This week (to 5 May) there have been a further 81 confirmed cases of COVID 19 in Somerset. Interestingly a tiny rise from last week but a rise for the last three weeks. However looking at the trend over the last 8 weeks the trajectory is still clearly downwards. We have had 4 weeks where the number of new infections has been below 100. The table below illustrates the point. It tracks the weekly number of infections in recent weeks:
81 to 5 May
79 to 28 April
63 to 21 April
19 to 16 April
103 to 7 April
244 to 1 April
219 to 24 March
216 to 17 March
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 1 May for cases (although different dates are used for some of the other figures – for instance deaths are reported to 16 April). 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.
Thankfully there was no update on deaths from COVID 19 in Somerset. The last set of data was to 16 April which we reported last week.
The R number (reproduction rate) for the South West this week continues to be above 1. In fact once again the range has been raised, albeit slightly to 0.8 to 1.2. It still feels out of kilter with the new case numbers. It also would suggest that the south west has the highest reproduction rate in the country. Again this is hard to rationalise. There has been surge testing in London Boroughs and also the West Midlands over the past week. This has been to combat localised outbreaks with new variants accelerating case numbers. But no surge testing we are aware of has been necessary in the south west.
The vaccination programme figures for Somerset have also not been updated since last week. Those numbers were to the 18 April.
However, as always, we have attached the full data set here so you can draw your own conclusions:
In our March edition we looked into the way that Somerset County Council Highways was working. Or not as the case maybe. SCC Highways use Skanska as the contractor to carry out most of the works the Highways team have to deliver. Our article looked at the performance of the company in the light of an audit report published by SCC. The full text was made public only reluctantly. It revealed significant problems with the Skanska contract. Including routine over-charging of Somerset County Council.
Yesterday it was announced that Skanska UK’s infrastructure services has been sold. This is the bit that works for SCC and Devon, North Somerset, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, and several others. The operations have been bought by M Group and a new division formed including the Skanska business. the new unit is to be known as Milestone Infrastructure Ltd.
M Group Services delivers appear to be building a portfolio of infrastructure contracts with public bodies. It is not a new model and one that has been followed by organisations such as Capita and Carillion. They already have around 9,000 employees working from 100 locations.
Jim Arnold, chief executive, M Group Services, apparently hasn’t been made aware of the SCC audit report. He told journalists “We are acquiring a highly-regarded infrastructure service business with a first-class reputation for strong and innovative service delivery across its longstanding client base.”
Assuming the contract with Skanska was drawn up sensibly, it should have a break clause in it. This would be enacted whenever the contractor changed ownership. It would give both sides the option to renegotiate or walk away. So as a result, SCC would now have a chance to renegotiate the terms of the contract with an option to walk away.
Whatever the foibles, the arguments and the different approaches, the media in Somerset has much to be thankful for. We live in a free society, we have freedom of expression. We may, indeed are, occasionally threatened, but it is rare and incidents are isolated. This statement from the Media Freedom Coalition* statement on World Press Freedom Day is poignant. It remind sus of how much we take for granted, how lucky we are. Journalists in other places are not so lucky:
Today, on World Press Freedom Day and the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration, we celebrate the fundamental principles of media freedom and stand together for its protection around the world.
The Windhoek Declaration is a historic call for media freedom. It upholds this freedom as a crucial component of the right to freedom of expression, as enshrined by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and underlines that an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy and to economic development.
A free media, both online and offline, is essential to upholding freedom of expression as a human right. Access to reliable and independent information is paramount, as exemplified by the dissemination of information during the COVID-19 pandemic. We need journalists to report the facts, keep us informed and to hold those in power to account.
While we have witnessed important progress regarding media freedom in the past 30 years, many of the old threats to media freedom persist and new challenges are appearing. The safety of journalists is declining worldwide.
Journalists and media workers increasingly face physical and verbal violence, threats and intimidation, lawsuits and imprisonment with the aim of silencing them. Online harassment against women journalists has increased exponentially. The repeated use of anti-media rhetoric by some politicians and government leaders is eroding media freedom and is putting individual journalists at risk.
To counter threats to media freedom, a global effort is needed to take urgent action. If violence against journalists triumphs, media cannot be free and democracy cannot function.
We urge all states to promote and protect media freedom at home and abroad, offline and online, and call upon all states to release all arbitrarily detained journalists and to prosecute all perpetrators of crimes against journalists.
The Media Freedom Coalition strongly reaffirms its continued support for media freedom around the world. Without media freedom, there can be no true progress in human rights, democracy and prosperity.
*Note: Formed in July 2019, the Media Freedom Coalition is a partnership of countries. They are working together to advocate for media freedom and safety of journalists. To hold to account those who harm journalists for doing their job. The Coalition’s raison d’etre is to defend media freedom where it is under threat.
The last three days of April saw political point scoring of the worst kind across Somerset. We have seen every kind of petty backbiting, a lack of reasoned debate and entrenched views becoming more entrenched. Each of the district councils planned to meet on 30 April to decide vote on giving Somerset residents a vote. In short to hold a poll on which model of local government they preferred.
But before any of the district councils got a chance to vote two MPs with “history” had their pennyworth. Ian Liddell Grainger was on his hobbyhorse: “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Government’s consultation failed to seek the views of Somerset voters. This week the Minister of State publicly admitted that the online survey organised by his department made no attempt whatsoever to verify the identity of any respondent.” The MP has clearly been doing quite a lot of behind the scenes spadework. Despite the letter being on the face of it to the SEO of Somerset West & Taunton, the pdf opens to the title “Draft letter to Sajid Javid”. It must either be a very old letter, or he has been lobbying back benchers who used to be ministers.
His old adversary from the days of the Taunton/Somerset West merger was Rebecca Pow. Now of course a junior minister in the government she had a different perspective: “I am dismayed to hear…..district councils are planning to conduct a poll on local government reorganisation that appears contrary to your own original legal advice and to the stated position of the Secretary of State. I am particularly concerned that this appears to be a misuse of public funds…..“
Ms Pow was clearly not informed that having received a legal letter with the wrong answer, the districts had headed out to find someone who could give them the right answer. District Councils were given clear legal advice from a Queens Counsel that a poll of residents could go ahead. With the caveat that it should be solely for the purpose of finding out what residents want. It should not be with the main intention of thwarting the Secretary of State. And this is what enabled them to sit down on 30 April to consider a poll. But as we have pointed out before, that advice is very carefully worded.
Leader of South Somerset District Council (SSDC), Val Keitch, apparently hadn’t read that bit of the advice. First at scrutiny and then at full council on 30 April, she made her views clear. The Secretary of State had run a flawed consultation. It asked the wrong people, it was biased. Val Keitch didn’t agree with it. She didn’t accept it. And a poll of residents should put that right.
So SSDC endorsed the idea of a poll of residents, whilst also appearing to fly in the face of the legal advice it received. It became clear, to these ears at least, that the main purpose of the poll, was to thwart the Secretary of State.
Elsewhere the other three councils managed a much “cleaner” debate. No name calling, no Secretary of State shaming. A clear call for a poll of residents for all the right reasons. At least all four district councils came up with the same idea.
It was a long day starting with SW&T at 10 in the morning and finishing at 6 in the evening at Mendip. The voting was predictable. All opinions previously entrenched all following their various party lines very much as we predicted. Only the Mendip Greens and some of the independents appeared to have arrived at the debating chamber with some intention of listening to the arguments and then making up their own mind. The rest looked as if they had been whipped. They would no doubt say they hadn’t been, but that was how it looked.
If you are wondering where Somerset County Council (SCC) were in all of this fear not. They had laid rather low until the day (30 April), but they had low blows in mind. In a letter to the district council leaders, David Fothergill stated his case. That SCC took an opposite view to the districts was not a surprise. That they took the opposite view of the Secretary of State’s consultation was predictable. Nor was it a surprise to read they would not take part in the district council’s poll. But to say that SCC refused permission to allow One Somerset’s logo or branding to be used in the poll? That seemed rather petty.
But this whole process had been conducted with point scoring and acrimony throughout. Most people we have spoken to expressed the view that the sooner these institutions are replaced, whether by one or two councils, the better.
No doubt a poll will go ahead. Whether it will be a fair poll, with only one side arguing its case is debateable. No doubt the spending on adverts and the like to argue the case for Stronger Somerset will continue. Perhaps the Secretary of State will consider legal action against SSDC. For now we can only guess.
The Leveller® still believes One Somerset is the best option. We have campaigned on that point of view throughout. And equally we recognise our readers may not share that view. Which is why we also believed a referendum was the right way to go. Something we first mentioned in July last year in this piece: https://leveller.live/2020/07/07/greens-say-yes-and-no-to-unitary-somerset/ But this sort of last minute rushed mess was not what we had in mind.
Avon & Somerset Police are looking for Richard Smart. The 53-year-old is wanted on a recall to prison. He has previously been sentenced for burglaries committed across our region.
Smart has links to Bristol and Somerset, but is known to travel all over the South West. Most recently he has been seen in Brislington and Bridgwater. You are asked to keep an eye open for him.
He is described as white, approximately 6ft, average build, and having grey hair with stubble. He has blue eyes and he speaks with a West Country accent. He has a small scar above his right eyebrow, and tattoos on his arms.
Anyone who sees him should not approach him. Please call 999 and give reference number 5221086256. If you know of his whereabouts, call 101 and give the call-handler the same reference code.
On the 16 April we reported on a leadership challenge at Somerset West & Taunton. In the end the vote was tied between the current leader Cllr Federica Smith-Roberts and Cllr Simon Coles. Although Cllr Federica Smith-Roberts retained the leadership, further changes were inevitable. Today a new leadership team was announced for the council. There are a number of news faces.
The executive members are as follows:
Leader – Cllr Federica Smith-Roberts
Deputy Leader and Executive Member for Sports, Parks and Leisure– Cllr Derek Perry (new to the Executive)
Executive Member for Climate Change – Cllr Dixie Darch (new to the Executive)
Executive Member for Community – Cllr Chris Booth
Executive Member for Corporate Resources – Cllr Ross Henley
Executive Member for Culture – Cllr Caroline Ellis (new to the Executive)
Executive Member for Economic Development – Cllr Marcus Kravis
Executive member for Environmental Services – Cllr Andy Sully (new to the Executive)
Executive Member for Housing – Cllr Fran Smith
Executive Member for Planning and Transportation – Cllr Mike Rigby
The council leadership is now dominated with Taunton Deane area councillors. Only Marcus Kravis remains from the old West Somerset council area. Perhaps that was inevitable. Other new faces include the former Conservative Andy Sully, Cllr Caroline Ellis, Cllr Dixie Darch and Cllr Derek Parry.
MPs have debated the inconsistency with which the Police have enforced COVID 19 restrictions since the outbreak began. It leaves the Police in a difficult position. Each force trying to police the rules as it thinks right. And that enforcement process goes on. Avon & Somerset Police have just reported breaking up a “lock-in” at The Waggon, in Taunton. Police were called to the pub at around 11.15pm on Tuesday 20 April.
They report waiting outside the premises and noting a small number of people inside the premises drinking and dancing. Seven fixed penalty notices were issued.
Inspector Ruth Gawler notes “Our approach to dealing with such incidents remains the same – we will engage with the public, explain the rules and encourage them to comply. But enforcement through fines remains an option, especially for those responsible for the blatant and deliberate breaches we’ve been called out to deal with in recent days.“
This week (to 28 April) there have been a further 79 confirmed cases of COVID 19 in Somerset. Interestingly a jump from last week and the second rise in two weeks. However looking at the trend over the last 8 weeks the trajectory is still clearly downwards. The table below illustrates the point. It tracks the weekly number of infections in recent weeks:
79 to 28 April
63 to 21 April
19 to 16 April
103 to 7 April
244 to 1 April
219 to 24 March
216 to 17 March
227 to 10 March
272 to 3 March
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 21 April for cases (although different dates are used for some of the other figures – for instance deaths are reported to 16 April). 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.
Thankfully there were no further deaths from COVID 19 in Somerset for the period to 16 April. The total since the pandemic began remains at 796.
The R number (reproduction rate) for the South West this week continues to be above 1. To be quoting a range up to 0.7 to 1.1, feels out of kilter with the new case numbers. However as there have been two successive weeks of rising infection numbers, it does perhaps make sense.
The vaccination programme figures for Somerset to the 18 April show steady if slower progress. A further 2,732 under 50’s have been given a first vaccination. The focus remains on getting second vaccinations to the over 50’s. To the 18 April 90% of the over 8o and 90% of the 75-79 cohorts had received a second vaccination.
However, as always, we have attached the full data set here so you can draw your own conclusions:
A body was found on Monday evening (26 April) in the water at Bridgwater Docks. Police were called just before 5.30pm after the body was first spotted. The specialist dive team was called in and they recovered the body of a man from the water. To date the body has not been identified but Police say the circumstances of his death are not suspicious.
Please be aware that the Police are conducting door-to-door enquiries in the area to identify the deceased. They are also hoping to establish how he died.
If anyone has any information or saw anything out of the ordinary in the docks area, please call 101 quoting reference 5221089758.
All four Somerset district councils are meeting on Friday to vote on whether to hold a vote. Originally the meetings were scheduled for 15 April. However as we reported earlier, on the 13 April, the district councils received an unfavourable legal opinion. That suggested that there was a risk, if they went ahead, of being held to have wasted public money. If you remember the furore around the referendum in Catalonia, the issues are surprisingly similar. I suspect councillors will not be going on the run or going to jail. But the issues and pitfalls are similar. The accusations against the Catalonia separatists was that they wasted public money.
So it was important for the district councils not to proceed until they found a favourable opinion. Now they have found a Queens Counsel (QC) who has offered them a favourable opinion.
Does that simply make it one each? Not exactly. The QC probably trumps the legal firm. However the QC has made it clear that all councillors should see the unfavourable opinion. And his own views are not quite as clear cut as you may have been led to believe.
So can a vote now be organised?
It all hinges on a town in the Black Country. The town of Wednesbury is probably not terribly well known in these parts. But in 1947 it made legal history. A decision over whether a cinema could open does not sound like the making of legal history. Well it was not so much the decision, as the ruling by the judge on reasonableness.
That ruling has set the standard of reasonableness for public bodies for generations since. “Wednesbury Reasonableness” sounds like a statement of the obvious:
in making the decision, a public body should not take into account factors that ought not to be taken into account, or
a public body must take into account factors that ought to be taken into account, or
a public body must not make a decision so unreasonable that no reasonable authority would ever consider imposing it.
So the district councils can only approve a poll if they meet those tests. You will be thinking that should be easy. But it is not as easy as you might think. The districts have a favourable legal opinion to work with but it comes with heavy warnings. And the papers for the meeting to not appear to pay a lot of attention to those warnings.
At issue here is the Secretary of State’s consultation. The QC notes that “They should consider whether the Referendum might be counterproductive in relation to the SOS’s eventual decision.”
He adds “Not only must the Districts have regard to all relevant considerations, also they must not have regard to any irrelevant/improper purpose, such as being seen to go down fighting or to be doing something.” In short he is quoting from the Wednesbury rules.
The QC adds several caveats that are important. he notes that yes the districts can lawfully hold a referendum. But caveats that by saying; “This is of course provided that the decision is arrived at in a lawful manner.” What that means is it cannot be for the purpose of thwarting the Secretary of State. It must also take account of his timetable. The purpose must be to inform him, not to score points of him.
And so here is an interesting dilemma. What If all those who vote in favour of a poll are on the record as Stronger Somerset supporters? And all who vote against are One Somerset advocates? That might well be seen as going down fighting for a cause. This is far from straightforward. And the papers given to councillors does not adequately point out the risks of getting it wrong.
The QC more or less repeats the warning when asked about “the risks to the Districts and their respective Members and Officers should they resolve to proceed with a Poll.” He notes “There may be a challenge; but I regard any risk of personal liability as being very low.” But then comes a similar caveat “This is of course provided that there is no improper behaviour such as having an improper purpose.“
Here the districts have a problem. Each can proceed in good faith on an understanding of what their own councillors may or may not have said in the last few weeks. But do they know what other members of other districts have said? And to what extent are they “on the hook” for what others have said?
For instance do councillors in Mendip know what some councillors in South Somerset have alleged? For instance that the Conservative Government in alliance with Somerset County Council are trying to take over the districts. A poll posted on Facebook on 8 March by someone claiming to be Peter Seib is to that point. He is a senior cabinet member of South Somerset District Council (SSDC). In the post the author asserts “The Government wants to abolish South Somerset District Council“. He makes no mention of the fact that his own council also wants to abolish SSDC, a fact clearly stated in the Stronger Somerset proposals. In short the comment is clearly biased and a thinly disguised attack on the government.
That’s an interesting statement from a cabinet member.
Cllr Val Keitch is more direct in an email sent out to residents. She says “The Conservatives at Somerset County Council and the Government are planning to abolish our existing councils and replace them with a single mega council in Taunton – all without the people being given a say.”
Could it call into question the motives of SSDC in calling for a poll? If the reasons for calling it were to thwart the Secretary of State, that would be a problem. The statement above would give credence to that point of view. It implicitly rubbishes the Secretary of State’s consultation.
Now there’s nothing wrong with either Cllrs Keitch or Seib holding that point of view from a purely political stance. But in terms of being neutral and holding a poll in good faith? Following the Wednesbury Reasonableness test? There’s a lot to be concerned about. I wonder if the QC giving his opinion was made aware of these communications before he gave his opinion.
The Leveller has not seen similar communications from other district councils. But those three other districts could be at risk because of ill-judged remarks from SSDC councillors.
This whole shambles is disappointing. Because actually holding a proper referendum is, surely, a very good idea. To some extent the districts should be praised for wanting to hold a poll. But not for the last minute way in which they have gone about things.