CALLS for Watchet Town Council to support a vote of no confidence in the operators of the town’s crisis-hit marina and to press Somerset Council to stop negotiations on a new 200-year lease were overwhelmingly rejected at a heated town council meeting.
Instead, councillors voted to ask for urgent talks with Somerset Council officers before any lease was decided, and to reject a report which was described as potentially ‘extremely defamatory’.
Cllr John Richards, chairman of WACET, had produced a report urging Somerset Council to disengage with the Cardiff-based Marine and Property Group and its sole director Christopher Odling-Smee over a new lease.
His report pointed out that four Welsh marinas run by the group were in administration with £16 million of debt.
Watchet marina was un-dredged, staff had not been paid, and there were no customer facilities or safety systems.
Cllr Richards told councillors he believed the town council should support the people of Watchet ‘who have had enough of what is going on in the marina’.
He said: “We have lost a lot of boats and it is in a terrible state.
“People have said to me ‘you are a councillor - why don’t you do something about it?’
“I believe this council should have no confidence in the Marine Group to run an effective marina.
“Irrespective of whether they have a licence or lease, they are not fit and proper people.”
Supporting Cllr Richards’ proposal for no a confidence vote, boat owner Jonathan Pearman told councillors the marina was ‘in crisis’ and he would not be paying berthing fees until dredging was restarted, and staff were paid.
Mr Pearman said: “As the owners of the harbour, Somerset Council have failed over many years to ensure the leaseholders uphold even minimum standards to keep the marina open.”
Speaking as chairman of the Watchet harbour advisory committee, Cllr Loretta Whetlor said the committee did not support Cllr Richards’ report as it had not been voted on by members.
Cllr Whetlor said: “There are also weekly internal meetings on progress and Somerset Council officers are meeting Mr Odling-Smee weekly at the moment also.
“The officers would be happy to put something similar in place between Somerset Council and Watchet Town Council to support the partnership between the two authorities on this matter, which Somerset Council appreciate is vitally important to the town.
“I would suggest that this is a very good idea and I am happy to participate in the meeting.”
Cllr Whetlor passed on a message from Somerset Council in which it pointed out that it would be ‘unfair’ for the town council to pass a vote of no confidence in the absence of comment from the unitary authority.
The Somerset Council statement said the lease it continued to work with was a version agreed between the former marina operator Tim Taylor and the former West Somerset District Council.
It said: “Any further discussion on the ‘new’ lease remains on hold until such a time that the Marine Group activate their clause to purchase the lease from Tim Taylor.
“Somerset Council remains assured that all of the concerns will be addressed but it is subject to a refinancing process over which the Marine Group have no direct control of time.
“However, progress is now well advanced and the confirmation of timescales will be shared in due course.
“We are confident that this will be prior to Christmas.”
Town Cllr Peter Murphy said the thrust of Cllr Richards’ report was practically identical to earlier discussions at harbour advisory meetings where the issues had been brought back to the town council and were ‘comprehensively refuted’.
He said councillors had to remember what the current lease actually gave the marina operator, which included the right to claim up to 35 parking spaces in Harbour Road for their own use and the right to space in the Mineral Yard to park boats.
The new lease would be for 200 years but it would make it more straightforward to enforce in respect of such matters as keeping the marina mud-free, ‘which is something we all aspire to see’.
Cllr Murphy said: “Yes, we can feel that we were let down by the promises we were given by Chris Odling-Smee but I have promises that Somerset Council and he will eventually get it right.
“I invite this council to share the trust that Somerset Council has in order to see this through.”
Cllr John Irven, supporting the rejection of the report, said there had been no opportunity at the meeting to hear the other side of the case.
He believed some of Cllr Richards’ statements could be considered ‘extremely defamatory’ against individuals and also members of Somerset Council.
Cllr Irven said: “If we were to accept the report - which is in the public domain - it could make us potentially liable if we are seen to be supporting these statements.”
Cllr Sean Terrett said that after reading the report he had ‘massive concerns’.
He said: “Through the task force and other committees we are trying very hard to make the town successful.
“Somerset Council are, allegedly, disposing of assets and I feel this will be pushed through and we will just be stuck with a marina that is full of mud and that there will be no change.
“I know it is a bit of a poisoned chalice because companies have tried and failed and I just feel it will be left to ruin.”
Cllr Nigel Moss said: “I listen to what people in Watchet say.
“While I hear the suggestion that Somerset Council will have this happily resolved by Christmas and I hear the concerns about car parking, and about defamation, I have to say that I suspect 90 per cent of the population of this town have no confidence in either Mr Odling-Smee or Somerset Council.”
Cllr Moss said the council should request an emergency meeting with representatives of Somerset Council who were engaged in the terms of the proposed lease.
“We have professional fishermen who go out from the harbour and I think that next year they will not be able to go out and could lose their businesses because it is getting so bad.
“We have to make it clear to the unitary authority that they have to do something and how important the marina is to Watchet.”
Councillors agreed with Cllr Irven’s proposal not to accept Cllr Richards’ report in its current form and to ask the unitary authority to set up a meeting with the town council and the harbour advisory committee.
After the meeting, Cllr Richards told the Free Press: “As a councillor I must accept the democratic decision but I am disappointed that so many councillors were not so concerned about the situation that they declined to take immediate action.
“I may not be able to take the matter further as a councillor but I will certainly be pursuing it as a private individual.”