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New Somerset council “undemocratic”

Arrangements for planning meetings under the new Somerset Unitary Council are being criticised as undemocratic. The rules for the new council, which will take over on 1 April this year, will be presented on Monday 30 January. This will be at the meeting of the Constitution and Governance Committee at County Hall at 10am.

The current rules for speaking for or against planning applications vary from district council to district council. The most draconian are at Conservative controlled Sedgemoor District Council. Here they only allow three speakers to object to a planning application, plus three speakers in favour. Elsewhere, district councils tend to allow as many speakers as turn up. It is normal to limit each speaker to 3 minutes. It is also normal to ask speakers not to repeat points already made.

However the proposed policy for the new Somerset Unitary Council is harsher than Sedgemoor. It proposes just one speaker in favour and one against with 3 minutes each. Or if there is to be more than one – the total time for all speakers is limited to 3 minutes in total in favour and 3 minutes in total against.

At least three members of the public will attend the meeting on Monday to protest that this arrangement is undemocratic.

It certainly seems counter intuitive that a LibDem run authority would propose this. Intentionally or not, it will shut down debate and minimise comments from the public.

Fletcher Robinson calls it undemocratic.

He intends to speak at Monday’s meeting for the CPRE, and told The Leveller: “One single shared three minute speaking period for objectors, this is both undemocratic, and unworkable in practice. According to our research, there is not a single planning authority in the entire country that operates such a draconian system.”

It may, inevitably prevent a complete set of planning points from being raised. And that in turn will lead to poor decision making. Whilst repetitive objections from multiple speakers are equally unproductive, is this any better?

Let’s say there are ten objections to a plan. Something you will find routinely on larger planning applications. By which we mean ten items that are reasonable grounds for objection, worthy of debate. That does not necessarily mean they are compelling or ultimately decisive. Simply that they are worthy of consideration. The proposed system would allow just 18 seconds to raise each one.

It speaks to an arrogance of power. That councillors and officers clearly know better than the public. Therefore the little folk, who can surely contribute nothing of value, are shut down from having their say.

But the surprise is that it is a LibDem council proposing this. It appears to fly in the face of LibDem values. It is as if the world turned upside down.

It is surely, clearly, absurd.

The proposals for Monday’s meeting are set out as follows:

7.19 The order of speaking and time limits for Planning Committee meetings will be as follows:

  • Councillor/Local Member(s): 3 minutes each
  • Parish/Town Council(s): 3 minutes shared
  • Objector(s): 3 minutes shared
  • Supporter(s): 3 minutes shared
  • Agent/Applicant: 3 minutes shared

7.20 Where speaking times are shared, there is an overall time limit of three minutes in total, not three minutes each. Speakers in the above categories will be encouraged to coordinate with each other so that repetition can be avoided. At the Chair’s discretion the time allowed may be increased. A speaker may nominate a single spokesperson to speak on their behalf.

Bridgwater driver jailed

Luke Hawkes, of Wadham Close, Bridgwater, appeared at Taunton Crown Court today (Friday 27 January). Hawkes, 28, pleaded guilty to causing death by dangerous driving and failing to provide a specimen.

He had been driving a white Ford Transit van at high speed down the A38 Taunton Road on Tuesday 8 November last year. Hawkes was involved in a minor road traffic collision on the A38 Taunton Road, near the Showground Roundabout. He then left the scene driving towards Bridgwater.

Then he drove through a red light and collided with two cars which had the right-of-way at a junction. Bethany Branson a 19 year old passenger in the first car Hawkes collided was sadly pronounced dead at the scene. Her family have paid tribute to their ‘beautiful’ and ‘adored little lady’ following the sentencing.

The court heard how Hawkes had shown no remorse for his actions. He refused to complete a breathalyser or swab test for drugs and alcohol at the roadside. He was recorded on body warn video saying: “I hope I killed someone. Oh well, you know what, I will get three, four, five years. Hopefully I killed them.

He has been jailed for 10 years. He has also been handed a driving disqualification for 12 years and seven months.

Hawkes’ sentence is among the first to take place under new sentencing guidelines. These allow judges to give tougher sentences for dangerous and careless driving deaths. The maximum term moves from 14 years to life imprisonment for dangerous driving.

His Honour Judge Paul Cook said: “You can tell this was a prolonged, consistent and deliberate course of driving. It was obvious that you where drunk as I have seen the state of your intoxication on a number of videos. It was very clear that Bethany was a bubbly and infectious person, destined for a life of giving which has shattered the hearts of the family.”

SWR operates “normal service” on strike days

SWR the train company that operates the Exeter to London Waterloo service says it will operate a full service next week. RMT and ASLEF are taking strike action on Wednesday 1 and Friday 3 February. SWR says it intends to run a normal service across the network (excepting the Isle of Wight services). This is becasue its mainline drivers are not part of the current dispute. 

Services from Crewkerne, Yeovil Junction and Templecombe into London Waterloo operate as normal. However passengers are reminded that because of the landslip between Basingstoke and Woking SWR was already running a reduced service.

If you intend to travel on 1 or 3 of February, you are advised to check the latest travel updates before you leave. The impact of this strike action means there may be difficulties getting staff to where they need to be. Customers are therefore advised that short notice delays and cancellations are possible. Particularly if there is disruption on the network.

South Somerset Opium Trip

There is some good news at last from South Somerset District Council (SSDC) regarding its investment in battery storage. The first part of the site in Fareham is up and running and making profits. According to papers presented to SSDC’s Executive yesterday, £900k for the first half of the year to 31 March 2023.

To recap, SSDC set up a joint Venture with Opium Power Limited to operate a battery park near Taunton. This business is controlled by SSDC but the shares are spilt 50 (SSDC) to 50 (Opium Power Limited). SSDC Opium owns 100% of two other battery park companies based in Hampshire: Fareham Energy no 1 and Fareham Energy no2. All the funds (£42m) to pay for the project have been provided by SSDC. They are to be repaid under loan agreements which give SSDC an income in the form of interest on the loans.

The investment in battery storage facilities has been dogged with misfortune and missteps. Errors with VAT payments, delays, not realising there was a ransom strip between the Taunton battery park and the substation it needed to connect to, and then the misfortune of a lightening strike on the facility.

SSDC have admitted that this is a complex investment. £4m was written off the value of the investment recorded in the accounts for 2020/21. The question is whether it is too complex for a public authority to operate.

Good idea

All that said, there is little doubt the concept is a good one. The business case appears to be sound and it looks as if it is now generating a decent return. Battery parks take energy from the grid at times of surplus and return it in times of need. With green energy becoming a bigger part of the generating mix, batteries are becoming more important. Power from solar and wind energy is more variable by its nature. Having battery storage to iron out the peaks and troughs is essential. This is all good news for South Somerset taxpayers. But it is a complex operation and SSDC have struggled to understand the accounting required for it.

Naivete

That financial naivete has been demonstrated again in the paper before the Executive. They are being asked to approve a £900k dividend to the shareholders of SSDC Opium. Although Fareham has made £900k profit, there is no mention of the trading position of SSDC Opium. Fareham is a 100% subsidiary of SSDC Opium. No sensible business would pay a dividend based on the results of one subsidiary company, without looking at the performance of the group as a whole.

A separate assessment of the financial position of SSDC Opium should be undertaken. That would determine whether it is appropriate for SSDC Opium to pay a dividend to its own shareholders. None of this work has been included in the presentation to the executive.

In theory, if SSDC Opium were losing more than £900k, it is possible that the proposed dividend would be illegal. It is probably not the case. The important thing here, is that the Executive do not know this as the information is not included in the papers.

There is one other significant omission in the paper. It arises because the paper focuses on Fareham Energy No1 and not the whole group. The Executive have been told “To date, the loan repayments, including interest, have been made in accordance with the agreements.” It is important for the Executive to consider the risk of loan repayments not being made. That should determine whether any surplus is better deployed paying a dividend or repaying SSDC’s loans.

Back to the statement that all loan repayments have been made on time. This is true for Fareham Energy No 1. It is not true for SSDC Opium, where all the loan agreements had to be rescheduled. This was precisely because the company could not make repayments on time because of the delays to the project. The Executive have not been given this information which is surely relevant in making the decision on paying a dividend.

Why is this request raised in one of the last meetings before SSDC becomes subsumed in the new Unitary Council? The request to pay a dividend was made in November 2022. That perhaps is a question best left hanging….

Castle Cary chaos says councillor

Parking issues at Castle Cary station are an accident waiting to happen says Cllr Barry O’Leary. The Mendip District Councillor complained to GWR after seeing lines of parked cars on the verge of the A371. Today the car park was full and drivers had parked on the verge outside the station. However as the verge is narrow at that point and the car park is just before a bend in the road, vehicles protrude onto the carriage way. Cars are parked on either side of the car park entrance and this is not a rare occurrence.

Today there were up to 20 cars parked on the verge outside Cary station. Bearing in mind the bend in the road before the station and the fact that rush hour traffic is still travelling in the dark at this time of year, it feels like an accident waiting to happen. Added to which Mr O’Leary notes there is a small section of the car park directly opposite the taxi rank which continues to be fenced off removing 20 spaces

Cllr O’Leary contacted GWR who run the station asking for a response. They told him “This has been raised with the station manager and they are aware of the situation.

Cllr O’Leary does not accept that this is good enough. He told The Leveller: “What we need is safety today not safety tomorrow”. He believes the problems are a result of GWR failing to think through their station improvements. These are now running 2 years late. He adds: “So when they make the claim of improvements by summer, I am left asking “which summer?”

Meanwhile Network Rail have put up signs in the car park which suggest they may not have correctly identified where Somerset is:

No Somerset trains on strike days

GWR today announced the services it will be running on 1 and 3 February, when ASLEF has called a strike. The train drivers union represents the vast majority of drivers. It has said that the latest pay offer “is not and could not ever be acceptable”. The Union did say it was till prepared to angage in further discussions.

The strikes next week will be on Wednesday 1 February and Thursday 3 February. However unlike on previous strike days, GWR say they expect to run a full service on Wednesday 2 February.

A limited service has been announced for the two strike days. However no services are planned from GWR’s Somerset stations. That will effect: Taunton, Bridgwater, Highbridge, Frome, Castle Cary, Bruton and Yeovil Penn Mill.

Power cut in Wearne as thieves nick cables

There have been plenty of stories in the past decade about copper telephone cables being stolen. The practise more or less went away when new legislation governing scrap metal dealers came into force in 2013.

The news that more cables had been stolen near Wearne therefore came as a bit of a surprise. The real shock though, excuse the pub, was that the thieves had stolen cables that were linked to an electricity substation. The substation is on the A372 White Hill near Wearne.

Local residents found out soon enough when their power went down. National Grid were alerted to the problem at 4.20 on Monday (23 January). It was reported to the police the following morning.

Residents in Wearne were without power for around 6 hours.

National Grid told The Leveller: “A section of cable was illegally cut down at a rural location at Wearne near Langport over the weekend. Using cutters, the thieves stole around 10 metres of PVC-coated copper cable from a transformer pole. The cable plays an important earthing function and should never be tampered with.”

You would not imagine this would be easy to dispose of, presumably the thieves are hoping to get cash from someone. Is this now part of a pattern? Not according to the National Grid. They added: “This is an isolated but unwelcome act of theft and vandalism and we would encourage anyone who sees suspicious activity near National Grid’s poles, cables or substations to call us on 0800 096 3080 or call the police immediately.”

Avon & Somerset Police echoed those sentiments saying:”If you saw anything suspicious or have any dashcam or other footage showing the incident please call 101 and give the reference 5223018273.”

Hinkley consultation starts today

On the 10 January, we published an exclusive piece about plans for Hinkley C to avoid using an Acoustic Fish Deterrent system. The original plans for the new power station, granted in 2013, included an AFD system. You can read the background to the issue here: https://leveller.live/2023/01/10/hinkley-c-and-the-fish-deterrent/

Today the Environment Agency has launched its consultation. This is your chance to give your views. Hinkley C are seeking permission to have no AFDs on the grounds they believe it to be unnecessary. This is the first stage of a process that will ultimately require new planning permission. It will also require new permissions from the Marine Management Organisation.

You have until 21 February to submit your views and reasons for them. You can use the link here to the EA consultation: https://consult.environment-agency.gov.uk/psc/ta5-1ud-nnb-generation-company-hpc-limited-v005

Alternatively you can email your views to psc-waterquality@environment-agency.gov.uk

Flooding incident “stood down”

The major incident declared for flooding across the Somerset Levels has been “stood down” today. The incident was declared on 17 January in response to widespread flooding of the Parrett and Tone. With enhanced pumping and recent dry weather, water levels have subsided. Jim Flory of the Environment Agency (EA) illustrated the point: “We have been seeing an improving picture in Somerset over the last few days, with enough water to fill more than 23 million bathtubs a day being pumped back into rivers.

Cllr Bill Revans, Leader of Somerset County Council added: “Thankfully, conditions have improved, and I am grateful to colleagues in the Environment Agency for their efforts to bring in additional pumps. We will continue to work closely with both partners and local people to monitor the situation and are well placed to react swiftly should the need arise.” 

The A361 between East Lyng and Burrowbridge remains closed with the special flood gates. However the EA say the roadway is “mostly clear of flooding”. The road is expected to open later today. You can get the latest on the A361 from https://twitter.com/TravelSomerset

Currymoor is still approximately 80% full. Pumping activity continues at Currymoor, Saltmoor, Northmoor, West Sedgemoor, Long Load, Westover, Huish Episcopi, and Midelney. In addition there are temporary pumps running at Elson’s Clyce, Haymoor, Fordgate, Kitch Drove and Bridgwater docks. At Dunball, the pumps are operational and running on high tides. 

Witness appeal following Bridgwater assault

Avon & Somerset Police are appealing to the public for witnesses to an assault to come forward.

On 13 January a man was walking along Bristol Road between 6-7pm close to the junction with the A39 Bath Road. When he reached the zebra crossing, he was assaulted by a second man who punched him in the face. The victim attended hospital after sustaining a number of minor physical injuries. These included a split lip and wound to his finger.

The suspect is described as 30-40 years old and was with a woman of a similar age at the time of the assault.

Police believe that there were a number of motorists in the area at the time of the assault. Did you witness the incident? If you saw anything that might be helpful, please contact the Police. Call 101 and quote reference number 5223010051.

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