Is our town in safe hands?

Avenue Gardens - Dave Upton

Last Monday I attended the April Council meeting to present my case for joining the Town Council (yes I know, I am stupid!) prompted by Councillor Springett’s challenge to join the council instead of holding them accountable from outside the Council Chamber. Luckily I have too many opponents on the Council so my application was rejected in favour of David Kelland and young master Pritchard, congratulations and good luck chaps, you’ll need it! However my reason for mentioning this is that I had to sit through 2 hours of Council debate before the selection process began and it was an eye opener for me.

I have previously questioned the wisdom of taking on more assets from SHDC as financial suicide by our Town Council, and last night’s debate on the subject only confirmed my worst fears. I previously reported that despite being advised that the cost of maintaining these assets is £250,000 per annum SHDC will subsidise DTC in the amount of £150,000 in the first year reducing to nothing after 5 years. This means we the ratepayers are being asked to make up the shortfall with the 64% rise in precept. This is the amount we get back from SHDC for local use from their rate collection. Not only that, in addition we will actually be paying twice for the upkeep of those assets, a belief that was confirmed by Councillor Fyson last night. I quote Cllr Fyson:

Cllr Fyson

“Some people believe we will be double taxed for those assets because although DTC will increase its rate demands for taking on the assets from SHDC, SHDC will not be reducing their demands on the ratepayers of Dartmouth to compensate for the savings they will make. I can only say that DTC needs the funds to maintain the assets so the ratepayers must take up their argument with SHDC”

That is not verbatim but is essentially correct. Councillor Fyson, are you serious???? You are telling Dartmouth ratepayers that it is our problem if SHDC double tax us for these assets? No! No! No! it is your responsibility to the ratepayers of Dartmouth to look after their best interests. It is your responsibility as our elected representatives to ensure when you negotiate with SHDC for the transfer of assets to get them to reduce their demands on Dartmouth ratepayers in line with their savings. Or better still you refuse to take on these assets which you cannot afford anyway.

Cllr Allen
Cllr Smith
Cllr Thompson
Cllr Pritchard

At least 4 councillors, including 2 past Mayors, stood up to berate the fact that they had seen no financial justification for this asset transfer from the (secret) working party and no financial projections looking 5 years ahead to the date when SHDC will no longer provide financial support. Councillors Alan, Pritchard, Smith and Thompson all stood up to complain about a lack of information, and this after the Council has already taken a vote to take on the assets ‘subject to due diligence’. Cllr Smith said after the meeting that the Council were “Playing Russian roulette with community finances for the future and I simply believe we have taken on more than we can chew.”

In our opinion the Council does not know what due diligence is and so it is time Dartmouth ratepayers stood up and made their views known to their Councillors. They are all accessible by email, just look on the Council website, or you can challenge them on the streets of Dartmouth. I note with interest that one of our most distinguished residents, Phil Roe, has already taken up this challenge in the Dartmouth Chronicle last week.

I quote:

To make this even more unbelievable, I am told that this money is needed for the transposition of many local functions from South Hams District Council to Dartmouth Town Council, such as the control of Avenue Gardens, Coronation Park, Castle Estate, general road sweeping and many other expensive operations requiring new staff, vehicles and plant, to be purchased by DTC.

But we shall now be double charged for all these expensive operations since SHDC are retaining the funds they have historically had, as if they were to continue, but with DTC now charging us again for exactly the same maintenance services. The classical “double whammy”!

Against the background of £6m being spent with such gay abandon on the new community college a few years ago, perhaps to be downsized into a primary school due to its failure to attract enough older children, we now have a £2.5m new swimming pool which, I’m told, is already proving a failure due to the limited take-up. The town council is almost penniless with no reserves, having committed £200,000 towards building the swimming pool and £10,000 per year towards its upkeep.

Would you believe £350,000 has been spent by DTC on a refurbishment of the Guildhall. Goodness knows what will happen now they have taken on these massive transfers of major areas of responsibility for everything from our public toilets to our Estates; and more, thus raising our council tax by this amazing 56 per cent. Mayflower 400 are promised £10,000 per year, and possibly other projects, such as Dartmouth Green Partnership, when our council is said to be penniless!

Phil Roe

Dartmouth Business News believe that there are many unanswered questions on the asset transfer such as:

  • Number of additional staff required to service the assets
  • Salary costs of these staff
  • Cost of recruitment
  • cost of training
  • Who will manage the staff?
  • Where will they locate?
  • Programme of maintenence of assets (previous neglect of assets such as market square do not engender confidence
  • What capital investment will be needed for equipment such as mowers etc?
  • 5 year forward financial projections of costs to ratepayers?

We believe these questions must be answered publicly, on the record and minuted so we the ratepayers can understand what the implications are.

Dartmouth is already a very expensive place to live especially for the younger residents that are the future of the town. This decision, if ratified, will make it even more expensive to live here and ensure that our younger residents have to leave the town in order to find a location they can afford to live and work in. Council talk about affordable housing is hypocritical against this background.

Witnessing this level of disfunction leads me to be very concerned about the future of other assets controlled by this Council. The TIC, which is also now in the hands of this Council, is a vital asset for the town. Years of mismanagement has left it financially bankrupt and it has now given away the town’s most important assets, our destination website and Discover Dartmouth brochure (which has now become a leaflet). The TIC management has focused only on what is best for the TIC not what is best for Dartmouth, which after all is what the TIC should be focused on. I do not believe the Town Council even understands what digital marketing is and these days it is the primary focus of marketing investment by the best destinations in the country. To find out more about destination marketing look at our recent addition to the Business Support pages of this site. TIC subscribers recognise this better than the TIC Board and so all but the most loyal subscribers continue to desert the TIC.

Also the Mayflower 400 project, which will be partially funded by the Council (and therefore us ratepayers), is in my view at risk of failure or at least underachieving against its potential. The project started in Dartmouth over 2 years ago. We still have no local website for the project so few people know what their plans are, their budget for the project is cursory and does not include a significant sum for marketing. What is the point of the project if we don’t maximise the opportunity to drive visitors to the town and benefit its economy. The Town Council must take responsibility for oversight of this project as they are giving them ratepayers money. It needs a much more professional approach to this project or the opportunity will be wasted again.

Is our town in safe hands? – I don’t think so.

Paul Reach

Dartmouth Business News

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