A day which had started with Sedgemoor Corporate Director Bob Brown admitting after weeks of pressure from the Sedgemoor Labour Group that part of the Tesco planning fee for the controversial Northgate development had been paid out of public funds – but in fact by the County Council – ended with Battle lines drawn at the Corporate Scrutiny committee meeting as Tory Councillors attempted to vote down an urgent motion to investigate the matter .
Addressing the meeting, Cllr Julian Taylor (Labour Bridgwater Eastover) outlined the facts of the case saying that it was “Morally indefensible that council tax payers money should be spent subsidizing a multi billion pound corporation” and that it was now “right and proper that the Council called a special meeting of the Scrutiny committee to investigate how this happened with all the correspondence involved along with the Chief Executive who made the decision.”
Cllr Ian Tucker (Labour Bridgwater Dunwear) said “The council has got to be seen to be acting fairly.”
Cllr Mick Lerry (Labour Bridgwater Victoria) moved the motion to call a special investigative meeting saying “We need this meeting now to clear this up. This is not a minor matter it relates to the Governance of this Council and public money has been used to clear an impasse where both Councils are landowners who seek to benefit from the sale. We want to know what discussions have been had between SDC & SCC and any refusal to scrutinise this would be clearly seen as a smokescreen. “
Bob Brown, standing in for Chief Exec Kerry Rickards, said “This issue is a planning matter and the only decision to be made now will be by the Development Control Committee in deciding the planning application on planning grounds. The necessary fee has been paid in full – not by Tesco but by one of the landowners, Somerset, but this is not unusual. This matter does not prejudice Sedgemoor District Council in it’s role as Planning Authority and the application must proceed untainted.”
“Not Sedgemoors problem”
Cllr Jane Moreton (Conservative,Huntspill) said she “wasn’t opposed to scrutinising the way planning fees are dealt with” but felt “this is not Sedgemoor’s problem as it is Somerset who paid the bill.”
Cllr Nobby Turner (Conservative Kings isle) added “Sedgemoor have not paid a damn thing so it’s up to County if they want to scrutinize this. If this is just another attempt to kick Tesco’s into a hole then I’m having nothing to do with it.”
Cllr Bob Filmer (Conservative Brent) Chair of Development Ctte said “SDC has not paid ,SCC has. I really don’t think it’s up to us to look into this.”
The meeting voted 6.4 to reject a special meeting with the 6 Tories voting to reject and the 3 Labour and 1 Highbridge Independent voting for further scrutiny.
“seen to be transparent”
Chairman Cllr Brian Smedley (Labour Bridgwater Westover) said “The purpose of this committee is to scrutinize Sedgemoor’s procedures and to be seen to be transparent in doing so. All we’re asking for is a level playing field-before someone builds a supermarket on the one we have.”
Cllr Lerry amended his motion to remove the words ‘urgent’ and ‘special meeting’ and this time the vote resulted in Tory councillors Moreton and Turner swinging in favour whilst 4 Tories still held out for refusal. Now, with a 6.4 vote to proceed , the item was scheduled for the normal Scrutiny meeting of February 4th when Planning matters generally were also on the agenda.
Cllr Dave Loveridge (Labour County Councillor for Bridgwater North and Central) said after the meeting “I have asked the Labour chair of Scrutiny on County, Andy Govier, to put this matter on the agenda of the next County Scrutiny committee. County are asking people to accept 150 million pounds of cutbacks to services and at the same time it turns out they’re paying the planning fees of a company that made 35 billion pounds profit!”
Cllr Brian Smedley said “In a round about way the Scrutiny process worked. We investigated a very controversial issue , got it into the public domain and members recognised the need for further scrutiny. It will be interesting to see what response County give now that Sedgemoor have basically said ‘it wasn’t us it was them!’.”