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posted 6 Mar 2012, 07:18 by Westover Labour
At this weeks long awaited meeting of Sedgemoor District Council's Corporate Scrutiny committee the long suffering residents and traders of Bridgwater's stricken West Quay had their chance to ask the key questions to the decision makers and Sedgemoor Councillor's had their chance to listen and to learn and to draw conclusions as to what could be done better in future.

Cllr Brian Smedley, the Labour nominated chair of the Corporate Scrutiny Committee, has been changing the way these committees operate during his time in office and says his main aim is to "treat members of the public on a equal basis to Councillors and Officers and to maintain an open and relevent dialogue at meetings rather than restrict them to three minutes with no comeback. " With this open format, members of the West Quay Action Group occupied the committee tables and michrophones alongside councillors and officers with members of the public in attendance being advised that they could also contribute as they wished.

"...witnessed the wall peel away"

The meeting opened with memories of the night in question from Adrian Fraser and Steve Coram who were in West Quay Records at the time of the incident - which was just after 4pm on the 4th of November. They described the torrential rain from which customers and passers by were seeking shelter and mr Coram described how he personally witnessed the wall peel away and the hole in the Quayside open up. Emergency services were already on the scene although he expressed surprise that one fireman on the scene didn't appear to see it as a priority.

Malcolm Brooks, SDC's Civil Contingencies Manager, explained that they were in the process of setting up a Silver Command at the same time due to the carnival and so it was a coincidence that it was almost in place when this emergency was notified to him via the SDC CCTV and monitored radio traffic. He was aware that a 'Rest Centre' may be needed should the emergency develop and his first choice -the Sedgemoor Room at Bridgwater House, was unavailable as the Council were holding a civic function there due to it being Carnival night. His second choice was the Bridgwater Arts Centre who agreed to make itself available . At 1645 the incident was brought to the attention of the most senior SDC officer available Bob Brown as Chief Exec Kerry Rickards was in fact attending the civic function. Malcolm Brooks set up the District Emergency centre at 1705 and an hour later was notified that the police had started to evacuate up to 30 people and so the rest centre was activated.

Evacuation Night Experiences

Residents and traders spoke of their evacuation night experiences. Adrian Fraser of West Quay records said "I was told to lock my front door by  the first set of Emergency services and leave by the back door, then later they broke down the front door they'd told me to lock. Also they went through the flats above hammering down the doors. Only now after 4 months has SDC agreed to pay for this to be repaired."

Sara Brewer of 3 Castle street said "Quite late in the evening of November 4th - probably around 10.30 -11pm - a police officer and two firemen were heard banging loudly on the door of No. 1. It was so loud I went out to my front door to see what was happening. They were about to "shoulder" the door when I called to ask them to stop and told them there was no one there as the owner was staying overnight in my house. They then scrawled in a wax based pen "empty" over the door in large letters. They then moved across the road to No. 2 and repeated their actions. I called out, again, telling them that there was no one there as it was a building site, the owner was at home in Middlezoy and that the police had been TWICE given his mobile number to contact him if needed. I was told by the Policeman to please go back inside my house and leave them to get on with their job! I hasten to add that he did not say this in a calm way, he was almost on the edge of panicking... I told them I wasn't going to budge from my doorway whilst they were still there...and told them they must not break the door down, so they broke 3 window panes instead. They entered the property and damaged two other doors and broke a padlock on the OUTSIDE of the cellar door... as the owner later said, "did they think I had locked someone inside?".  In my view this was a totally over the top reaction by the police officer - the firemen said nothing. Absolutely no respect for other peoples property - both Grade 1 Listed - and no moment to reflect or listen to what I was saying to them. "

Cllr Nobby Turner (Conservative,King's Isle) took issue with the residents saying "It is not right for people to criticise the Police or the Fire Brigade when they are not here to defend themselves."

Sara Brewer added "It's not good enough to say everyone was under heaps of pressure that night, we all were, but the Police and Fire Service have special training to cope with these situations and it leaves a bad taste for those left to clear up the mess in the aftermath especially when it's made by the very people who are trying to help."

Cllr Smedley (Labour,Westover)  said "The purpose of this meeting is to give the public their chance to tell us what went wrong on the night and Sedgemoor is part of the Emergency response and so we need to listen and learn from these mistakes." 

Malcolm Brooks referred to a concern that should the Emergency escalate there was the possibility of having to accommodate a further 30-40 people from Homecastle house and alerted the County's social care team and also called for a First Aid presence. Residents were concerned at this point that should that eventually have happened then the Art Centre would not have been an adequate location. 

"no blankets"

Mrs Carole Sharp, who had been evacuated from Fishermans Wharf and spent the night at the Art Centre which she said was not adequate as" there were no blankets , people had to sit up in chairs all night and the food they received were the leftovers from the civic function at Bridgwater House."

A member of the general public took the michrophone and said "If you were short of blankets you could have asked us. There's a lot of volunteer groups in town who would have rallied round"

Jerry Milton, as head of Housing Advice, said the responsibility for running Rest Centre fell to him. He said "An Emergency rest Centre excercise was conducted in Sedgemoor in 2007 and overseen by the Civil Contingencies unit."

Cllr Dave Loveridge (Labour,Eastover) said "I was at that excercise and we were led to believe that everything needed would be available to the people who needed it so what went wrong?"

Mr Brooks said "The situation became worse when a road traffic accident on the motorway near Taunton led to a further request for a rest centre but due to the possibility of the need for capacity for homecastle house this request was refered to taunton deane. At 2310 a Gold Command was setup in Portishead to deal seperately with the RTA."

"depleted staff resources"

Mr Milton explained that the occasion of Carnival night was a major problem which limited already depleted staff resources. Some staff were taking part in Carnival  whilst he himself was on Annual Leave yet came in specially and stayed the entire night with the evacuees along with 3 of his staff. He said there were other problems though "Some items from the Rest Centre kit were found to be not working, other items missing.  This had now been rectified". He agreed that the Art Centre was not the best place to have chosen as" it had a public bar and non evacuees tended to wander amongst evacuees and it was not possible to seperate the consumption of alcohol from the rest centre." A total of 22 evacuees received advice and assistance on the night and a further 4 the following day at which point the Rest Centre was moved to Bridgwater House .

Mr Milton explained that the council then made an agreement with the YMCA to utilise Gerald Townsend Court as temporary accommodation but the problem was "no one could tell how long the emergency would last. However,although Gerald Townsend house was of a high standard it was designed for young people and the lifestyles of younger people do not neccessarily match those of an older age group"

Dave Swann, who was evacuated to the YMCA said "Gerald Townsend Court was totally innapropriate in fact it was bedlam there on friday and saturday nights!"

"...high level of homelessness..budgetary constraints..".

Mr Milton said his department was very overstretched with a high level of homelessness currently and further restricted by the lack of private rented accommodation due to the new Morrisons development and further by budgetary constraints. His officers continued to assist where possible and at least one person found accommodation in this way.

Turning to the structural involvement of SDC, Mr Andy McKay , building control officer, said he had been called to the situation and whilst the initial worry was that the wall had moved and might collapse it became clear that it had stopped moving. He said the cause of the incident had not yet been established.

Mr Peter Phillips, a former sewer worker, said he had worked in the sewers of Castle street and he believed that the cause of the collapse was due to" a decision by some idiot to put in a reduced sized joint during the works by Wessex Water  in 2008 when the castle wall was discovered at the junction of castle street and west quay at approximately where the wall collapsed."

Dr Peter Cattermole, the Honorary Curator of Blake Museum, spoke to the meeting and explained his own efforts to present information and advice to the Council regarding the heritage background.  He had provided photographs , archaeological reports and sewer plans plus historical notes going back to the 15th Century plus copies of Acts dating from 1697 pertaining to the repair of the Quayside which he believed clearly attributed ownership of West Quay to the Borough and therefore consequently to Sedgemoor District Council following it;s creation in 1974 as the Port Authority. He was also critical of a cancelled meeting scheduled for 22nd December which has been held behind closed doors on the 19th. He was further concerned that "apparently no investigation has taken place as to the likely cause or if there has been no information released about it". Dr Cattermole said he had not even been thanked by Sedgemoor for his work. The Chairman immediatly offered his own thanks shortly followed by Bob Brown as senior Officer present.

Mr Tim Mander, SDC Estates valuer, said that a degree of Business relief had been given but would be suspended as soon as the businesses reopened. Cllr Ian Dyer (Conservative,Cannington) said there was a case that the suspensions should be longer to give businesses a chance to get back on their feet. Mr Mander replied I am prepared to speak to the Revenues Manager Dave Churchill to ask  the Valuation Officer (Inland Revenue) to have a look at making a temporary adjustment to the assessment of business rates as a result of the on-going disturbance to trade. Hopefully a temporary  reduction in business rates will help mitigate the potential loss.  "

Both Allison Griffin (the senior officer responsible for the West Quay Emergency) and Claire Faun (Media officer) were not present to hear the criticisms from residents about poor communication between SDC and them but Bob Brown responding on their behalf said "I hope lessons will be learnt in this respect." He stressed that there were several Agencies involved - the Environment Agency, Somerset CC and Wessex Water and they had held regular meetings with them. Carol Sharp said "Communication was the real weak point. You said we could get regular bulletin sheets posted up on west quay, so why's the most recent one the 28th November?!  No one seemed to be in charge."

After 3 hours and a temporary recess patience was wearing thin with some on the Tory side of the room. Whilst Councillors Hamlin (Conservative,Woolavington) and Dyer (Cannington) continued to engage with the residents and point to possible solutions to problems, Councillor Grimes (Berrow) and Davey (Burnham North)  (Cllr Turner having left at half time) took issue with the perceived constant criticism and moved a simple motion saying "This Committee thinks the Council did a good job". So it was down to Cllr Mick Lerry (Labour, Victoria) and Cllr Bob Filmer (Conservative,Brent) to urgently add an ammendment which agreed to take the concerns of the residents in a report to the Executive Committee to identify lessons learnt and action them. This was accepted and carried unanimously.

After the meeting Cllr Smedley said "It's very important that the workings of Local Authorities are demystified and made accessible to the General Public and it's important that the people feel they are being treated equally and will be listened to. I hope this committee achieved that , even if it ruffled a few feathers , and that SDC will now genuinely attempt to learn some lessons from the mistakes on the night. Having said that the residents  also praised the work of the people who put in long hours and took time to help them and that needs to be made clear."