A row has erupted over a controversial survey in Burnham-On-Sea and Highbridge that has found 89% of residents believe the Town Council does not spend money wisely and there is a “deep mistrust” of councillors in the two towns.

Over 700 people completed the survey, which was organised by former Highbridge Lib Dem councillor Helen Groves, pictured here. It was available in paper form and was circulated on social media, including Burnham-On-Sea.com’s discussion forum.

Helen says she hopes the survey results would be used to inform the council’s decision-making since “it is vital that residents’ wishes are not disregarded in the disposal of their money.”

711 residents took part in the survey earlier this summer in both towns. It found that 89% of respondents support the idea of council grants being awarded to community groups, while 74% support grants awarded to local schools or for recreational activity/organisations, but only 7% support grants for the support of business.

However, during a heated debate this week, the validity of the survey results was called into question by several town councillors, including Cllr Peter Burridge-Clayton and Cllr Janet Keen.

Cllr Keen, right, said: “There’s a population across the two parishes here of 30,000 and only 711 took part. I think there has to be a question of its validity.”

But Cllr John Parkes added: “I think we should take into account that the survey had 711 residents participating, of which a large majority have the view that they are not happy with the current system. I think that as a council we have to take that into account.”

Town Clerk Denise Emery asked: “Do we know it was 711 people, or could it have been ten people entering the survey multiple times?” Helen responded that security controls are in place by the online polling website to ensure that multiple votes could not be possible.

“I appreciate that you may not like the survey itself in terms of it’s wording or may question the impartiality of the questioner, but there has been no difference in the results of either the online survey, in which there is no direct contact or the paper version. I would therefore ask you to either accept the results as accurate or conduct a survey of your own to confirm them.”

Helen told this week’s meeting: “When compared to the level of grant funding that has been provided for business support over recent years, it is fair to say it is not in line with the public’s wishes.”

“87% of respondents felt that they would find it easier to understand where grant funding was going if grants were awarded under different budget headings though 65% of respondents felt it was difficult to find the information at all on the Town Council’s website and only 3% reported it as being easy to use.”

She added: “When asked if it was appropriate for the Town Council to provide grants to commercial enterprise and if this should only be granted to the retail sector, 84% felt this was not acceptable. The comments given would indicate that in some circumstances such grants may be acceptable such as the towns’ Christmas Lights, but overall it is not supported and if it is, the majority of people do not feel it is acceptable for only the retail sector to benefit.”

“74% of respondents felt that there should be an expectation that if grants have been awarded to business, there should be evidence that the grant has resulted in increased employment.”

“98% of all respondents lived within the joint parish. When asked if the Council spends money wisely, 89% of respondents answered no. 76% of all respondents did not feel that the council’s decision making reflected their views.”

She added: “Most worryingly, in my own view, when asked ‘Do you believe your Council and its councillors behave in a way that reflects the Nolan principles of public life? Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openess, Leadership and Honesty?’ 88% of all respondents answered no. The comments provided indicate a deep mistrust of councillors and a perception whether real or perceived of decisions being based more on political agendas and cronyism than what best serves the needs of the residents of the towns.”

“I can only urge you to carefully consider the proposal that was brought to you at full council. It is supported widely by the public and will ensure a consistent and open approach by this council going forwards. Councillors are not elected to override the public will but simply to represent it.”

Cllr Mike Facey, Chairman of the town council’s Policy and Finance Committee, said during this week’s meeting: “Thank you, it will be noted. I thought we live in a democracy and the reason that my father and a lot of people’s grandfathers saved the country as a democracy was to ensure that we all have a free vote. No doubt when it comes to the next voting time – whether that be the next district, town or county election – if people feel that way it is their right to use their vote as the member of the public has mentioned.”

Speaking after the meeting, Helen Groves said: “It is hugely disappointing that councillors have chosen to disregard the public feedback in this way. There is nothing to prevent them from conducting such surveys on their own behalf yet they have stated an unwillingness to do so and seem determined to ignore the time, efforts and difficulties presented to a member of the public undertaking the task to aide them.”

“As such I hope that the people who did take part will heed the advice of Cllr Facey and indeed remember that he invites them to make a change at the next election. I never wanted this to be political, it is such a shame that tribalism is preventing a balanced and fair approach being taken. On my own part I have bent over backward to treat members with courtesy and am deeply unhappy with the utter contempt of the consistent response.”