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Octagon in Yeovil to get £10m

There was one surprise detail in the budget papers issued today to support the Chancellor’s speech. The Octagon Theatre in Yeovil is to get £10m in government funding. This will go towards the renovation and modernisation of the theatre. In the February edition of The Leveller we reported on plans by South Somerset District Council (SSDC) for the Octagon. The total costs were estimated at £23m.

In its own analysis of where funding would come from, £5m was expected from the Arts Council. It is not clear at this point if the £10m from Mr Sunak will replace that or be in addition to it. But either way, that is at least £5m towards the gap between likely costs and likely funding that won’t have to be found.

The money is to support a new “fly tower” and a new circle to increase capacity to 900 seats. Other works will make the theatre fully accessible and add two purpose built studios.

Local MP Marcus Fysh was delighted by the news. “It is great to see this support for Yeovil….. We all need to rediscover our sociable and cultural sides and I can’t wait to get back to places like this. The renovation and expansion of the theatre will be a big boost in helping us enhance Yeovil. Both as a great place to live and visit and have a knock on effect for restaurants and other businesses.”

Manor Road, Yeovil incident

Avon & Somerset Police are appealing to the public for help. Police and ambulance crew were called to Manor Road, Yeovil, just below the Octagon Theatre at 8pm last night (2 March). A man was found injured with a pedestrian who reported the incident.

The Police tell us that man, who is in his 20s, remains in hospital in a serious condition. It is not clear as to how he came by those injuries. Police enquiries are continuing in the area around the incident

Were you in that area of Yeovil last night. Did you see or hear anything out of the ordinary. Did you hear anyone who sounded to be in distress? Anyone with information which could help is asked to call 101 quoting reference 5521045335.

Bridgwater drugs bust

A major Police operation was conducted in Bridgwater and London this morning. More than 100 officers were involved. Four warrants were executed in Bridgwater. A further warrant was executed in London. Following the operation seven people have been arrested. All for being concerned in the supply of class A drugs. Four of the arrests were in Bridgwater, two in London and one in Gloucester.

Avon and Somerset Police continued their investigations into the day. This resulted in further action at 11 other addresses in Bridgwater associated with drugs use. Police seized a quantity of class A drugs. There was a further arrest of a man for being in possession of an offensive weapon.

Det Insp Scott Chadwick explained: “This is part of an ongoing joint operation between Operation Remedy at Avon and Somerset Police and Operation Orochi in the Met Police. The planning and execution of this morning’s warrants involved officers and staff in Intelligence, Operation Remedy, Neighbourhood Teams, Operational Support Teams and our police dog units.”

Somerset’s future – what the accountants say

It is not an envious position. There are as you know, two rival proposals for the future of government in Somerset. As the senior authority, Somerset County Council (SCC) is obliged to give government an honest appraisal of the alternative proposals put forward by the District Councils. This is not easy to do objectively. So SCC commissioned a number of independent organisations to do the review. We have focused on the one carried out by accountants PWC. Why? because the numbers really do matter in this. Amidst the claims and counter claims we need an honest appraisal of where the numbers actually lie.

Readers will know The Leveller® has campaigned for the One Somerset model (though we don’t like the name). However the opinions below are those of PWC. For our part we will only observe that they seem to endorse a number of the criticisms that we have made of the Stronger Somerset case:

So what follows is drawn directly from the PWC executive summary:

  • The options appraisal methodology set out in Stronger Somerset makes a direct comparison with the One Somerset proposal, which is presented in relatively negative terms. It is difficult to see how some of the assertions made about either proposal can be substantiated, given the evidence presented in the document. This calls into question the rigour and robustness of the options appraisal that has been carried out.
  • The financial analysis set out in Stronger Somerset is presented as being directly comparable with that included in One Somerset, even though the two reports are based on fundamentally different assumptions. While the Stronger Somerset financial case includes assumptions about the potential level of benefit that would be secured by using the reorganisation process as a catalyst for transformation, the One Somerset case does not (it refers to transformation opportunities but does not quantify these and has not included any assumptions in its financial case). Presenting the two financial cases as comparable in this way is misleading
  • The way in which the geography of the county is treated within Stronger Somerset does not make a particularly compelling case for establishing two new councils. Current population levels for the two unitaries proposed are below the range indicated by the Secretary of State and local data suggests there could be an imbalance across the proposed councils for the East and the West in terms of demand for services and income. This would call into question the financial sustainability of the two councils.
  • The operating and delivery model proposed in Stronger Somerset would result in duplication of activities and
    functions across the county
    . It is not clear how some of the proposals referenced in the document would mitigate this. For example, the inclusion of an alternative delivery model for children’s services within the proposal is not particularly detailed and represents an untested solution in this context (there are parallels with the children’s trust model, but these are typically introduced for other reasons).
  • The proposed strategic leadership and democratic arrangements are somewhat problematic. The significance of local government in Somerset being able to speak with ‘one voice’ is underplayed. Furthermore, Stronger Somerset is proposing establishing two new councils which would be served by 100 members each – a relatively large number for a county the size of Somerset. There is a case for arguing that the levels of resource and effort required to support such arrangements would be better deployed in supporting engagement, service delivery and decision-making that is closer to local communities.
  • The way in which Stronger Somerset describes ambitions to use unitarisation as a stepping stone to establishing a combined authority and securing devolution arrangements represents a further area of challenge. It is possible to interpret them as suggesting there is an intention to establish a combined authority that would bring together the proposed new unitaries following their implementation. There appears to be no precedent for this type of model (combined authorities are typically established to cover larger geographies and a greater number of constituent councils).
  • Stronger Somerset makes relatively little reference to the complications that would be associated with disaggregating the services currently provided by the County Council. This calls into question whether the risks associated with this process have been properly considered and has implications for the deliverability and sustainability of the Stronger Somerset proposals. This issue is also relevant to ‘place services’ delivered by all the impacted councils, and public health (disaggregating public health provision in the current climate has the potential to destabilise the response to the pandemic – Stronger Somerset is not clear on what is intended in this regard) . Furthermore, it is not clear what responsibilities in these areas are envisaged as having the potential to be transferred to a combined authority at a future date.

You can read the whole of the PWC report here https://onesomerset.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/PwC-Stronger-Somerset-Review.pdf

Closure Order – Yeovil

Avon & Somerset Police have successfully applied for a renewal of a closure order on a property in Yeovil. The original order was for 3 months on a property at 61 Marl Close in the Hollands are of the town. The initial order was requested in November. It followed frequent reports of anti social behaviour and disorder at the property.

Beat manager PC Louise Wareham told us: “During the three months the closure order was in place, the area has become a better place to live according to the residents. They were so relieved the order was granted back in November and supported us seeking an extension. People have told us that the place has returned to being a peaceful and quiet place to live, which is great to hear. Nobody should be forced to endure antisocial behaviour on their doorstep and we’ve worked with Abri Housing to make sure proactive action has been taken.”

The court accepted the application for a further extension made last month.

Somerton says “yes”

A string of festivals, from the Axbridge Pageant through to the Glastonbury Festival, have been cancelled for 2021. Add in the loss of the concert at Vivary Park and the Yeovilton Air Day and 2021 wasn’t looking so different to 2020. So some welcome good news comes from the not so small but definitely perfectly formed Somerstock Festival. That will be the climax of a full revival of the Somerton Arts and Music Festival after the inevitable loss of 2020.

The organisers of the Somerton Music and Arts have announced that the festival is to go ahead as planned. There will be a series of arts and music events taking place throughout the town from 3rd to 10th July.

The festival, which started in 1987, is an annual event in the historic Somerset market town. Featuring a week of fun from local bands, classical music, talks & workshops to name just a few.  The festival culminates in a one-day music festival, Somerstock.  Attracting top bands, this year’s headliners are pop and soul legends The Christians.  A further 14 bands will perform across three stages providing no-stop family entertainment. Chuck in a wide variety of food, bars and stalls and there’ll be something for every taste.

And let’s face it, they are taking a risk. On the one hand things could go into reverse and the Government could perform yet another COVID U Turn. On the other, if all goes well, for Somerset this could be close to the onl show in town.

Full details of the festival will be released soon. To find out more about Somerstock and buy tickets head tohttps://www.somerstock.com/

And to be honest, its just great to write about something that is on instead of something that is cancelled!

Stronger Somerset – McGinty plea

Writing a final plea to the Minister for Communities and Housing, published by online magazine Public Finance, Duncan McGinty, Sedgemoor Leader, wrote “Achieving sustainability requires finding more efficient ways to operate – reducing replication in, and modernising, enabling services for example.”

There is much to admire in the proposal for two unitaries. Certainly the greater degree of localism is appealing. As is the idea that reform should be as important as restructure alone. Albeit that is something that Somerset County Council (SCC) Leader David  Fothergill would agree with, and includes in his rival “One Somerset” proposal.

Mr McGinty went on to outline where reform could show benefits suggesting:

– data to enable us to target resources where most needed;

– early intervention and work on wider determinants of health and wellbeing to prevent dependency on expensive ‘crisis’ services;

– innovative approaches in adults’ and children’s services;

– locally led solutions to reduce demand on services.

Yet in his lengthy piece defending the plans, there were two substantial absentees. We at The Leveller® did not find these absences surprising. We consider they are the black holes in the Stronger Somerset proposals:

  1. The plan to create not just two unitary authorities, but also a kind of SouthWestTwo, a back office services company that provides accounting, legal, HR and computing support to both councils. It is a bizarre idea. It seems to imply that while on the one hand the Stronger Somerset proposals want two unitary authorities, they acknowledge that they cannot get the economies of scale without being at the size of One Somerset.
  2. Likewise the creation of a children’s services organisation that covers both unitary authorities and is not run separately but jointly by the two unitary authorities. It has the same flaws.

And we don’t have to guess what the problems will be. After all we have already seen what can go wrong with these bodies. Think SouthWestOne, the disastrous combining of back office functions by SCC, Taunton Deane Borough Council and the Police. Think the Mendip five authority deal currently being broken up.

These supra authority bodies come with the same problems. Responsibility and authority will be opaque. Fine when all is well, but when things start to go wrong? As usual there will be arguments over whose fault it is, who has to pay to put it right and there will be big questions over accountability.

The big loss to the residents of Somerset is that there is no proposal for two genuinely independent unitary authorities. You must choose between a giant super authority – One Somerset, or the bugger’s muddle that is Stronger Somerset.

Skanska Scandal? Council says nothing to see here

Somerset County Council (SCC) have had with Skanska since April 2017. The Leveller® understands the contract is worth around £30m a year and under it Skanska look after the highways and byways of Somerset (except the motorways and trunk roads which are contracted for nationally). The view that things are not working so well comes out loud and clear in an internal audit report prepared by SWAP, SCC’s internal auditor.

Last month in the February Leveller®, we pointed out that this audit was carried out at management’s request and SWAP therefore regards it as confidential. Ordinarily it would not be released to the public. It is not clear to us how a document that has been paid for by council taxpayers out of the public purse, can be withheld from public scrutiny.

At the February Audit Committee meeting, at the insistence of Mike Lewis, Chair of the Audit Committee the SWAP audit report was made available to the public. It made quite scary reading. However it has since become clear that this was not the full audit report. Large parts of the report were redacted because, we are told, of commercial confidentiality issues. However, The Leveller now understands that the decision on which bits to leave out was taken by SCC’s staff, not the internal auditor. To say that this is exceptional, is an understatement.

The full unredacted report is full of information that points to control failures by Somerset County Council. Remember the basic parts to a contract. Place the order, agree the price, check the work has been done, make the payment. Obviously with a long term contract, prices may be pulled from a prepared list. But that is semantics.

So are all jobs priced up in advance? This is what the auditors say “Safety defect works are not valued and quoted by the contractor prior to, but at the time of the works being completed. The compensating control of a variation order, to ensure that a cost variance is properly managed and sufficiently transparent to the client, is not commonly used.

Does SCC check that the job is properly complete to specification before approving payment? This is what the auditors say “For the vast majority of task orders fulfilled by the contractor there is no on-site auditing to confirm the quality of works, or accuracy of the cost submitted by them for payment.

And what about the payments to the contractor. Does SCC have controls to prevent duplicate payments? This is what the auditors said “We began by collating all the AfP data (Applications for Payment by the contractor) across the three years of the contract and analysing it for duplicates. However, it was not possible to extend the analysis to include payments, due to the number of repeat payments requests, part and interim payments, and the fact that there is an inconsistent use of comments to explain where there have been changes.

They also said there were “Numerous examples of where there was a series of refusals to pay, but the task order is subsequently paid months later with no comments to explain the reason for the delay.

OK so what does this mean? At the Audit Committee meeting in February a schedule was produced showing £4m of AfPs that had already been paid or were not due for payment. SCC say there is no evidence that any invoices have been paid twice. They might be right. The auditors are not so sure. They say “These issues increase the likelihood that a duplicate payment request could be missed and approved in error. The amount and scope of routine auditing of highway task orders (effectively a request for work to be done and a price for the work) is not commensurate with the total value of expenditure, or the financial risks associated with the outsourced maintenance contract.

Overall, despite the control weaknesses identified, the disappointment seems to be with the contractor. Do you really want numerous examples of duplicate AfPs? If SCC had paid all the requests from the contractor, would millions of pounds of public money could have gone through the door for work that had not been done?

This is what SCC have to say about it. And for the record it was not The Leveller® that put the report in the public domain. Which is not to say we wouldn’t have done if we had been given the chance.

A spokesman for SCC said: “We want to be absolutely clear that there is no issue of public funds being wasted in any way. All works carried out by our contractor have been paid for appropriately – there is nothing wrong here whatsoever. What is equally clear is that this is a complex contract, it is standard for the industry and we acknowledge it is difficult for those outside the industry to understand. We also acknowledge there are times we have not managed this contract well enough. However, the key point is that it is disappointing that a national contractor each month routinely claims for payments that are not earned and that we have challenged successfully each month. It is equally regrettable that a confidential report is now public which may benefit the contractor and there is a risk that this publication will cost the tax payers of Somerset.

There will be a much more detailed report on this in the March Leveller®

Somerset COVID 19 latest data

This week (to 24 February) there have been a further 436 confirmed cases of COVID 19 in Somerset. Whilst the current trend remains that new cases are dropping there is a flattening off this week. We should also keep in mind the context. Current weekly rates of new infections are still running at four times the level they were in May last year. The virus outbreak may be coming back under control, but there is still a long way to go. The table below shows tracks the weekly number of infections in recent weeks:

  • 436 to 24 February
  • 444 to 18 February
  • 819 to 10 February
  • 1,090 to 3 February
  • 1,408 to 27 January
  • 1753 to 20 January
  • 1564 to 13 January
  • 2230 to 6 January

Before we go any further however, our usual health warning about the figures.  Unlike NHS data these numbers include care homes and incidences of COVID 19 “at home”. The data is prepared to 24 February for cases (although different dates are used for some of the other figures – for instance deaths are reported to 12 February). The reason for this delay is to keep the numbers accurate – or should we say as accurate as possible. The daily totals published by the NHS are subject to constant revision, as not unreasonably, the data is constantly being updated to improve accuracy. It is also worth noting that the SCC area does not include North Somerset (so Weston hospital) or BANES (So the RUH in Bath) both of which are separate administrative areas.

Sadly the week to 12 February has again seen a high death toll albeit lower than previous weeks. However with 31 deaths recorded (compared with 57 last week) the rate of deaths is falling in line with the fall in cases. It is just following the trend 2/3 weeks in arrears. The total of COVID deaths now stands at 722 for Somerset since the outbreak began. Of the 31 deaths recorded, 13 were in Care homes, 16 in hospital and 2 at home.

In the first phase of the pandemic Sedgemoor had experienced significantly more deaths than the rest of Somerset. In the last few months that situation has changed markedly. In these figures (for the 12 February) 22 of the 31 recorded deaths were in Mendip and Somerset West & Taunton. The distribution across the county over time has become more even:

  • 204 Somerset West and Taunton
  • 180 South Somerset
  • 174 Sedgemoor
  • 164 Mendip

The R number for the South West this week is reported to have fallen. It is now within the range of 0.6 to 0.9. That adds to the confidence we can have in the number of new infections falling. The South West is now very much in line in terms of the R number, with the rest of the country.

As ever we attach the full data set so readers can see for themselves and form their own conclusions.

Martock Gateway sign thefts – latest

We reported in the January issue of the Leveller® the theft of one of the Gateway Signs to Martock. Today following some follow up questions to Avon & Somerset police we received the following statement from Chief Inspector Sharon Baker: “An investigation is ongoing following a village sign being stolen in Martock. The initial theft was not reported to police and it is currently not known when it occurred. However, the matter was brought to our attention towards the end of January when we were informed the sign was being advertised for sale on social media.

Officers attended the address of the seller in another part of Somerset and recovered the item on Tuesday 2 February so it can be returned to, or collected by, the parish council or county council. A crime has been recorded. Enquiries into what happened are continuing to establish the identity of any individual, or individuals, responsible. Those enquiries include seeking statements from witnesses and once obtained will enable us to progress our investigation. We would not routinely confirm if someone had been spoken to under caution, if asked by a witness.

We refute in the strongest possible terms any insinuation that police will accept stolen property to be returned and no questions will be asked. As in this case, a thorough and proportionate investigation would be conducted. It is common practice with any theft investigation to converse with the victim and be led by their wishes. Their views, and consideration of whether further action is in the public’s interest, would be used to decide what is the most suitable course of action: words of advice, a community resolution, caution or prosecution – with any charging decision being made by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Thankfully, the crime rate remains low in the beat area. Year-on-year the crime rate remains steady and we’ve seen a reduction in recent months, no doubt in part due to people adhering to the current lockdown restrictions, for which we’re grateful. Proactive patrols continue to be carried out in the area and earlier this week our neighbourhood team met with a representative of the parish council to discuss ways we can work together to ensure the local community remains a safe place to live.

Anyone with information about what happened regarding the theft of the sign, including when the incident happened, should call 101 and give reference number 5221017081.

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