Tuesday, 25 March 2014

A Monstrous Carbuncle

Thirty years ago Prince Charles making a speech to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects described an extension to the elegant facade of the National Gallery as a Monstrous Carbuncle. I wonder what his comments would be over the now completed New Wessex House or as many in Somerton refer to it as, “Hopeless House”.

This finished building is completely out of character with its surroundings as it towers over almost every building on the town. How planning permission for such a monstrous carbuncle that blots our landscape was every given is beyond me. Considering this whole event was promoted and pushed by the former Chairman of Somerton Town Council, Mr. Fraser-Hopewell and the current Vice Chair of Somerton Town Council, Cllr Davies, who by the way are active members of SHBT (Somerton Historic Buildings Trust) and are now along with other members of the trust are actively campaigning to for funds to acquire the Old Town Hall. The Old Town Hall is a wonderful old building and deserves to be preserved, though not necessarily in the manner SHBT’s members propose, strange then that the same members of SHBT also support the horribly imposing Hopeless House.

I am lead to believe the “grand opening” will be in May and no doubt the ex Chair of Somerton Town Council will be there is some capacity or other to see his “vision” of a new Somerton come to life. I feel sorry for those who’s lives have been blighted by this eye sore and yet the Town has still to recognise and cope with the increase of traffic and parking problems this facility will create on our already busy roads and insufficient parking space once it is open for business.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

I used to know what amnesia was but now I forget

If there is one thing guaranteed to send you sleep with sheer monotony and empty waffle, it’s Somerton Town Council’s Land and Property Committee meetings.  What a surprise therefore, when the meeting held in the Parish Rooms on 11th March 2014 actually kept one awake, at least during Public Questions and Comments.

The first question to come from a member of the public to the Chairman, Cllr. Barrie Davies, concerned proposals to reconfigure the council offices in the Edgar Hall in the light of an L&P report that stated, ‘The question of possible changes to the Council's office arrangements has been referred to on a number of occasions, but without any resolution, partly at least due to the review of the future of ECH’. The Chairman explained that the reference should have been to the public opinion survey taken some time ago i.e. the one that 96% of the people of Somerton ignored.  There was no review.  The Chairman conceded that the statement had been wrongly worded.  So far, so good!

The second question concerned rumours of plans to move the council offices from the Edgar Hall to the Old Town Hall (OTH) if, as and when, the Somerton Historic Buildings Preservation Trust (SHBPT) could ever achieve their stated objective of gaining ownership of the OTH.  As Cllr. Davies is not only a member of SHBPT and its treasurer but also a Trustee, he seemed an appropriate person to provide an informed response, as was ventured by the member of the public who posed the question.

At this point it should be pointed out that SHBPT has been seeking an ‘anchor tenant’ for OTH, essentially to pay rent and ensure its financial viability.  The Trust had claimed in its Position Paper of 13th Jan 2014, Para 8 that an additional potential anchor tenant had been identified who was keen to use the building as a prestigious art gallery.  But additional to whom or what? The Position Paper is not specific in this respect.  Further, a risk assessment for their OTH project had been carried out by the Trust and had categorised the likelihood of the anchor tenant’s business failing as ‘Low’.  This raises the question of how anyone can predict a low likelihood of failure for any business.  Would that we all had such crystal balls!  However, this claim gave rise to the suspicion that maybe the potential anchor tenant’s business was not commercial but civic…..as with the offices of a town council.  This, coupled with Cllr. Davies’ statement in 2010 that he wanted to ‘bring back the Community Office to the heart of Somerton’ has led to some interesting speculation, hence the question at the L&P meeting.

Cllr. Davies’ response to being reminded of what he had said in 2010 drew an instant denial from him that he had ever said any such thing.  When the questioner rejoined that this was exactly what he had said on his election leaflet for that year Cllr. Davies’ memory suddenly improved to the point where he was able to recall that, ‘Lots of people said that’!  Reminded that it was he, rather than lots of other people who was under discussion, Cllr. Davies was asked directly whether the Trust had any intention of moving the council offices into the OTH, to which he replied with an unequivocal ‘No’.

So there we have it.  Cllr Davies has given his assurance both as a councillor and a trustee of the SHBHT that there is no intention to uproot the council offices in order that the council shall occupy the OTH as its rent-paying anchor tenant.  Cllr. Davies has said so and his assurance was witnessed by many people and has been repeated here for good measure.  It could even be used to jolt his memory in case he has another bout of selective amnesia.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Little man, big mouth...

During the last full council meeting held at the Edgar Community Hall on 25th February 2014, the council were debating a planning permission request for a car port and a retrospective planning request for a stable block. The land in question is agricultural land where planning permission had been previously granted some years prior; for the placing of a mobile home. This mobile home was used for the use of agricultural workers and over the years it had deteriorated to being uninhabitable and a log cabin was located in it's place. A log cabin has the same status and criteria as a mobile home and therefore no further planning permission is required.

It transpires that the Vice Chair of the Somerton Town Council Barrie Davies decided to puff his chest out and in his normal supercilious manner started asking the applicant some rather stupid questions. It was clear the aim of this barrage was to make the applicant look small and indicating (wrongly) that this log cabin required a fresh planning application. He then inadvisably for a person in his position as Vice Chair stated that a log cabin would resemble a "Gipsy Camp" along with other snide comments. After Cllr Davies had finished is diatribe with racist overtones he was immediately challenged by a member of the town council, who stated "just because someone wishes to lives in a log cabin, this does not make them a Gipsy". 

This crass act of insulting snobbery and overt racism by the Vice Chair is a step too far. Whatever your views of the Gipsy or travelling community, they have the right not to be marginalised or subjected to racist taunts on the way they wish to live and where or how they live. In fact one of our most respected ex-town councillors Mr Dave Smith of Badgers Cross lives in a rather plush log cabin and I would not advise Cllr Davies to suggest to Mr Smith that he is a Gipsy.

I call for the immediate resignation of Cllr Davies, his insensitive racist comments should not be tolerated and I trust you too will call for the same.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

An Overdue Quest for Justice

Now it begins
You may have heard on Somerton’s ever busy grapevine that some of those apprehended during the height of the Edgar Hall affair have now made complaints of wrongful arrest to the police and to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. 

But why now?
That’s a good question. After all, more than four years have passed since the arrests and you might have thought that the whole thing would have died of old age by now.  The trouble is, it hasn’t and a steady stream of evidence has come to light that has strengthened the widely held belief that the whole thing was a set-up all along.  Enough has now been accumulated to make the complaints to the police viable.  You might think that however damning the evidence that has been found, it really isn’t worth stirring the whole thing up again.  There again………

The blow falls
Let us pause for just a moment to reflect on what happened to just one of those arrested on that fateful day in December 2010 on suspicion of fraud or of conspiring to commit fraud in connection with the Edgar Hall. 

A businessman is arrested at his home, which is surrounded by police, complete with armed riot vans positioned close by.  The house is searched from top to bottom and then the businessman was driven away to Bridgewater police station where he is stripped of his belongings and shoes and locked in a cell.  His fingerprints and DNA are taken and he is questioned for several hours before being allowed home.  There then follows four months of hell while the police investigation grinds to its inevitable conclusion and the businessman is informed that he has been completely exonerated because his business records provide a complete audit trail regarding every aspect of the investigation.  He is discharged from bail with no stain on his character.

My home, my castle
And that, you might think, should have been that.  But just put yourself in the shoes of that unfortunate businessman.  Just think how you would feel if you were picked up by the police, had your home, your castle where you should feel secure against intrusion, trampled over by a posse of clodhopping plods, your drawers and cupboards ransacked, your prized possessions touched by uncaring hands, your most personal and intimate things handled by uninvited strangers.  You would feel invaded, outraged, that your life had been raped and for what?  For something of which you knew you were completely innocent, for something that you knew had been stirred up and orchestrated by people who had nothing better to do than make trouble for others because it gave them vindictive pleasure and made them feel big and important.  And even when it was supposed to be over, when the police had given you a clean bill of health, there was the damage to your reputation after years of hard and honest toil, the previously friendly neighbours who would now cross the road rather than be seen talking to you, the local paper that seemed to be under some sort of compulsion to refer to the arrests as often as possible even when they were yesterday’s news.  Just how would you feel?

What goes around

The public response to the news of the complaints of wrongful arrest has generally been positive and many have said that such action was long overdue, given the gross injustice that was inflicted, apparently deliberately, on the Somerton Four.  A few, probably nursing queasy consciences, have been less enthusiastic.  One of these has been overheard grumbling and protesting that he thought the whole thing was over.  Sorry chum.  You started this.  And now comes the reckoning.

Monday, 27 January 2014

The Old Town Hall and hidden agendas

Somerton's Old Town Hall has been on the agenda for some time now, where members of Somerton Historic Buildings Trust (SHBT) have been lobbying for funds to restore and maintain this listed building. I am not against the preservation of this important piece of our community, but not at the tax payers expense via the Somerton Town Council precept.

This building is privately owned by Mr John Bailey of the Stepping Stones Group and is not Town Council property. The SHBT has campaigned for some time, for charity/lottery funds to purchase this building, with the further agenda of Somerton Town Council and South Somerset District Council to support financially the restoration and running costs.

SHBT have claimed that Somerton Town Council needs more workspace in an attempt to persuade townsfolk to support the project, rubbish! We have an abundance of underused town council property such as the soon to be old Doctors Surgery, The Parish Rooms, ECH to name but three.

Mr Bob Harris, Chairman of SHBT has been campaigning hard for funds and Mr Fraser-Hopewell (Ex STC leader and SHBT Trustee) has been lobbying numerous town councillors to get them to support the project. More worryingly, Cllr Davies, currently Deputy Chair of STC has been lobbying and working hard to gain support from all areas for the project.

If this historic building was owned by SHBT or another charity support for this building via the public purse and your taxes should be put to a vote by public referendum. It's your money and you should have your say whether you wish your taxes to be spent on this building. Further more, I must point out that whilst this building is privately owned no money from the public purse can legally be spent on it.

Is there a hidden agenda here? There are rumours that the Old Town Hall could replace ECH. Certainly there are those in the town and trustees for SHBT who would dearly love this to be so. To be honest the plans for the building as they stand represents a huge "white elephant" to the community should it be supported or taken on as work space. The upkeep and business running costs of the site are great and if the building was such a great business opportunity entrepreneurs would be falling over themselves to rent the place, to date they are not and interesting no support has been gleaned from the Heritage Lottery Fund, they too probably consider this project to be unworthy.

Friday, 22 November 2013

If these men are not guilty I will resign, apologise and although not a rich man, I will pay the Audit fee

Some two years back when then Cllr Michael Fraser-Hopewell, leader of the Somerton Town Council said in relation to Paddy Keenan, Tony Canvin, Roger Calderwood and Chris Edgar in open session of the monthly town council meeting: 

"If these men are not guilty I will resign, apologise 
and although not a rich man, I will pay the Audit fee".

The trumped up charges on these men that lead to the alleged wrongful arrests have not been proven during the police investigation or the dubiously impartial audit, further more these charges have not been tested in a court of law due to "insufficient evidence" to proceed. Insufficient evidence does not imply there was any evidence in the first place, it is a standard phrase used in such investigations. The bottom line is that these four men have not been found guilty of any criminal activity.

Mr Fraser-Hopewell did resign from the town council and, if as he claims repeatedly and loudly, he is a man of standing and good character he should now apologise and repay the audit fee the Somerton residents stumped up whether they wanted to or not.

On another matter linked to the above, it has come to my knowledge that Mr Fraser-Hopewell has been attempting to keep a very watchful eye on the Freedom of Information (FIO) requests Paddy Keenan has been making to the town council in relation to the complaints made to the police and subsequent documentation. In relation to the latest FOI request made by Mr Keenan which was unanimously granted by the Financial Advisory Group of the council, apparently the ex leader of the town council took it upon himself to throw his toys out of the cot in the town council office in a fit of pique and demanded to know what Mr Keenan was requesting. As a general member of the public Mr Fraser-Hopewell is not entitled to know this information under the Freedom of information Act (which he well knows, or should do) and he was turned down flat by the town clerk. Now one wonders why would the ex-leader of the council want to know this information? Is there a skeleton or two in the archives that he doe not want to become public knowledge? Has there been a cover up that proves the total innocence of the arrested four? Only time will tell, but one could easily draw conclusions from what most people would seem to view as a strange course of action from a seemingly man of standing and good character. I for one, wait to see what unfolds next....

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Time for an apology

The wrongful arrests in 2010 of two of the three members of the town council was a travesty of justice. Now that a complaint for wrongful arrest lodged by Tony Canvin and Paddy Keenan has been made to the relevant authorities, hopefully justice will prevail. One of those arrested at the time was a non town council member, Mr Chris Edgar, a well respected local businessman who is unfortunately battling cancer at this time.

Chris Edgar's only involvement in the issues of 2009/2010 was the sale of Edgar Hall, which he owned at the time. Chris was cleared of all alleged charges and documentary proof was supplied to councillors at the time to prove his innocence. However, the trouble making and defamatory comments by Niall Connolly in his Muck and Brass blog with the support from the then leader of the town council Michael Fraser-Hopewell has put Chris Edgar under a great deal of stress and strain over the past years and has undoubtedly impacted on his current condition.

It is time for an apology, either from the council as a whole or from those councillors who have a conscience and realise that what was done at the time was wrong. So, I humbly request from the town council and it's members that an apology, private or public be made to a man who is going through a very rough time at the moment.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Now that's another fine mess you've gotten us into!

Reminiscent of a Laurel and Hardy sketch, the Somerton issue of Western Drivel had as it's front page byline that no one has come forward for the upcoming town council election for the two vacant seats due to the departure of Cllr Billy Fletcher and Cllr Pat Bennet. The election was called for by the now infamous "Hopeless supporters" from the top of town and have apparently so far has cost you the electorate a good deal of money for absolutely nothing. These misguided self styled "good and the great" could not find a single candidate of their own to stand and now the town council needs guidance from the district council what to do next? Apparently, such a fine mess has not happened before and the poor folk at Edgar Hall are in somewhat of a quandary. Nice to know that the these "toffs" are still up to their underhand tricks and costing you the rate payer more of your hard earned money. This aside, it is no wonder no one wishes to stand for town councillor considering the underhand and back stage dealings of the last two co-options and one recent election.

On another matter, today was as I am sure you know Remembrance Sunday and as usual Somerton turned out in style to remember those who gave the "ultimate sacrifice" in combat and strife, so that we can live free from terror and oppression. On a cold, yet bright day, the members of the Royal British Legion marched with pride to and from the service, with support from our local Royal Marines who as usual turned out with impeccable smartness. It was also good to see the leader of our town council Eirian Williams laying a wreath on behalf of our council, he is one of a few of our town councillors I have respect for. Other councillors present included Cllr Clive Wilson, Cllr Tony Josham, Cllr Brian Raybould and Cllr Ian Neale and may I say thank you for turning out, I as an ex member of our Armed Forces appreciates your commitment. Cllr Margret Chambers who normally attends was unfortunately unwell and was unavailable. However, where were the other noticeable absentees? Clearly, the likes of Cllr Barrie Davies, Cllr Ben Taylor and the rest of the absent council could not be bothered on this one day of the year to honour our fallen hero's from the First World War to the present. Although, I could not be there myself due to being away in Nigeria, I did stop at 1100 UK time and remember our fallen hero's and to reflect of the wonderful people of Somerton who support Remembrance Day every year. You can be proud of your unending support and for that I thank you.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

What a load of rubbish

On 26th August 2009 Ms Pat Bennett, later Cllr, now ex-Cllr Bennett wrote an eight page letter to the then chairman of the Somerton town council, Paddy Keenan. The document, which resides in the council archives, was a packed mass of observations, comments and suggestions about Somerton and how to make it an even better place than it undoubtedly is (especially with the addition to its facilities of the excellent Edgar Hall). The letter was no doubt intended to be helpful if at times veering a smidgeon towards arrogance and wishful idealism in tone.

One paragraph read:

‘The changes made to the very successful Recycling Centre on the Bancombe Trading Estate have made it more difficult for the public to drop off their waste (fewer parking slots, more and longer closures for emptying and moving skips, difficult narrow steps and gangways, issues around lifting and handling etc).  this has probably contributed to an increase in fly tipping.  What is the future for the site?  And how did such a poor design get accepted?’ sic.

Now, anyone familiar with the Recycling Centre will find it difficult to disagree with Ms Bennett’s comments. The Centre is not user-friendly because it is an ergonomic disaster area with a rich store of accidents just waiting to happen. It is poorly sited on a dangerous bend in the road and manoeuvring a vehicle within its confines is fraught with hazard. An initiative to find a better location was and still is, long overdue. 

But wait……  there was just such an initiative! Tony Canvin, then vice-chairman of the council,fully cognisant of the Recycling Centre’s shortcomings, was attempting to have it moved to a property that he owned at Badgers Cross. A great many residents of Somerton and the surround area thought this a very good idea, but unfortunately it raised the ire of some of the residents of Badgers Cross and Mr Niall ‘Blogger’ Connolly seized the opportunity to whip up further discontent by launching into another frenzy of vilification against Tony Canvin.  

While it is not the purpose of this article to re-examine the issues of the Badgers Cross matter, one aspect deserves mention and that is that Pat, since 15 September 2009 Cllr Bennett, threw her weight in with the anti Badgers Cross brigade, even to the extent of joining a protest demonstration at the proposed site. This was reported in the Western Gazette on 22 December 2009, complete with a large full colour photograph showing her amongst the protesters and interestingly also present was Michael Fraser-Hopewell and Badgers Cross resident, Jane Cook, both about to stand in the January 2010 election for a council to replace the one that had resigned in October 2009. 

Whether or not Pat Bennett’s presence at the demo was sincere or just a piece of political expediency we shall probably never know, but given her earlier strictures on the shortcomings of the Bancombe Trading Estate site, one is entitled to a degree of cynicism and also to wonder that if she still unloads her rubbish at Bancombe and whether she still finds it inconvenient owing to the failings that she previously troubled to record, whether she ever pauses to reflect on her part in ensuring its survival, warts and all.