Monday 17 June 2013


UH delegation in Kings Square, Bridgwater
European Union money fluttered gently into the Bridgwater economy last week as the town became the focus of the latest leg of the EU 7 Partners project. Since 1989 the Czechs have been moving away from the Communist system and embracing Western style capitalist democracy,  the European Union, NATO and  attempting to adapt their local government administration to meet the needs and demands of these goals. So they tapped into their twin town network - of which they have 6 - and of which Bridgwater is the first - having been the first British town to twin with a Czech town after the Velvet Revolution, to see what they could learn. IF they could learn anything in fact....or if what they were doing was good practice enough.

After visiting the German town of Mayenne to study Education and the Italian town of Priverno to pick up tips on Tourism, they came to Bridgwater to try to understand the complicated British local government system....and to see how we'd got on with 'Town Planning', 'Flood Prevention', 'New Nuclear'  'Community impact'  and 'Environmental Health'.........Good choices!

What lessons could they learn??

Barbora translates for Sedgemoor officers Claire & Nick
The group that travelled included 3 senior members of the Uherske Hradiste (UH) council - Stanislav Blaha (ODS/Conservative deputy mayor) Zdenek Prochazka (KDU-CSL/Christian Democrat deputy mayor) and Bronislav Vajdik (CSSD/Social Democrat councillor) plus 8 senior workers from the town planning and architects department and even their Chief Executive Josef Botek. All under the careful tutelage of translator  Barbora Szolonyova.

What lessons could they learn from Sedgemoor District Council, Bridgwater Town Council and Somerset County Council? Well, the first one was why we had so many councils in the first place!!

On Day one they were welcomed at Bridgwater House by Sedgemoor top brass Kerry Rickards (Chief Executive) and Council leader Duncan McGinty who explained how the District Council fits into the jigsaw of Local Authorities - much more akin to the powers of their own Council back home and with a similar Executive Committee system (all of whom appear to be Deputy Mayors). The Czechs toured the Council offices, noting the empty spaces soon to be filled with an influx of County Council workers as the two Authorities begin to share office space , and intrigued by the open planned nature of the floors with their latest 'hot desking' spots allowing for more home working.

The CCTV control centre was an eye opener, particularly in civil hands and not in the vaults of some all seeing Police Authority....or is it....?

Flooding - to Dredge or Not to Dredge....

Cllr McGinty shows the Czechs around Bridgwater House
Especially important was learning about Sedgemoors  recent Flooding and how it was dealt with. The Czech Republic had just been hit by heavy floods killing 8 people and Uherse Hradiste only 10 years ago was devastated as the Morava river swept through the town centre. At the time Bridgwater people helped raise money  to help - much of which was spent renovating their ancient town library which was encyclopedia deep in floodwater.  In Sedgemoor fields are flooded, dredging - although favoured by many - is an expensive option and we have a coast. In the Czech Republic they have no option but to release their flood water in the general direction of Germany.....

Taking a break from filling their heads with data we took them to 'meet the people'. We chose the George Inn , Middlezoy for a game of skittles and a chat with the locals. But it was back to work when who should they meet but local Councillor Nobby Turner who was keen to put the case for river dredging and even gave them his own precious book on the subject.

Housing lessons

Cllr Fothergill explains Somerset's role in everything
The next day at Sedgemoor they were astounded that the list of Environmental services Sedgemoor provides and has to enforce seemed never-ending as senior officer Adrian Gardner showed and explained slide after slide of trees, ditches, recycling,floods and so on. Similarly a presentation by Housing expert Duncan Harvey went someway to explaining how the Council was succeeding in achieving so many homes in so small an area - and much of it potentially underwater. In UH many of the homes are in blocks of flats extending upwards whereas in Bridgwater what they had seen was green land (marked blue on a map of potential flood sites) and recycled brownfield land blossoming into use to house the almost 50,000 and rising inhabitants of the town. Home ownership or renting, house building, affordable homes and the housing benefits system were all explained sparking even more questions about the councils role in enforcement and the impact on neighbourhoods within the framework of the existing town plans. Whether they were learning lessons or putting thick lines through possible policies was a question for their return.

They'd heard about flooding and coastal erosion - and now they were to hear that a gigantic Nuclear Power station was to be built nearby. Next to the other two. Bob Brown and Claire Pearce explained how planning was taken out of the hands of the local authorities and that this was a Government initiative which they had to tackle head on to get the maximum benefit for the affected community out of it. There would be jobs and better paid jobs plus an influx of workers , many of who would stay and all of who would increase the tax base and give a boost to the economy. There had been a major tsunami in the Bristol Channel, but that was in 1609, several seconds ago in the geological history of the planet. 

They went off to spend some money in Burnham on Sea . And get a good view of the power stations.

Service delivery

Czechs in the Sedgemoor room
Sedgemoor is the most relevent local authority for delivering services - but it's just one of three. So part of their brief was to find out about the others. Alan Hurford, the town clerk, lectured them jovially about the Town Councils role, it's limited powers and it's even more limited workforce. In numbers, not of course in ability or dedication. Experienced Town Councillors turned up to add their input and it became very clear that the Czechs were in a world turned upside down. In the Czech Republic the cities were Tory and the countryside was Labour - but here it was the opposite. Bridgwater, a long term Labour town, had been in the thrall of Tory Sedgemoor since it lost it's borough status back in 1974 and along with it most of it's powers. The out of town Tory majority basically decided what went on in Bridgwater. At the same time however, they noted two further surprises - if local accountability was so important why was voter turnout often as low as 20%. Didn't people mind? And secondly the 'ward system'. In UK councillors were elected for specific wards whilst in their country the Town as a whole voted in the council as a whole on a PR party list basis. Would the result be any different here??

So they went to Glastonbury to climb a hill and think about how Somerset might fit into this.

Accountability .....

And on Thursday they went to County Hall, being met by Chairman Cllr Fothergill and deputy leader Cllr Hall. Strategic functions were the county remit including the highways, education and regional planning - in Czech Rep these were government functions or arms length agencies. The numbers appeared vaster - wards bigger and the reach of accountability that little more strained. David Hall explained that one of his key policies was to bring superfast broadband to Somerset. And at that point the internet failed and he couldn't show the County promotional video.

Back to Sedgemoor and a keynote presentation by top planning officer Nick Tait. This was the Czechs main topic and they wouldn't let poor Nick go back to work as they kept him talking and answering questions - 'How do you make sure the public are with you with these developments?' , (he explained the extensive consultation processes they engage in) 'Why do you build houses in floodzones?' (He explained the Flood levy that will contribute to an eventual barrage) 'Are your policies popular?' (He handed over to Duncan McGinty....)

Anglo-Czech jamming at the Bridgwater Art Centre
Turning to the Art Centre to spend some more money in they had a little sing-song, as Czechs often do. Moravian folk songs celebrating the devotion to whichever one horse town you came from, the loveliness of horses and how Anicka, Katerina, Lenka or Pavla is the only possible girl possible for the singer, mingled with the Blackbird song , Drink up thee Cider and the Beatles.

On the Friday they had another shock in store. There was another level of local government they'd forgotten. That was the Unitary Authority - which maybe Sedgemoor, Bridgwater and Somerset should have voted for after all. Luckily Bristol up the road was one of these and also had a directly elected Mayor who could choose his own cabinet. So they paid a visit. Another piece of the jigsaw fell into place. Not to mention Bristol had only just defeated Uherske Hradiste in some European Floral contest in Belgium recently and by half a bitter point.

Another level..

Bristols Deputy Mayor Gollop explains Unitary Authorities
Before they left they met some councillors  and community activists at a garden party hosted by Chairman of the Bristol Greens, Alex Dunn and to which Tory Deputy Mayor Geoff Gollop and Bristols twinning officer Alix Hughes also attended. Bombarded with facts, home grown radishes and brochures from the Bristol Civic Society the Czechs slotted in that last bit of learning, went shopping and flew home. Now the ball's in their court. Was this any use to them?? Next step is a conference in Uherske Hradiste in October when experts from each of the countries meet up and promote their own districts best practice and put their communities on the wider map of European Economic development.

No comments:

Post a Comment