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SEDGEMOOR EXECUTIVE APPROVES WEST QUAY SCRUTINY LESSONS

posted 5 Apr 2012, 11:04 by Westover Labour   [ updated 5 Apr 2012, 11:13 ]
Following last months meeting of the Corporate Scrutiny Committee where residents and traders from Bridgwater's disaster stricken West Quay had the chance to put their grievances to Sedgemoor District Council officers and members courtesy of the Corporate Scrutiny Committee, the report taken this week to the Council's executive committee has been received and approved .

The report was presented by Chairman of the Corporate Scrutiny committee and Westover councillor Brian Smedley and is included in full below.

Recommendations  included 'better communication with residents', 'clearly defined roles and responsibilities amongst the agencies involved', 'wider access to volunteer agencies and people with relevant expertise' , 'earlier , better informed and a more decisive legal response'.

The Council staff were praised for their dedication during the emergency and the meeting agreed that 'in the circumstances SDC had met it;s responsibilities'. The meeting further agreed to request Somerset County Council to consider the scrutiny of the drainage system.

Chief Executive Kerry Rickards said the report was '..very helpful ' and that 'lessons would be learnt'. He added however that "Sedgemoor has nothing to be ashamed of...' and that 'advice from the Health & Safety Executive changed during the course of the emergency...which caused difficulties and fudged the issue'.

Council leader Duncan McGinty said "Because of the West Quay incident we were better prepared for subsequent events at Burnham and more recently with the bomb in Bridgwater. In the case of the drains, they were only recently replaced but no-one knew about what was happening underground. In all events it was fascinating to watch a plan coming into action."

Allison Griffin, the Corporate Director tasked with overseeing the West Quay recovery phase, said "It was very frustrating because we wanted to give certainty but it was not always possible and we had to err on the side of caution with the advice given. Health & Safety advice was that there were still potential risks and our legal powers were not what we expected. I accept there are lessons to learn and we will take these back to SDC to review them"

FULL REPORT BELOW

SEDGEMOOR DISTRICT COUNCIL

CORPORATE SCRUTINY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN’S REPORT

                   to the Executive on 4 April 2012 of Corporate Scrutiny Committee   held on Monday 5 March 2012 regarding West Quay Wall Collapse

 

 

The purpose of this additional report is as follows:-

To present to the Executive a summary by the Chairman of the Committee’s investigation into the Council’s performance relating to the West Quay Wall collapse especially in the areas of

 

a) Civil Contingency Performance

            b) Rest Centre/Temporary Housing Performance

c) SDC Corporate Position

and to draw conclusions from this in order to identify any   ‘learning points’.

The Council’s performance

 

 

The Purpose of this meeting was to provide Members with the chance to understand the events of November 4th 2011 in relation to the West Quay Wall collapse and to consider Sedgemoor’s response. I believed the best way to do this was to bring together as many of the people involved in the event as possible and who subsequently had to live with a degree of reliance on the Council and its decisions –obviously along with those of other agencies - face to face with officers who carried out council policy and to provide a forum for a free and participatory debate. Clearly many of the views expressed would be opinions or misunderstandings and had the potential to be contentious.  However I felt it was important to put all these issues into an open forum so that everyone was seen to be able to have their say and officers could explain and correct any misinterpretations in an open, transparent and fully accountable manner.

 

For a full report of the meeting the Executive will have a copy of the Committee Administrator’s (Steve Taylor) Minutes (attached to Executive agenda).

 

CIVIL CONTINGENCIES

 

The Council’s key Civil Contingencies manager Malcolm Brooks presented a very comprehensive report which formed the basis for the meeting’s general conclusion that SDC had met its responsibilities in the circumstances but had been hampered by several adverse circumstances which could not be foreseen noticeably:

 

-       The Fact that it was Carnival night and staff were thin on the ground

-       The concurrent incident on the Motorway which had the potential to stretch Emergency resources to breaking potential.

 

Much of the criticism of the events of the Evacuation evening do not relate directly to Sedgemoor but to the other Agencies involved. However, Sedgemoor’s lead role did put them in the front line for potential anger by evacuees and a future lesson could be to ensure roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and explained – although people accept that this isn’t easy at a time when Emergency services - especially when stretched - are attempting to take control of a rapidly developing situation.

 

REST CENTRE/TEMPORARY HOUSING

 

Although there was only praise for the dedication and attentiveness of Sedgemoor staff on the night, the choice of rest centre (the Arts Centre) and the Temporary Housing (YMCA) was criticised.

 

There was considerable and deserved praise for staff from the Arts Centre, Sedgemoor and YMCA . Many people stayed far longer than was expected of them and this was recognised by the meeting. There should be an acknowledgement that the Council’s legal obligation is to provide a “safe place” to rest. Whilst  this does not necessarily extend to comfortable chairs and blankets, as a responsible authority seeking to provide excellent service to its residents , SDC should aspire to something better than the statutory minimum and the criticisms have now been taken on board

 

It was unfortunate that the first choice Rest Centre (Bridgwater House) was not available due to a civic function being held there . On the night in question a decision was taken that although the Art Centre was not the ideal option it nevertheless provided the required ‘safe place’ and was conveniently located. Whilst that decision can be accepted in the circumstances it is generally felt that the Arts Centre should not be included in a future list of potential rest centres.

 

There was concern that the point of evacuation was in fact a bar. On the other hand this was welcomed by some. On the whole a bar isn’t appropriate.

 

The Arts Centre also had no comfortable chairs available, therefore in future a rest centre should be identified with adequate facilities for ‘rest’.

 

People were also concerned at lack of communication facility – therefore access to wifi, internet or telephones would be advisable in future.

 

There was unresolved dispute at the meeting as to whether the Emergency kit was adequate. Particularly blankets and torches were mentioned. Jerry Milton, the responsible officer had now addressed these matters so that in future a full emergency kit should be available.

 

Members of the public present at the meeting and some councillors urged more co-operation with local charities in future in order to locate additional resources - blankets, clothes, cooking equipment etc were referred to.

 

The choice of the YMCA was criticised as a long term solution - however it was also very clear that the indeterminate length of the evacuation was a factor that officers couldn’t easily budget for and this in itself led to additional issues.

 

It was also clear that the Housing team were in a very difficult position with a larger than usual and sudden need for immediate re-housing and they obviously didn’t have the resources or facility to respond to this other than by the usual routes of ‘homefinder’ and ‘private rented sector’ – this was further hampered by the dire situation locally in housing availability generally and specifically in the light of the recent Morrisons development. The meeting noted that in this instance  it was fortunate that rooms were available at the YMCA and also at the Wardens house in Highbridge where the Timorese evacuees were relocated to but Short of having permanently available rooms mothballed until required the only options available to the Housing team remains to negotiate a deal within budget for surplus accommodation.

 

CORPORATE POSITION

 

The main criticism regarding Sedgemoor’s corporate position related to its public face during and after the Emergency. Specifically this meant:

 

i)              Co-operation with other Agencies.  It may be the case that SDC assumed too high a profile in the initial stages of the Emergency and the aftermath and accordingly took most of the flak at times of great uncertainty to residents and businesses. Whilst there were criticisms of a generic nature, it was because SDC was seen to be the lead agency that any problems stemming from Police or Fire Services firm action on the night - such as ‘battering down doors unnecessarily’ or ‘being brusque with people they needed to evacuate’ (in the perception of some) , fell into Sedgemoor’s in tray, therefore a clearer line to the relevant Agencies should be identified in advance.

 

ii)             Public Access to Information.  This was deemed by residents to be inadequate. Although information was put out it also raised expectations and left the Council open to further demands which it’s frontline staff were not easily able to respond to in the way that those affected might have wanted. This came to a head with the perception that Agencies were hiding something and meeting in secret especially in relation to the promised - yet moved - December 19th meeting. It should be noted that since SCC has assumed the public face for the next phase of operations they have in fact learnt the lessons from Sedgemoor’s initial rough ride and have engaged with traders and residents in such a way as to get them on side from day one. Regular and accurate communication , exact and relevant information, public meetings along with  the early involvement of ward members should all be considered in future.

 

iii)            Availability of Resources.  It was a common theme that hard pressed staff were putting in long hours and facing undeserved harsh criticism whereas the reality was that SDC didn’t have the resources and either wasn’t prepared or able to make funds available to meet the expectations of the victims of the Incident. It also became apparent that Sedgemoor no longer has the in house professional staff such as architects; engineers; quantity surveyors which it used to engage and therefore struggled to respond quickly to such an unusual event. Whilst officers worked hard and cannot be criticised justly for their dedication, it is clear that Sedgemoor needed and indeed needs access to more expert input to call upon in events such as this. The contribution of Dr Cattermole, as an example, was noted in this respect “his work being used on a daily basis by meetings and to formulate plans for other agencies” (Bob Brown) and he was thanked. That he had not been in advance of this meeting was also a corporate oversight. SDC needs to have available a wider database of people with the expertise that is not immediately accessible in-house.

 

iv)           Offsetting the Financial Burden.  One clear problem for traders and residents was the potential for considerable financial loss due to an incident not of their making. SDC was able to respond to this by identifying key corporate expectations that it could be flexible on and received praise from members in regard to

a) The suspension of business rates

b) The rent free period

c) Attempts to relocate shops at no expense

d) Assistance in publicising the continued access to trading on West Quay despite its inaccessible appearance.  In this respect Allison Griffin’s efforts through the Bridgwater Retail Initiative and Tim Mander’s work in relocation should be noted. These options should be noted for future reference and the flexibilities built into any future emergency response.

 

v)            Legal Position.  Sedgemoor came under some criticism for offering conflicting or varying legal advice during the period and in fact at one point sought ‘Counsels Opinion’ to address this inconsistency. The confusion regarding ‘Hazard notices’ and ‘at your own risk’ conditions affecting insurance claims was highlighted by some residents and traders and added to a further disappointment with Sedgemoor as the lead agency. Earlier, better informed and more decisive legal response needs to be forthcoming in future.

.

 

 

Resolution of the Committee

That Sedgemoor District Council had met its responsibility in the circumstances and to request a report be taken to the Executive recommending that they take on board and address the issues raised and request Somerset County Council consider the scrutiny of the drainage system.

 

Cllr Brian Smedley

Chair of Corporate Scrutiny

2.4.2012

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