Welcome to the Wild West
Taunton Deane Borough Council meetings can be fairly turgid affairs. But not this one. Mind you some of us went expecting that the recent withdrawal of St Modwen Properties from the Council’s flagship Firepool scheme (of which more in the October Leveller) would have drawn comment. Not so much as a whisper. Nothing on the agenda, no public questions, nothing planned by way of petitions or motions. It may simply be that everyone has completely despaired of TDBC’s ability to deliver (it did eventually surface right at the end of the 3 hour meeting you’ll be pleased to know!).
Tonight it did prove that what it lacks in delivery it makes up for in talk. At issue was the state of Taunton town centre, the vandalism, theft, intimidation of the public and the impact this is having on traders. The LibDems led on the issue with Cllr Councillor Habib Farbahi, closely followed by Councillor Simon Nicholls taking issue with changes that had been made to the oversight of the town in May last year. Then Sedgemoor District Council launched their own business crime reduction system to replace Somerset Businesses Against Crime (SBAC) and Taunton Deane joined in the scheme, but as a funder rather than an active participant.
The LibDems read out a long litany of complaints from shopkeepers large and small. A letter from Mr Hill, Director at Hatchers was read out that among other things referenced having to increase staff to prevent organised thieving, noting the impact of anti-social behaviour on sales and noting in passing that the public streets (as opposed to those policed by private security in the Orchard Shopping Centre) were “less desirable these days” deterring people from coming into Taunton.
Other councillors not all on the same side of the chamber, shared similar experiences. Similar complaints put in writing by the store manager at Lakeland were read out.
Clearly there is a problem, nearly every councillor recognised there was a problem. Except for Councillor Parrish who was moved to observe that “Some of what we have heard tonight if not totally exaggerated has been expanded upon somewhat.”. I assume he won’t be buying his furniture from Hatchers in the near future. Councillor Habgood struck a more conciliatory tone bearing in mind a personal experience of being threatened in the town. He felt the motion had merits, but the approach was wrong. He would have liked to see the scrutiny committee involved.
The nub of the Conservative position appeared to be, in essence, we sympathise with the sentiment, but passing a motion to do something about it is not the way to do these things. We need facts, evidence, and either a review or the use of the scrutiny committee is the right way to go about it. And why for that matter have the LibDems not brought the issue up before at a scrutiny committee meeting.
The nub of the LibDem point seemed to be we need to ignore that and get on with something now. A named vote was called.
I’m always suspicious when this happens as it smacks of getting people on the record because… an election is round the corner. And as luck would have it that is just what will happen next May.
But here is the question indeed several questions.
With possibly one exception, every councillor recognised there is a problem in Taunton Town Centre. This is not news. It has been known about for over a year. The traders say so, the public says so. So for Conservative Councillors and Cabinet to glibly say “you are using the wrong approach.” Well is that good enough?
Do they only take action when prompted by the opposition? Is there nothing in the water that prompts them to ask questions of a system that most seem to agree is not working? If they detect a problem can they not work with officers to fix it, or is sitting on your hands until the opposition bring it up the best way to go?
The LibDems too have questions to answer. Why have they not brought it to scrutiny before? Again this is not a new issue. Your humble correspondent had to leave the room before the votes had been cast on the motion but could not escape the feeling that neither side of the political divide is working in the interest of the corporate whole.
Whatever happens next, more investigation is my guess, we cannot escape the thought that had the investigation happened 6 months ago with both sides involved, instead of playing politics today, we’d be taking action now. As a member of the public whispered during the debate, “this lot will investigate anything as long as they don’t have to actually do something.”
I’ll leave the final word on the days events to Cllr James who apparently without irony, addressed the public gallery containing at least 2 members of the press, with the words “We are looking to being a Garden City. If the press get hold of this it won’t be welcome to the West it will be welcome to the Wild West.” You’re welcome!