The Muck and Brass Story

Muck&Brass is written by Niall Connolly, a photographer and one-time resident in Somerton, Somerset, England. Muck&Brass has always been written under Niall's real name and no effort was made to hide his identity within the community of Somerton. In taking a public position, Niall made himself a target for the thuggish supporters of Somerton's 'Old Guard' and other vested interests. Niall can be contacted at was started in November of 2006 and the initial impetus behind writing the blog was an effort to find an independent means of communicating with the wider community in Somerton, specifically with regard to the activities of Somerton Town Council.

The first blog detailed a meeting where members of the Town Council explained how it was intended to deliver a community hall for Somerton. The then Chair of the Council, Cllr H E Keenan, explained that any available funds (suggested at the time to be in the region of £400,000) would be managed by the then Vice-Chair of the Council, Cllr A H Canvin. The Chair went on to explain that there would be no competitive tendering and that Cllr Canvin would use his network of contacts (he is a major local developer/contractor) to deliver the 'best deal'.

The story largely disappeared from view until late 2007 when Somerton Town Council announced that it would sell its most valuable asset, a parcel of land at Etsome Terrace, purchased as the site for Somerton's Community Hall but now to be sold as a residential development site (with the intention of using the funds raised to build a community hall).

In early 2008 Niall raised his concerns about this transaction via his MP, Mr David Heath who wrote to the Town Council but whose letter went unanswered. Later in 2008, rumours surfaced that the Town Council was considering purchasing an industrial unit for use as a community hall. It then transpired that the purchaser of the development land was also the vendor of the industrial unit. Niall wrote to the Town Council (August & September 2008) with a list of specific questions about the transactions. Neither letter received a reply but, privately, the Town Council used public funds to obtain legal advice as to how the Council might avoid answering the questions.

The swapping of land, earmarked as the site for a community hall, for an industrial box (later to be known as the Tin Dunny) caused the blog to shift up a gear and Niall started to openly criticise the Town Council. The transaction to swap assets went through without any form of community consultation although 8 councillors privately presented a request to the Chair of the Council that there be a public meeting to discuss the issue. The public meeting never happened and the deal was rubber-stamped by the Town Council in September of 2008.

Moving into 2009, Niall started to examine the Town Council's records and made three visits to the Council's offices where he saw documents which raised serious concerns. During these visits he photographed documents and published one, an invoice from Canvin, on the blog (right).

Six days later a car similar to Niall's was burned-out in an arson attack outside Niall's home. The attack presumably mounted by Somerton 'Old Guard' thugs.

From that point forward the Town Council refused any access to public records and forced Niall to use the provisions of the Freedom of information Act to seek access. Three successive requests for information were obstructed by the Town Council.

The blog continued to chronicle the antics of the Town Council using a mix of fact, humour, ridicule and lampoon which led, in June of '09, to the then Chair of the Town Council (Keenan) suspending a Council meeting and leading an orchestrated abuse session directed at Niall. During this 'abuse session' then Cllr Martyn Smith openly stated that anyone critical of Somerton Town Council should, in his words, "bugger off".

In early August, after the Town Council had been informed that Niall had lodged a formal objection to the the Council's accounts, 'Old Guard' thugs came to Niall's home at 2am and smashed windows along one side of the house, almost killing one of his dogs in the process.

Four days later, Niall lodged a formal objection to Somerton Town Council's audited accounts (fiscal 2008/9) with the external auditor, Moore Stephens in Bath. This objection sought to question the Council's financial activities, particularly with regard to: the 'sale' of Etsome Terrace land; the subsequent 'purchase' of the industrial unit and the refurbishment of that industrial unit as a community hall. The Council's obstruction of the Freedom of Information Act seriously limited the scope of the objection but Niall was able to provide supporting documentary evidence from his original visits to the Town Council.

The war of words continued with the Town Council using the town's newsletter to question the right of 'outsiders' to voice any opinion on local matters. Niall characterised this view as being 'racist' and continued to raise questions about the Town Council's activities. He was informed that the Town owned a relatively new tractor (representing £35,000 of taxpayer's money) yet no-one seemed to know who had purchased it, where it was or what it was used for.

During this period a number of other local residents, in independent actions, had started to object to planning applications inspired by the Town Council or its members with an industrial development proposed for Badgers Cross (by then Vice-Chair Canvin) attracting serious opposition. Two very heated meetings had been held where ever larger groups of residents (100+) had started to question the Town Council directly something that the Town Council had never experienced before.

On 20th October 2009, Niall met with a representative of the External Auditor (Moore Stephens) and a member of Audit Commission staff to discuss the focus of Niall's objection to the Town Council's accounts. One week later, on 27th October at a Town Council meeting, 11 members of the Town Council (Cllrs Bisgrove, Medley, Holland, Webber, Canvin, Keenan, Raybould, Smith, Beale, Smith and Morgan) resigned in a well orchestrated and deliberate attempt to destabilise the community. The mass resignation was led by Canvin and his supporters on the Council handed in pre-prepared resignations and read out prepared statements which claimed that their resignations were due to disclosures made on Muck&Brass. (Cllr Neale walked out in support but did not resign.)

The mass resignations made local then national news and the story was eventually picked up and covered by BBC's Newsnight programme (here). Newsnight sent their political correspondent, Michael Crick, to Somerton and he coined the term 'Somerset Suiciders' with regard to the Councillors who resigned. Comparisons were drawn between Somerton and Westminster with members of the local community reacting against the disinterest or self-interest of their elected representatives. In an interview with some of the resigners, Crick addressed Canvin directly with regard to Canvin's 'business interests'. Canvin's response was to say, "What business interests?".

The resignations left the Town Council without a quorum as only 3 councillors remained and South Somerset District Council were forced to step in to stabilise the Town Council in the short term. An election was proposed for 7th January 2010 and, by the closing deadline, 21 individuals had put their names forward as candidates.

On 17th December 2009 the Information Commissioner ruled against Somerton Town Council regarding the first of Niall's complaints. The election was held on 7th January and 12 new councillors were elected. The first meeting of the new Town Council was held on 12th January and one of the first moves of the new Town Council was to vote to release all the information that had been requested under the Freedom of Information Act. On the day preceding the Town Council meeting, the Information Commissioner ruled against the Town Council on the second complaint.

After that Election, the 'new' Somerton Town Council did everything in its power to conduct its business in an open and transparent manner. The new Town Council made strenuous efforts to satisfy the requirements placed upon it by the Office of the Information Commissioner. Subsequent enquiries have proved harder to satisfy because the Council's records were shambolic and this obstructed both the new Council and the External Auditor. The External Auditor was expected to publish their 'Report in the Public Interest' in March of 2010. That report was delayed by the involvement of Avon & Somerset Constabulary's investigations into possible fraud.

Further Freedom of Information enquiries revealed that Somerton Town Council misled the public in a Press Release about the 'purchase' of the 'Tin Dunny'. The Press Release stated that the sale of land at Etsome Terrace and the purchase of the 'Tin Dunny' were entirely separate transactions. However, on 19th August 2008, the Town Clerk circulated a 'Report' document which showed that the two transactions were, in fact, interdependent. As part of that circulation the Town Clerk included a page of 'consequences' should the Town Council not agree to the purchase of the 'Tin Dunny'. The Town Clerk failed to consider any positive outcome should the deal not be confirmed and the report can be seen as an attempt to introduce bias into the Town Council's considerations.

Other documents show that the true nature of the bids that were solicited for the land at Etsome Terrace were not disclosed to the public or the Community of Somerton. The three bidders (all solicited privately by Cllr Canvin, the Vice Chair of the Council) presented two-part bids where there was a bid to purchase the Etsome land and a tender to build a community hall. Taken together, the Edgar Homes/Edgar Builders bid + tender, which was the chosen bid, represented the worst value for Somerton realising £300,000 less than the best bid + tender.

Additionally, documents in the shambolic archive of Somerton Town Council describe a close relationship between the 'Somerton Community Association' and Somerton Town Council. The Somerton Community Association admits to having handled some £185,000 of donations, 1/3rd of which was made up from Land-Fill Tax receipts. The Somerton Community Association was chaired by Mrs Sherry Briggs who also served as 'assistant' the Somerton's Town Clerk. There is no public record of how the SCA disposed of the funds that it obtained and some £50,000 was provided for the refurbishment of the 'Tin Dunny'. The Somerton Community Association failed to provide any documentation regarding the consideration of these 'donations'.

In October of 2010, the External Auditor reported that they had now compiled the 'statement of fact' which is a precursor to the publication of the 'Report in the Public Interest'.

In December 2010, four arrests were made in Somerton in connection with an Avon & Somerset Constabulary fraud investigation. Those arrested were A H Canvin (ex-Vice Chair of Somerton Town Council), H E Keenan (ex-Chair of Somerton Town Council), R Calderwood (Clerk to the Town Council) and C Edgar (a director of Edgar Builders and Edgar Homes). The Police investigation was closed in March of 2011 and those arrested were released from their bail conditions without charge.

After being released from his bail conditions, Tony Canvin placed a public announcement in the local press where he claimed to be innocent of all charges and went on to state that he would bring legal actions "against a number of individuals and bodies".

Members of the Keenan/Canvin administration and their supporters then mounted an assault on the 'new' Town Council. As part of that effort, on 5th May 2011, ex-Cllr Martyn Smith was spotted distributing yellow cowardice leaflets around Somerton (right).

In November of 2011, a local freemason, Mr Paul Audemars, joined the fray and this drew Niall's attention to a possible connection with local freemasonry. Research established that at least one member of the 'old' Town Council (Cllr Morgan) was an undeclared freemason whilst also a councillor. It is unknown how many other councillors from the 'old' Town Council were also freemasons or were connected to freemasons.

The External Auditor's Report in the Public Interest was finally published in early February 2012 and it was a damning catalogue of the failings of Somerton Town Council in fiscal 2008/9. Its contents confirmed the documentary information published in Muck&Brass since November 2006 and confirmed the factual basis of Niall Connolly's objection to the accounts of Somerton Town Council for fiscal 2008/9.

On the 29th February 2012, a public meeting was held at the Tin Dunny to discuss the External Auditor's Report in the Public Interest. Somerton's 'Old Guard' (the resigners and their supporters) attended in strength and focused their efforts on attacking both the External Auditor's Report and the Chair of the Town Council. An astonishing statement was made by ex-Local and District Councillor Mr Pat Mountain seeking to excuse the actions of the Keenan/Canvin administration.

In the aftermath of the External Auditor's report, no action has been taken against any of the individuals involved. Given the sums of money involved both in the Etsome Terrace/Tin Dunny transaction and in the cost of the Report in the Public Interest, and given the critical statements made in the Report, this lack of action is confusing to say the least and the document (right) illustrates the confusion.

This document, an invoice from Canvin, then the Vice-Chair of the Council, to Edgar Builders who had, at the time, not yet bought the land on which this work was carried out, suggests that a councillor, involved in the decision to sell this land, was undertaking work on the land for the proposed buyer of the land and before the transaction was agreed and completed. This begs the question whether or not this invoice would have been settled had the transaction not been agreed by the Council. This, in turn, begs the question as to whether or not Canvin should have excused himself from any involvement with the discussion of the transaction or the Council's decision to execute the transaction.

On 19th April 2012, A H Canvin placed an advert in the Western Gazette stating his innocence of all 'charges' as well as claiming to possess documents which confirmed this claim. On 26th April 2012, Niall Connolly placed a half page public request in the Western Gazette, for answers to a list of questions relating to the EtsomeTerrace/Edgar Hall asset swap. Despite a written invitation from M&B to Canvin himself, Canvin has failed to provide any explanation of his claims (in the advert dated 19th April) or to disclose any of the documentation he claimed to possess.

Subsequently, 15 complaints were lodged with South Somerset District Council against the (then) Chair of Somerton Town Council, Mr Michael Fraser-Hopewell. These complaints, coming from individuals involved with the Keenan/Canvin administration or their supporters, were an effort to question the integrity and reputation of Mr Fraser-Hopewell. After an exhaustive investigation and because of a complete absence of any supporting evidence, South Somerset District Council, on 19th July 2012, published a notice in the Western Gazette completely exonerating Cllr Fraser-Hopewell.

On 24th July 2012, at that evening's Town Council meeting, a 4 page statement was provided by Cllr Fraser-Hopewell which named the complainers and explained the process of the complaints. The complainants named were: Mr Rod Briggs; Mr Tony Canvin; Mr Mark Edgar; Mr Max Edgar; Mr Vic Medley; Mr Pat Mountain; Mr Martyn Smith and Sqn. Ldr. (Retd.) Peter Richardson. All of the complainants, with the exception of Richardson, have links to the old Somerton Town Council and, in the case of Canvin, the Edgars and Smith, specific involvement with the Etsome/Tin Dunny deal. Briggs is the partner of Sherry Briggs who runs the self styled 'Somerton Community Association'.

It is clear from the actions of Somerton's 'Old Guard' that there is a determined group of individuals who were not directly involved with the 'old' Town Council but who are willing to wage a determined campaign against anyone who criticised the 'old' Town Council. One speculative explanation for this behaviour is that these individuals represent the interests of local freemasonry.

Coda - Complaint against Canvin

On 11th February 2013, South Somerset District Council published an 'update' regarding an outstanding complaint against Cllr (Ex) Tony Canvin. This complaint had been outstanding since 2010, during which time SSDC had placed the matter in the hands of Standards for England (now abolished). Quoting from SSDC's document, "The complaint was essentially that Cllr Canvin had failed to record his prejudicial interests, had brought his office and the Town Council into disrepute and misused his position on the Council."

With reference to the Police investigation of Canvin and others regarding possible fraud, the SSDC 'update' contains the following, "The Police investigation was completed in March 2011 and the Police concluded there was no evidence to substantiate charges against Cllr Canvin (and others) so no further action was taken."

The SSDC 'update' went on to focus on, a) the decision of the Police not to prosecute and, b) the decision of the External Auditor not to seek a Court Order declaring the Etsome Terrace/Tin Dunny transactions unlawful. SSDC neatly failed to consider the terms of the complaint itself with regard to undeclared prejudicial interests or misuse of position, both of which were covered extensively in the External Auditor's Report.

Since 2009, SSDC have taken an extremely hands-off approach to the conduct of affairs in Somerton and it is a matter of speculation as to why this should be. Somerton Town Council may not have been the exception as I thought it once to be and, were that to be the case, it is easy to see why SSDC may not have been too keen to investigate an ex-District Councillor with many friends.