could not use the sportsfield as the location for a community facility when they clearly were given every encouragement to so do.

With hindsight, The West of England bid and tender now seems like a gold-plated opportunity where the Town could have sold part of Etsome Terrace for £780k, built a community hall on the sportsfield for £353k and had £427k left over to fit out and do other projects. Given that the Town Council owns the Doctor's Surgery, that could have been sold to GPI with the object of demolishing it and building a modern healthcare facility on the site. Alternatively, had the Dadson scheme been implemented with the health care facility replacing the community hall (which would be built on the sportsfield) the Town could have received another £400k from GPI to add to the town's coffers. Looking back, there were just so many options available to the town which would have delivered most of the town's ambitions.

Sadly, the then Town Council failed to capitalise on these opportunities and, instead, sold a part of Etsome (possibly more than the 50% that they were restricted to), to Edgar Homes and received the Tin Dunny in exchange. No healthcare facility and no community hall in the centre of town. It is hard to understand why such a perfect opportunity was allowed to slip through the town's fingers.