Bridgwater Town Council was formed in 2003 and we pride ourselves on being the closest elected authority to the people. We remember and aspire to the achievements of the ancient Borough of Bridgwater, sadly replaced by Sedgemoor District Council, or as we have called it, Direct Rule from Cheddar, in 1974. However, one major change this year has been the replacement of Sedgemoor’s former chief exec with Bridgwater girl Allison Griffin, and we are already noticing a greater degree of co-operation between our authorities. In Somerset we have 3 tiers of local government – county, district and town or parish. Sometimes this can be confusing as to who is to blame. But inevitably, it’s not us. So we therefore also welcome the current conversation about local government reform based around Unitary status and will argue for the strongest powers for the locallest authorities.
Bridgwater Town Council has opened wide its doors over the past few years through our system of Forums whereby members of the public, other authorities, service providers and so on can join with councillors in specialist themed meetings relevant to the predominant issues in our town. Our Town Development Forum has looked at all our major projects with particular emphasis on the Northgate situation. It was here that town and district opposed each other for several years over the demolition of the Sedgemoor Splash and it’s threatened replacement with a massive Tesco Extra. Through working together now we are agreed on a leisure led project, the retention of green space, a primary school and a small scale supermarket which complements rather than has a negative effect on our town centre, and provides the crucial linkage with the docks via the Celebration mile..
Our Transport Forum is the only one of its kind around the County .– and we have asked for a county wide one but with no success. Due to Bridgwater’s severe traffic issues – largely brought about by EDF’s failure to build a by-pass, and we constantly asked for this yet they believed they could solve this by tweaking a few junctions, this body has been one of our most active Forums. Recently we were also able to welcome the announcement of the Colley Lane relief road which we have been campaigning for over the years and which will take some pressure off the Taunton road. We have also been urging rail authorities to increase stops at Bridgwater station, working with bus companies to upgrade their service here and with Sedgemoor to encourage work on the Celebration mile bringing enhancement to the St John Street and railway station end of the town. The Transport Forum has been chaired by our Eastover member Cllr Tony Heywood. One of our key aims for the Transport Forum is to achieve 20mph zones around all school neighbourhoods in the town – but this is totally dependent on Somerset County Council. Our 2 town councillors, who are also county councillors, Dave Loveridge and Leigh Redman have been working together on this and an announcement is imminent.
One of our priorities has been Youth. The initiative by Cllr Diogo Rodrigues to set up a Youth Forum and back this with supporting grant funding has been extremely popular and so much so that this coming year we have agreed to increase funding available for youth and also to set up a Youth Council for the town based equally on all the schools. The aim of this is to encourage civic pride and nurture an interest in local government by future generations. Diogo, who will be our Town Mayor in 2018-19, will continue to oversee this process.
The Environment has been a key feature for our council. Cllr Kathy Pearce, our Deputy Leader, is also our Environment spokesperson and has successfully brought forward motions to town and district concerning single use plastics. Our town also announced its opposition to any Fracking activities in our area last year. Kath has also been working closely with Sedgemoor to maintain the new public open space on the Meads as an eco park and to ensure no housing is built there and that the space is retained for the public with minor enhancements for access and interpretation connecting in to the YMCA and our waterways, notably the canal. Also within Kath’s remit is the towns street cleaning and public toilets. We have added funding to increase our town centre cleaning commitment and we have set up a community toilet scheme whereby we are encouraging businesses to open their toilets to public use.
A new focus for us this coming year will be Tourism and on 31st May the incoming Mayor Diogo Rodrigues will front an event at the Engine room to launch our tourism forum. The event will be addressed by Emma Rathbone of the new Eastover Mercure hotel and will also feature a presentation by UWE architecture students who we have been working with on their ‘Think Big in Bridgwater project’. This came about last year with our funding for the CIAM project at the Bridgwater art centre which revisited the 1947 conference held there of international architects that set the design standards for a generation. In addition to our popular ‘Town guide’ we have also introduced a series of postcards and calendars this year with a maritime theme. One of our key policies has been to urge more use of our waterways. We have supported Patsy Robinson in her endeavours to promote the Bridgwater Docks and Mike Slade and his team of inland waterways volunteers in making our canal and its towpaths attractive and litter free. Mike was duly awarded the Bridgwater Cup this year. The Tidal Barrier presents us with a major opportunity to futureproof our waterways and our hope is that we can once again see docks, river and canal as major attractions for the tourists who will come to our town and to improve the quality of life for the people who live here.
Culture is a key driver in a town like ours, so proud of our Carnival traditions. Accordingly we have supported the Cultural Partnership under the chairmanship of Cllr Tony Heywood. This builds on the work of partners such as the Art Centre, the Engine Room, the Blake Museum, the Library, Sedgemoor FM, Carnival itself and the Bridgwater College. We have encouraged and financed the new Quayside Festival, now in it’s second year and we have supported further annual cultural initiatives such as Bridgwater History day, now in its 3rd year and Bridgwater Together, along with the Engine Room and Bridgwater Trades Council, which brings together the new workers to our town alongside the host community.
Heritage is a key part of our cultural offering and our operation at the Blake Museum continues apace under the chairmanship of Councillor Dave Loveridge and we have recently brought on board Stewart Richards to head up a project to bring back the old Mill into use. One important influence we have here is the Town Planning Panel, which is Chaired by Mick Lerry, and on which we include reps from the Bridgwater and District Civic Society
Internationalism is an important element of our thinking and we support 5 Town twinnings through our twinning forum in France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Malta and Italy whilst at the same time encouraging the internationalism within our own community through such organisations as Diversity Voice, based at Victoria Park and the TUGA organisation which works with the local Portuguese community .Indeed another first for Bridgwater, in 2018-19 our Mayor, Diogo Rodrigues, will be the first Mayor to my knowledge born outside of this country. The Portuguese island of Madeira. Again, the focus on youth and internationalism will be key to much of our work for the coming year, opening up the wider world to the young people of Bridgwater.
The Town Council owns several key properties. Cllr Leigh Redman has been working hard as our Town Hall Properties lead member and has taken action to bring our Town Hall, which we acquired from Sedgemoor in 2011, up to date with tenders in for DDA access opening up the higher floors, new toilets and kitchen work and personally fixing the sound system in the theatre. Our town hall remains an attractive venue for hire and a key part of the cultural partnership on offer. We also currently operate leases on some parts of the Town Hall and are investigating more now that the full building is coming into accessible use. In addition we are looking at the future of our other hall, Trinity Hall on St Saviours avenue, and currently undertaking a consultation for usage in conjunction with a general survey of the availability of other public hall space in the town before we make any recommendation.
Another area which Cllr Redman leads on is our relations with the Nuclear industry. Obviously EDF has brought with it a mix of benefits and problems. Leigh has consistently convened BTC meetings with EDF and SCC officers throughout in an endeavour to hold them to account. We have maintained pressure on them over increased HGV movements, demanded consultation when necessary, and helped to achieve some degree of mitigation packages. Crucially we have been heavily involved in the CIM fund – the community impact mitigation scheme, and several projects have been successfully funded including town centre improvements and the South Bridgwater throughways scheme with several under consideration, including a scheme to enhance Blake Gardens and the Library.
A key focus for us has been the emphasis on the Town Centre regeneration. To this end we work with Sedgemoor and local traders through the Town Team, on which our lead member is cllr Dave Loveridge, who carries out regular town centre walkabouts with members, citizens and service providers.
Community is a crucial focus for our town council and we maintain strong links with the community centres around the town. On Sydenham, Hamp and Victoria we help to fund the community centres there and our local members sit on the boards of trustees. Another important link role for us and the community we represent is that with the local Police. Bridgwater Town Council takes this role very seriously and a Police speaker is a permanent feature of every town council meeting. We have good relations with the police and our town council office is an extra eye on the street for them. And within our community remit, I include our civic role. The duties of a Mayor of Bridgwater is to engage with our active communities all across the town, to represent the council and the town. Our first citizen for 2017-18 has been Cllr Graham Granter who, along with his Mayoress Kay, has carried out this duty diligently and now for the third time in his life.
Financially our town council is doing well. Through sound management of savings and reserves over the years and a regular but modest increase in precept we have kept on top of our spending and despite the regime of National cutbacks to local government support grants, we have not faced the problems of other authorities which have aimed to limit council tax rises at the expense of services, often to the most vulnerable. We have also maintained a healthy Civic Enhancement Fund as an active reserve which we have only dipped into to provide matched funding for important projects in the town such as the West Quay wall and the town centre improvements.
Finally, internally the town council is facing some major changes this year. Earlier in the year our staff committee, under the direction of Cllr Mick Lerry, and which includes cllrs Moore and Johnstone had to interview to find a new caretaker after the sad death of Gerry. Now it faces a task of massive proportions, to replace the outgoing town clerk Alan Hurford. Alan who has been with us since the conception of Bridgwater Town Council in 2003, is a feature of town life and readily accessible along with Judy Fisher in the High street town council offices and will be a tough role to fill. But we have to. And if we have faith in our town , it’s people and the town council as the motor for that change then there’ll be someone out there……we hope.