The Chair to advise the Committee of any items on which members of the public have requested to speak and advise those members of the public present of the details of the Council’s public participation scheme.
For those members of the public who have submitted any questions or statements, please note, a three minute time limit applies to each speaker and you will be asked to speak before Councillors debate the issue.
We are now live webcasting most of our committee meetings and you are welcome to view and listen to the discussion. The link to each webcast will be available on the meeting webpage, but you can also access them on the Somerset West and Taunton webcasting website.
Two requests for Public Participation were brought to the committee from Mr Martyn and Mr Taylor on the subject of Blenheim Gardens Café, Minehead. Mr Martyn attended in person, whilst Mr Taylor asked that his written statement was read out by the clerk. Their submissions are below.
1) Mr Steve Martyn
Why this is an issue for Community Scrutiny
The future of Blenheim Gardens is an issue of significant public concern for the people of Minehead and it’s surrounding areas. Any decision to sell or lease all or part of the asset should involve consultation with the Minehead community. This did not happen. The Executive Cllrs decision to invite private investment is not something we would disagree with however we have raised real concerns about how the process of selection was handled and the lack of transparency in answering our questions. In the two years since the lease was decided lack of progress and actions by the applicant should by now be ringing alarm bells about their suitability and we strongly recommend that the lease is not signed while a full investigation is carried out.
It came as somewhat of a surprise last week when Executive Cllr M Kravis who decided the lease 3/11/20 voted to support Minehead Town Council’s motion to take back control of Blenheim Gardens and cafe’. We recommend viewing this meeting which was digitally recorded 22/11/22
The Jewel in The Crown
In 2020 SW&T chose to go to tender
The Lease - decision 30/10/20
2) Mr Steve Taylor
Dear Members of the Scrutiny Committee
I and my colleagues would be grateful if you would investigate/scrutinise the process undertaken by Somerset West and Taunton to find a custodian for the café in Blenheim Gardens.
This process has been objected to by numerous MTC councillors (who represent 12000 SWAT residents) and was again a hot topic at the full MTC meeting on 22/11/22. At this meeting a motion had unanimous support to stop SWAT from what they are doing at the café and to take back control of the café.
I believe a viewing of the recording of this meeting will be useful in understanding the strength of the feeling of the Town Councillors
1/ In the Autumn of 2020 Swat were faced with two options to take over the café in Blenheim Gardens:-
a/ Minehead Town Council with a track record of developing and running community projects and
b/ William Wynn/Bar 21 who have a track record of planning breaches
SWAT chose Bar 21 over MTC as the better custodian.
Whilst you could not justify this decision in a million years I and the electorate in Minehead would like to know:-
A/ How and why this decision was made and
B/What are they now doing to put that right particularly considering the recent MTC motion.
C/ Why was a history of planning breaches specifically excluded from the assessment matrix
2/ Our MP Mr Liddell-Grainger in his article in the WSFP refers to this process as being under a shroud of secrecy. I have faced the same problem. The current Monitoring officer won’t release a single document under a Freedom of Information request. Neither do they answer any emails, I have given up trying. How are the council and its employees to be held to account when they hide from public scrutiny like this. What have they got to hide.
3/ In the 22/11/22 MTC meeting it was announced that councillors Venner, Palmer and Hadley had all made complaints that they did not agree with the procedures taking place. The Monitoring officer at the time rejected their request.
A/ Is it appropriate that the Monitoring officer should deal with objections about their own behaviour.
B/ Can you check whether their objections were investigated properly and by an appropriate person.
4/ The free press and Cllr Allen at the MTC meeting 22/11/22 have confirmed that the current executive officer renegotiated the arrangement with Bar 21 in September converting it to an internal refurbishment from a full refurbishment, and is once again renegotiating the agreement. If I was one of the original bidders I would feel betrayed by these actions. If bar 21 can’t perform according to its bid then SWAT should go back to open tenders so we are all able to bid for it, a deal being done in secret behind closed doors is not transparent or fair. I would welcome your views on whether this is:-
A/ open and transparent government and
5/ MTC has now made an expression of interest to SWAT to take over the running of the café. Surely the next step under the 2011 localism Act is to go to open bids, can you let me know please. Either way to continue renegotiating an agreement with a third party to undermine this process must be considered questionable. Can you investigate please.
6/ The executive officer in 2020 has now decided his decision was an error as he also voted for the resolution for MTC to take back the café.
7/ I have asked the Leader of the council and Amy Tregellas for their assurance that the executive officer in 2020 was impartial, I have yet to receive that assurance.
8/ It seems unlikely from the information to hand that the Public Services(Social Value) Act 2012 has been taken into consideration at any point in this process. Can you check please?
Whilst your investigations are being undertaken I believe it would be inappropriate for SWAT to continue renegotiating the agreement with Bar 21 and I ask that these are paused. This is even more appropriate when SWAT are in receipt of the Expression of interest under the 2011 Act from MTC.
The Chair, Cllr Lisgo thanked Mr Martin for his participation and bringing his concerns to the attention of the committee. It was unfortunate that there were no Councillors representing Minehead at the meeting. It was apparent that the condition of the café was causing great concern amongst Minehead residents and all parties wanted to bring this matter to a resolution. Cllr Lisgo was unaware when she corresponded with Mr Martin previously that this matter had already been through several channels in the SWT administrative process including Corporate Complaints, Freedom of Information requests, an appeal to the Leader and public participation at the Executive meeting held on the 16 November. A written response from the PFH for Planning, Transport and Economic Development, Cllr Mike Rigby is here: -
“The issues that have been presented to us this evening have already been responded to by the Service, and by the Leader of the Council, and responded to through our complaints procedure at both stage 1 and 2, and through Freedom of Information requests. None of the information this evening is new and has been clearly responded to.
Whilst we welcome public participation in our decisions the responses provided have always been clear and transparent but I will reiterate the headlines for the benefit of the committee.
· The council made the decision to publicly market the opportunity to run the Blenheim Gardens Café, this was advertised in an open fair and transparent manner all documentation was provided equally and in the same timeframe.
· Information was constant with viewings held for parties that requested them so they could asses the building condition.
· The timeline for responses was extended to accommodate Minehead Town Council’s request for more time, all parties were notified of this extension of time which was provided to anyone wishing to bid. We also publicised this extension.
· Potential applicants were not selected to bid, the marketing was public and available to any interested party, there were no exclusions and so to suggest Minehead were not consulted is inaccurate.
· The bid responses were assessed by a panel of officers and the Assets portfolio holder.
· The lease lengths were put forward by the bidders on the basis of the time they felt necessary to recover their refurbishment costs, none of the bids meet the trigger points under the Localism Act so there is no breach in our duties.
· The Council has a duty to achieve best value and has taken a proactive and transparent stance to achieve investment is a property where there was no council budget to make the necessary improvements. It will also achieve an income from this process. The alternative option may have been a permanent closure and demolition.
· To suggest that the council lacked judgement and have executed the process poorly suggests a misunderstanding of the entire process despite the council’s clear, consistent and robust responses. For clarity this is a process that have been successful elsewhere in the district, you only have to look at the café in Goodland Gardens to see how private investment can enhance a public space.
· We are aware that a successful bidder made a planning application that was country to their bid submission. The application was not supported by the Assets team who act as landlord. Members will be aware that anyone can make a planning application on any land with he planning authority being required to consider the application on its merits. From our role as a landlord we are clear that should the application have been approved we would not allow this work to be delivered as we remain the landowners and our consent would have been required.
· There have been various suggestive statements made about the Executive Member involved in the tender process. This is not the way to raise concerns over the behaviour of a councillor. If the public speaker wished to raise a concern or make a complaint there is a process to do so which we would be happy to provide to you
· This scheme has not been without it problems, works were paused while an acceptable solution was being sought to create a refurbishment which would comply with the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards.
· We have received an acceptable certificate which means they can continue with works.
Considerable officer time and resources have gone into responding to these matters and I hope this to be the last contact we receive, however those involved in the complaints have the right to contact the local government ombudsman if they remain unhappy and we are be ready to defend our position and share all information with the LGO.”
In light of the above position, Cllr Lisgo advised Mr Martin to pursue his complaint independently via the Ombudsman. This was not a matter that could be dealt with via Community Scrutiny even though the committee had sympathy with the concerns. She accepted that this was a matter of great frustration for all parties, and SWT would be doing its utmost to ensure that the situation with the café was brought to a successful conclusion. Minehead Town Council had recently written to SWT and asked that a mutually agreeable solution could be found to benefit the residents of Minehead.
Cllr Lisgo thanked Mr Martin for attending and speaking with such passion. On behalf of the Committee she wished him a safe journey home.