Islanders Express Concerns Over Town Hall Transparency And Overspends

town hall windows signIslanders are concerned about Council transparency and recent Town Hall overspends. And there’s a feeling that Scilly is being changed too much, through building projects that are either inappropriate or unnecessary.

Those were the reoccurring themes aired by some locals at a meeting in the Town Hall last night, attended by around forty islanders.

Two executive members of the HEART community action group, who were elected to Council in 2013, hosted the session.

But Fran Grottick and Adrian Davis made it clear that they could only speak as residents and not as Council representatives.

Adrian told the meeting that he’d received a telephone warning from Senior Officer Craig Dryden before the meeting.

Craig, who was in the audience, confirmed that he’d rung Adrian, but said the call was just to offer “friendly advice.”

Islanders say they can’t find out what’s going on and what is being done in their name.

The Council webcasts, originally introduced as part of an open government drive, are not being uploaded, or are made available weeks after the meetings have taken place.

That means islanders who can’t physically attend the meetings don’t get to see decisions being made.

And some say complaints they’ve made haven’t brought any answers.

Whilst some locals felt they had little input, Cllr Steve Sims argued that the community doesn’t actually want to engage with the Council.

Speaking from the audience, Steve said that he rarely received locals’ questions and Cllr Sims blamed some councillors’ lack of drive.

He responded to a claim that it is officers who are calling the shots by claiming that few councillors are proactive.

The members don’t lead, he said, so it falls on the Council officers to “fill the vacuum.”

Much of the meeting was taken up with complaints about the Authority’s recent building projects.

A number of locals don’t like the new airport terminal. A “perfectly adequate” facility had been replaced with “something more suited to Heathrow,” complained one islander.

And Murray Hodgson felt the new design complicated arrangements for private pilots.

Locals wanted to know how the airport plan managed to circumnavigate the Council’s planning process.

Cllr Grottick explained that some infrastructure projects, like airports, can go ahead without planning, through so-called Permitted Development Rights.

But the meeting heard that the Council could also have chosen to ask its Planning Committee to approve the plans, but they didn’t.

Locals wanted to know why the 1960s-built Carn Thomas School had to be knocked down and couldn’t be reused.

Fran felt that the structure was “challenging” and there were problems with the integrity of the adjacent science block, too.

But Andrew Combes queried whether locals have been adequately canvassed on what to do with the former secondary school site.

Cllr Grottick said the future of the site had been “robustly discussed” over the last decade and locals had agreed that it is used for housing for the elderly.

There were numerous opinions shared over the £1.1m in overspending on the airport and Porthcressa projects.

There was no clear answer to “who will foot the bill” but EU grants are being pursued to bail out the over-budget airport scheme.

The design of the new units on the old Wholesalers site was also discussed.

The Porthmellon Innovation Centre consists of offices and a commercial kitchen but Mark Prebble felt it wasn’t laid out conveniently.

Prepared food will have to be carried through the office space to reach the front door.

After debate over the poor state of landscaping and plants at Porthcressa, resident John Purkiss asked whether the Council could learn from the experience of that project, “and not try to be so ambitious.”

The meeting was originally convened to discuss issues surrounding the former school head teacher Bryce Wilby.

Fran and Adrian considered their words carefully following their guidance from Council officers and there was little new information shared with the meeting about the teaching standards body’s decision to throw out a case against Mr Wilby, because the Council’s evidence was unreliable.

Locals felt that could expose the Town Hall to a sizeable legal bill. One resident called for “heads to roll” over the issue.

Adrian Davis said the Council now had a chance to make amends and he’d written to Chairman Amanda Martin to try and start that process.

A few people also expressed an opinion that “little had changed” in the Council’s approach and relationship with the community since the 2013 elections.

And whilst there was debate over how the authority could be brought to account, including talk of contacting the Local Government Ombudsman, no further action was suggested.

Mark Prebble had advised that a Council debate could be forced on any issue if 200 locals signed a petition.

After the meeting, Adrian Davis said he had hoped someone would make a proposal for future action but the meeting served its purpose of letting locals ask some questions and vent their frustrations.

Although councillors are all independent, Adrian feels there is a form of political party system in place within the Town Hall.

He says you’re either “in the loop, or on the outside.”

And he didn’t share Steve Sims’ view that it was easy for members to get answers from officers.

Adrian said he tried when he first got elected and there are only one or two officers he can “honestly speak to unreservedly.”

He says there are some elected members who refuse to see what is going on and he was surprised hat more of them didn’t support him recently when he stood for Chairman.

“Someone has to stand up and answer questions and not keep hiding,” he says.

Adrian says he’ll now think about what to do next and more community meetings may be arranged.

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