We thought we’d alert folks to the Somerset County Council Standards Committee’s Hearing Panel meeting on Friday 6 March 2015 at 10am.

The Hearing Panel will consider the report from the investigation set up by the Council following complaints against a particular councillor’s involvement in a proposal by the Council to sell the freehold of the West Somerset Railway. WSRA members will know of their Association’s participation in the freehold discussions with Somerset County Council.

Members of the West Somerset Railway Association may therefore be interested in the report by Nigel Lyons which may reveal the involvement of any WSR organisation, especially the Association, in any of the issues under investigation.

The following is taken directly from Somerset County Council’s published papers:

“During late May to mid-June 2014 5 complaints were received by the Monitoring Officer against Cllr David Huxtable and his involvement in a proposal by the Council to sell the freehold of the West Somerset Railway.

In accordance with the Council’s complaints procedure for dealing with complaints against elected members (attached as Appendix A) the Deputy Monitoring Officer following consultation with the Council’s appointed Independent Person, referred the complaints to an external investigator – Nigel Lyons – for investigation and report to the Monitoring Officer. The reason for this decision was that there was judged to be sufficient justification to the complaints to require a full investigation and given the circumstances that this investigation should be carried out independently of the Council.

In the early stages of the investigation two of the complainants declined to be interviewed leaving at that stage complaints to be investigated from three individuals. In early August a further complaint was received and was added to the instruction to Nigel Lyons.

The final report of Nigel Lyons was received by the Deputy Monitoring Officer early in December.

On the 16th December the Monitoring Officer decided following consultation with the Council’s appointed Independent Person to refer the investigator’s report to the Hearing Panel for consideration and determination as a ‘local’ resolution provided for under the Council’s complaints process was not considered an achievable option in this case. This is only an option where the member who is the subject of the complaint fully accepts the findings of the investigation process and any subsequent actions or redress to make good a breach or breaches of the Code can be agreed between the member and those making the complaints.”

[Update 6 March 2015 9.50am: we notice the previously successful link, as shown above, no longer works; and the previously papers, such as the agenda and other documents, previously available online, no longer exist on the SCC website. We are sure all will become clear in due course. ]

We believe WSRA members will be interested in any reference to their Association in the report.

If the report and/or the Panel’s decision does mention the Association, its trustees, its managers or its agents, then this article on WSRA+ will be updated.

Update 7 March 2015

We provide a shortened transcript of the report by BBC’s James Craig on BBC Somerset Radio on 6 March 2015.

“This story [the background] all centres on the Somerset County Council’s proposal to sell the freehold of the West Somerset Railway”.

“It [the proposal] came to light in 2013 and two groups wanted to buy the freehold – the first was a company called West Somerset Railway Plc…and the second group was a group of volunteers…the West Somerset Railway Association.”

“David Huxtable…is a member of the cabinet on Somerset County Council…he would have had responsibility for signing off a final decision [about who should be sold the freehold]”

“Emails between him and a representative from one of those two bidders (the Association)…were released last year…and as a result of the content of those emails Cllr Huxtable was accused of having this cosy relationship with the Association”

“In one email Cllr Huxtable said and I quote ‘I think I might open my media campaign which will point out that it is not in the public interest for the Plc to hold the freehold’ “

“In another, he said ‘I would have Cllr Mike Rigby would be making a big mistake if he made too much of this proposed transfer of freehold, the quieter this is kept the better’ “

“Following those emails, an investigation was launched in David Huxtable’s conduct.”

“Fast forward to today’s hearing, why was it held in private? Shortly after the hearing started at 10 o’clock, they [the Panel] all left the room to decide whether the rest of the hearing should be open to the members of the public and members of the press. When they returned around half an hour later they told us their decision that it wouldn’t be [held in open] it would be held in private instead. The excuse and reasons for that decision, one was that a private hearing offered a fair hearing for Cllr Huxtable, another was there was a lot of additional information in this report which hadn’t yet been released publicly…and the Panel felt to do that would compromise Cllr Huxtable as well as other parties involved but not everyone was happy with a private hearing.”

“After we left, we told to leave, I spoke to Robin White…a barrister representing one of the complainants, that’s John Irven, the Chair of West Somerset Railway Plc. Robin White expressed an opinion about public business should be dealt with as openly and publicly as far as possible.”

The reporter continued – “we do know about the process. The Panel will be going over this independent report. It will also have heard evidence from the report’s author as well as Cllr Huxtable himself and each of the complainants. It will then be down to Panel members to decide whether they believe David Huxtable’s conduct did or didn’t breach the County Council’s code of conduct.”
(the reporter went on to describe some of the possible sanctions for breaching the code of conduct)

“The Committee will reach its verdict and decide which of those recommendations to make, if any.  But we don’t know exactly when we will find out…the Chair of the Committee said there was no fixed timeline for when that information would be made public.”

The reporter went on – “I have also received a statement from West Somerset Railway Plc ‘This whole investigation has been a massive distraction for all those involved in the railway and we now need to look to the future’.”

The BBC’s report ended.

We are posting this update merely to provide information to WSRA members. We are sure WSRA members will hear, see and read other accounts. What really matters here to WSRA members is whether the WSRA trustees and managers are directly involved in, or actively encouraged, any underhand practices or misconduct.