Outside, the heavens had opened. But inside it was like heaven itself as the grandiose setting of Bridgwater Town Hall played host to the autumn meeting of Bridgwater Town Council. The crowds gathered to hear the latest Unitary updates, Climate Change initiatives, Town Deal priorities, Transport schemes and Youth projects. By which I mean 3 people braved the weather and sat as lonely as 3 clouds in the 500-seat auditorium. But in fact we had a special guest. This month we’d managed to get down the newly elected Police and Crime Commissioner Mark Shelford to his first grilling by Bridgwater councillors. The plan was to take the PCC on a tour of the hotspots of the town so he could see for himself. But it poured down with rain so we didn’t. Instead we took him into a small Guantanamo Bay style interview room and ‘had a little chat’.
PCC Mark Shelford has not long been elected. Standing as a Tory, he narrowly beat the Labour candidate Kerry Barker and brought to an end the 2 terms of ‘Independent’ PCC Sue Mountstevens. What would he be doing differently and did he understand the problems that faced Bridgwater? Shelford is a Tory. He’s a former military man. An officer of high rank who’d served in the Gulf War. Clear of thinking and quick with an explanation and a firm opinion on everything, he had a problem solving mindset. When he thought we hadn’t understood a procedure or some Police jargon he got the officers present to repeat and explain and when there were options to consider he pointed calmly but decisively at a PCSO and gave an order to get something done. In that polite but firm authoritative way that only ‘some people’ can get away with. As the Duke of Wellington might have said ‘would you mind awfully jumping over that ditch and running into the bayonets of those chaps over there?’
The big problem in central Bridgwater for some time has been anti social behaviour. Meeting after meeting has been devoted to what, if anything, the Police were doing about it. Why it took 100 calls to get the police to answer 1 or 2, and where were the new Police officers promised each time we asked about scant resources. In fact, this time it was good news. The Police were working out of view of the frustrated public gaze and had been gradually picking off ring leaders and targeting the wider problem of street drinkers with something called ‘Operation Habit’. This was welcome news to PCC Shelford, and was instead explained by the 2 frontline PCSOs present. This ‘hot spot’ policing means that instead of being called out by angry residents only to find that when the Police arrive the incident has ceased and there’s literally nothing remaining to do, the Police instead suddenly throw spontaneous resources at unsuspecting hotspots and catch people in the act. As a result of this the level of ASB had been dropping for some time and things did seem quieter. So it didn’t help when this very day vandals had kicked over 2 newly erected litter bins and uprooted them from their cemented in bases. Westover ward councillors got the bins fixed before people hardly noticed but….well, why would you even do that?
Flagging up the broader issues
Our councillors took the chance to tell the PCC what they thought and find out whether his clear thinking analysis and problem solving mindset was a kindred workmate.
Cllr Kathy Pearce (Labour Westover) firmly believed that a lot of the problems were triggered by addiction, which was a public health issue and didn’t need to be a criminal one. The problem was the lack of a joined up preventative programme with cuts to support services that could have stopped things getting to this stage. PCC Shelford agreed that it was a public health issue. But how could they best engage with the Police resources they have?
Cllr Mick Lerry (Labour Victoria) pointed to opportunities to work with other agencies. Focus on homelessness, on housing, on mental health issues. Increase officers so that we had a real presence in the town centre. The police being visible would help. Shelford’s eyes brightened up as he could now mention the ‘Boris 20,000’ saying that “we had 450 earmarked for Avon and Somerset, of which half of these had already been recruited”. Very good number play mind…how 20,000-an impressive big figure, becomes 450 and then lands at 225. But how should they be deployed? The PCC felt that neighbourhood teams were the solution. Street level intelligence was key.
But for other councillors this wasn’t enough and maybe they were either focusing on the wrong issues or simply hadn’t gained the trust of the public. Cllr Li Gibson (Westover, Labour) asked why they didn’t simply decriminalise soft drugs and pushed the PCC for his views on Climate Change protestors. For Mr Shelford these were ‘obvious’ black and white issues. He was ‘categorically against drugs‘ and so did not want to be seen as anything other than hardline on that one and the climate protestors who were gluing themselves to roads were ‘bonkers’ and a ‘nuisance to the public‘. ‘I spoke to the Mayor of Oporto who said the worse decision of his life was to decriminalise drugs’ said the PCC. Cllr Tony Heywood (Labour Eastover) looked surprised and immediately googled the facts of the matter which showed that prisoners sentenced for drugs had dropped from 40% to 15% and drug related deaths and rates of drug use were consistently below the EU average. As for the climate change protestors, it’s very likely that history will look back on them in a more favourable light…but admittedly harder for people trying to go about their daily business and finding themselves in a traffic jam caused by one of their actions. Whether angry motorists going down the line of glued-in protestors and covering them in blue ink was an appropriate response, the PCC didn’t get round to saying.
Restoring Trust in the Police
Cllr Julie Cordiner (Labour, Victoria) raised the key issue of public trust in the Police and in particular with the recent murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer. Mr Shelford said that when he heard the news he had felt physically sick. “We police by consent and that requires trust. This trust had been destroyed by an evil man. Misogyny wouldn’t be tolerated and commanders need to know when to step in when ‘banter goes too far’ “. Cllr Cordiner came straight back “‘Banter’ is not a phrase we should be using in this context and there needs to be a major culture change before people will trust the Police and their ‘banter’. Policing is not seen as equal across all sections of the community. Not for women, not for black and Asian communities.” But the PCC wasn’t accepting this, he said “Misogyny is absolutely not acceptable, but the facts are that racism in the Police is NOT a top issue.”
So, the town councils first meeting with the new PCC was a good chance to get to know the new guy. He’s an easy to understand guy with a clear world view and he has the democratic mandate to deliver his opinions for the next 4 years. Let’s see how we get on.
Brightening up the Winter Months
The rest of the meeting was better news and more harmony, sweetness and light as the ruling Labour group set out where we are and where we’re going. As Leader I highlighted the key place-markers for the winter months.
Unitary – This is the big change that nobody wanted, but we’re going to have it so we better make the best of it. If we play our cards right Bridgwater could come out of it with more powers and better services. Currently, we’re being seen as a ‘pilot’ scheme for what they call ‘devolution’ which means the transfer of assets and services from the outgoing District Councils to the incoming Unitary Council and/or the intermediate towns and parishes. Of course, it’s a no brainer for Bridgwater to want to take control of it’s own destiny as we did in the borough days and for services to be delivered locally.
The Budget -This time of year we start thinking of the next Town Council budget. Towns finances are in good shape. We’ve taken on staff, we’ve increased our community reach , the budget is performing well and we’re on target to put significant funds back into reserves.
The Climate Emergency – Under the direction of Environment Lead Cllr Kathy Pearce (Westover, Labour) we’ve started to fund and plant new trees. Bristol Road cemetery is being spruced up with new planting, and communities are joining us by engaging with our tree fund to plant and subsequently care for tree clusters in their areas. We agreed to set up a ‘Green Events’ working party to develop the work of ‘Seed the Day’ and the ‘Flower Show’ and work with tree fanatic Roy Cheek who has been seeding our town street by street. You only have to take a walk down Castle Street to see the difference his influence has made.
Youth Projects –Cllr Julie Cordiner reported on the first Youth Forum meeting since it was suspended due to Covid and was positive in the way the delegates from the schools attending had taken the youth grant applications and commented critically on them, making them their own by amending and developing them to make them relevant to young people. She described their commitment as ‘inspirational’.
Bridgwater’s ‘Happy Time’
So things are going well as we move into Bridgwater’s favourite month. Carnivember. Although there still won’t be the traditional parade, there will be a ‘virtual’ carnival on November 6th , a series of related showtime performances at the town hall throughout the period and a firework display on November 5th, everything looks hopeful for a 2022 return. This November of course will also see the popular town council sponsored ‘History Day’ on November 20th, this year coinciding with the ‘Snowflakes and Shopping’ event and the ‘Christmas Lights turn on’….last year a worldwide internet phenomenon…
Tory’s determined ‘not to look silly’
As for the rest of the council meeting, well, Tory Leader the Duchess of Durleigh wasn’t at this one due to illness, so it fell to newly elevated deputy leader and party hopper ,Cllr Diogo, to be King Con for the day. Generally, they couldn’t argue with what we were doing and only once opposed us. By abstaining. Cllr Mick Lerry’s motion to look at the reform of business rates was a bit much for them and so the stand in Tory bosslet said ‘it would be silly’ for them to support the motion ‘in the light of the budget’. It certainly would. It might look like they didn’t think the Tory budget was a well meaning redistribution of wealth but rather a con trick to pile on the attacks against working people while bankers could sip champagne on climate harming internal flights. That would indeed look silly. But maybe not as silly as the Tories conning us that they care about climate change while in reality lowering taxes on short haul flights in the week of the global climate crisis conference in Glasgow. Maybe we can all fly there….