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Public meeting at Somerton

It is a long time since a council meeting in Somerton could fill the main room in the Edgar Hall. Not since the days of the Somerton Civil War when the cost of building said Hall, the mass resignation of town councillors and factional in fighting blighted council meetings between 2009 and 2015. In the bad old days the Hall was regularly full as both side took turns to criticise each other.

These are more peaceful times so as everyone trooped in I stopped counting when it got to over 50 members of the public. And still they kept coming. What was it that brought in so many concerned members of the public? A public meeting called to precede the main council meeting. At issue, and it is a serious issue, was the state of Russet Road, an estate road built on the new Bovis Homes development. The road is narrow has two hideous curves in it and is regularly impassable when the council waste collection lorries are about their business. The layout of the road forces vehicles into the path of oncoming traffic as they negotiate the bends in the road.

It is not the only time we have heard complaints along these lines about a new development in Somerset (the same issue came up at Huish Episcopi when discussing a proposed housing estate for the old Kelways Trial Ground, but the Somerton development has caused a lot of concern and with good reason. During the summer I sat and watched the traffic going through the estate with Town Council chair Dean Ruddle. The problem is obvious for anyone who wants to see it.

So Cllr Ruddle arranged for the Operations Director for Economic and Community Infrastructure at Somerset County Council to come along and hear the concerns for himself.

It is very much to his credit that he did, faced the questions calmly and courteously and if he was unable to offer much by way of a solution, at least he has not simply sat behind a desk and pontificated by email. He spoke first and explained the dilemma. It is this. According to SCC Highways the road does exactly what South Somerset District Council and Bovis designed it do. To limit the speed of traffic by design. When SCC Highways were asked to comment on the road, they did so and agreed that it would indeed do this. It is true that it works to the extent that traffic tends to go through at less than 20mph. But that does not address the issue of vehicles being forced on to the wrong side of the road. A head on collision at 20mph is less serious than one at 40mph, but it is still a head on collision.

Since then SCC have conducted a view of the signage, run a traffic survey and looked at possible traffic calming measures. All of which they have done.

In conclusion SCC could not afford or justify traffic calming measures but are sympathetic to the concerns of the town and would support Somerton Town Council if they wanted to pay for their own traffic calming.

The content of the rest of the meeting was not a great surprise. The problems are well known locally. Time and again members of the public spoke to warn that this was an accident waiting to happen, someone will get killed, emergency service vehicles will not be able to get through and that a lot of the traffic is vans and lorries taking a short cut from the Bancombe Road industrial Estate.

So where do we go from here? If the Town Council will look at traffic calming using say concrete planters to narrow the approaches to either side of Russet Road, that might work. But the onus is on the local community to take action. It is clear that SCC cannot, unsatisfactory but that is where we are.

Domestic Abuse. Man jailed

It seems that domestic abuse is right at the forefront of the political agenda, or whatever is left of that after Brexit, right now.

So the news that Christopher Jansons of Bridgwater has been sent to prison for falsely imprisoning and threatening to kill wife, is a timely reminder that this is serious and is at last starting to be taken seriously by law enforcement too.

Jansons, 62 was jailed for two years and eight months at Taunton Crown Court after he entered guilty pleas.

Jansons was arrested by officers as he stood over his wife while she lay on the floor of their bedroom.  He had covertly recorded his wife discussing their relationship with a friend on the evening of 26th May this year before later confronting her. He took her phone away from her during the initial argument and kept her from leaving the bedroom.

However, unbeknown to him, his victim managed to call police on another phone and was able to tell the call handler what was happening and provide her address before hiding the phone and leaving the line open.

The incident was captured on the officers’ body worn video and was shown to the judge during the trial.

Announcing the verdict and the conclusion of the investigation today, Detective Constable Mark Humphrey explained “There are no excuses for domestic abuse and I’d urge anyone who is subjected to it, whether it be physical or emotional abuse, to speak to someone. If you contact us we will take any report seriously and investigate any offences with the utmost care and sensitivity. You are not alone – we will there for you every step of the way.”

If you want to speak to another agency or charity, then you can find a list of relevant contact details on our dedicated microsite here: https://www.thisisnotanexcuse.org/domestic-abuse/help-and-support.

Brewhouse ambition

If the brown scar on Taunton’s face at Firepuddle is destined to remain for a few years yet, at least there is some positive news on the Brewhouse. This morning Taunton Deane Borough Council (TDBC) and Taunton Theatre Association (TTA) announced the appointment of architects to redevelop The Brewhouse Theatre & Arts Centre on the Coal Orchard site.

Announced during a visit to the site by the Rt Hon Jeremy Wright QC, the newly appointed Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Is it a reflection of the times we live in that the most appropriate person the government could find to put in charge of Culture, Media and Sport is a barrister?

TDBC own the arts centre and plans to expand and revitalise the 70s building into a flagship, multi-purpose arts venue are long overdue and should generally be a major step forward in revitalising the whole town cente. Taunton has to date really failed to capitalise on what could be a scenic and attractive waterfront. This development has the capacity to deliver something a bit more special.

The architects appointed MICA, are London based working from offices in Camden Town. Whilst it is a pity that no West Country firm could be found, they do at least have extensive experience of arts projects albiet nearly all their flagship projects have been in London (Southbank Masterplan, Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, Fairfield Halls restoration, National Maritime Museum). The company is still young, incorporated in 2016 and trades heavily on the reputation of directors Stuart Cade and Gavin Miller.

The intention is that the improved venue will include an enlarged main auditorium and flexible studio theatre to enable a greater programme of live performances, with improved acoustics and better facilities for national touring productions.

The revitalised arts centre will wrap around parts of the existing building, and the adjoining (and listed) 18th century house which used to host the Theatre café will be preserved in the design. The redesigned space should provide a range of new spaces including performing and visual art studios, cinema, cafe and gallery while making the most of the river frontage and creating the potential for pop-up performances and events.

TTA have started talks with several service providers and arts organisations who might want to take up residency in the new facilities. If they can bring more people in it will give a fighting chance of creating a thriving cultural hub in the heart of Taunton.

The capital cost for the project is fixed at £12million and the project is planned to be delivered by autumn 2022. So that only leaves the critical question, who is going to pay for it? In response to our question a spokesperson for TDBC told us “TDBC are funding the initial work and architects plans from New Homes Bonus funds which it has allocated for regeneration projects. When the plans are drawn up and there is a clear proposal the Council and TTA will be able to look towards securing a funding package from a variety of sources.” We’ll be sure to ask what those sources are in due course. Taunton does not need another Firepool on its hands. One is surely enough.

Welcome to the Wild West

Taunton Deane Borough Council meetings can be fairly turgid affairs. But not this one. Mind you some of us went expecting that the recent withdrawal of St Modwen Properties from the Council’s flagship Firepool scheme (of which more in the October Leveller) would have drawn comment. Not so much as a whisper. Nothing on the agenda, no public questions, nothing planned by way of petitions or motions. It may simply be that everyone has completely despaired of TDBC’s ability to deliver (it did eventually surface right at the end of the 3 hour meeting you’ll be pleased to know!).

Tonight it did prove that what it lacks in delivery it makes up for in talk. At issue was the state of Taunton town centre, the vandalism, theft, intimidation of the public and the impact this is having on traders. The LibDems led on the issue with Cllr Councillor Habib Farbahi, closely followed by Councillor Simon Nicholls taking issue with changes that had been made to the oversight of the town in May last year. Then Sedgemoor District Council launched their own business crime reduction system to replace Somerset Businesses Against Crime (SBAC) and Taunton Deane joined in the scheme, but as a funder rather than an active participant.

The LibDems read out a long litany of complaints from shopkeepers large and small. A letter from Mr Hill, Director at Hatchers was read out that among other things referenced having to increase staff to prevent organised thieving, noting the impact of anti-social behaviour on sales and noting in passing that the public streets (as opposed to those policed by private security in the Orchard Shopping Centre) were “less desirable these days” deterring people from coming into Taunton.

Other councillors not all on the same side of the chamber, shared similar experiences. Similar complaints put in writing by the store manager at Lakeland were read out.

Clearly there is a problem, nearly every councillor recognised there was a problem. Except for Councillor Parrish who was moved to observe that “Some of what we have heard tonight if not totally exaggerated has been expanded upon somewhat.”. I assume he won’t be buying his furniture from Hatchers in the near future. Councillor Habgood struck a more conciliatory tone bearing in mind a personal experience of being threatened in the town. He felt the motion had merits, but the approach was wrong. He would have liked to see the scrutiny committee involved.

The nub of the Conservative position appeared to be, in essence, we sympathise with the sentiment, but passing a motion to do something about it is not the way to do these things. We need facts, evidence, and either a review or the use of the scrutiny committee is the right way to go about it. And why for that matter have the LibDems not brought the issue up before at a scrutiny committee meeting.

The nub of the LibDem point seemed to be we need to ignore that and get on with something now. A named vote was called.

I’m always suspicious when this happens as it smacks of getting people on the record because… an election is round the corner. And as luck would have it that is just what will happen next May.

But here is the question indeed several questions.

With possibly one exception, every councillor recognised there is a problem in Taunton Town Centre. This is not news. It has been known about for over a year. The traders say so, the public says so. So for Conservative Councillors and Cabinet to glibly say “you are using the wrong approach.” Well is that good enough?

Do they only take action when prompted by the opposition? Is there nothing in the water that prompts them to ask questions of a system that most seem to agree is not working? If they detect a problem can they not work with officers to fix it, or is sitting on your hands until the opposition bring it up the best way to go?

The LibDems too have questions to answer. Why have they not brought it to scrutiny before? Again this is not a new issue. Your humble correspondent had to leave the room before the votes had been cast on the motion but could not escape the feeling that neither side of the political divide is working in the interest of the corporate whole.

Whatever happens next, more investigation is my guess, we cannot escape the thought that had the investigation happened 6 months ago with both sides involved, instead of playing politics today, we’d be taking action now. As a member of the public whispered during the debate, “this lot will investigate anything as long as they don’t have to actually do something.”

I’ll leave the final word on the days events to Cllr James who apparently without irony, addressed the public gallery containing at least 2 members of the press, with the words “We are looking to being a Garden City. If the press get hold of this it won’t be welcome to the West it will be welcome to the Wild West.” You’re welcome!

 

 

 

 

Award for Ed

The Prime Minister may be giving her main speech to the Conservative Conference today, but it was not the only thing on her agenda. She has also taken time to recognise the achievement of Curry Rivel’s Ed Pratt by giving him a “Points of Light” award. These awards are granted to recognise outstanding volunteers who are making a change in their community and inspiring others.

Ed who raised over £300,000 for the ‘School in a Bag’ charity after becoming the first person to circumnavigate the world on a unicycle will be the 1015th winner of the Points of Light award.

Ed completed his record-breaking fundraising challenge in aid of ‘School In A Bag’ raising over £300,000 for the charity which delivers delivers rucksacks filled with stationery and learning resources to disadvantaged children across the world. His journey started in March 2015 and involved unicycling through Europe, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan before travelling across China and through South East Asia to Singapore. He then took on Australia, New Zealand, and the United States before flying to Edinburgh to complete the final 500 miles home to Somerset.

It took him 3 years in all and represents a phenomenal feat of determination and perseverance.

In a personal letter to Ed, Prime Minister Theresa May told him “Your dedication to fundraising in support of School In A Bag’s important work is remarkable. As a result of your record-breaking unicyle trip around the world, thousands of vulnerable young people will be able to access essential school supplies and educational equipment.”

Among the things made possible by Eds fundraising for School in a Bag are:

4,833 SchoolBags to Bidi Bidi refugee camp, northern Uganda through our partners, East African Playgrounds and being distributed by Care International

50 SchoolBags to northern Romania through our partners, Te Aud Romania. These SchoolBags were pack by Ed when he was at Unicycle.com in Teesside in July

1,600 SchoolBags to eastern India through our partners, Rural Development Welfare Society

1,000 SchoolBags to eastern India through our partners, Mercy & Grace

430 SchoolBags to Cambodia through our partners, EduKid

1,511 SchoolBags to southern Tanzania through our partners, Iringa Rural Development Initiative

700 SchoolBags to south east Sri Lanka through our partners, YALA Fund

1,200 SchoolBags to southern Ghana through our partners, Tzedek, DESO and Trashy Bags

4,650 SchoolBags to Nepal through our partners, Helambu Education and Livelihood Partnership (HELP)

Council Tax scam warning

Sedgemoor District Council has issued a warning to residents (and this applies equally to other Districts too) about a new Council Tax scam.

A number of Somerset residents have been contacted by a company claiming to be acting on behalf of Sedgemoor District Council.  They have been contacted by an organisation claiming to be GSM Marketing  – telephone number 0203 861 633 who have offered to help then with “lowering their council tax band”. The company then charge a £150 up-front fee which is taken from the residents bank account or via card

Sedgemoor District Council are keen to let people know that this company does not work for them and have not been endorsed by them.

You should also know that Council Tax bands are set by the Valuation Office Agency and can only be changed under certain conditions. Details can be found at www.gov.uk/council-tax-appeals.   If you think your band is wrong, contact the Valuation Office Agency – this is a free service.

If you have given over personal details, Sedgemoor District Council advise you to call the Police straight away on 101 and report the matter as an identity theft scam. The Police will also direct you to the Action Fraud helpline on 0300 123 2040.

Somerset County Council faces new challenges

The emergency cuts to planned expenditure agreed by Somerset County Council’s cabinet on 12th September have come under fire from opposition councillors. Whilst it is unsurprising that many object to the cuts, the problem is that no-one has a better idea as to what to do right now.  Opposition councillors may point to the fact that if things had been done differently, we would not be where we are, and arguably that is correct, however that does not change the fact that we are where we are.

To avoid insolvency, all SCC can do is choose which services to cut or hope that central government will somehow be persuaded to part with some emergency funding. The recent example of Northamptonshire is not encouraging.

So we are down to arguing not over whether to make cuts or not, but which items to cut.

Already SCC has agreed to hold an extraordinary County Council meeting on 17th October to discuss the cuts to staff and services requested by opposition councillors. Anyone wishing to speak at that meeting will need to have their question submitted by Friday 12th October.

Now the Leader of the Labour Group at SCC, Cllr Leigh Redman has submitted a ‘Scrutiny call in’ to challenge the decision to cut 70-80 staff from Somerset County Councils Getset service. Cllr Redman states that this decision “if implemented will have a negative impact on some of the most vulnerable children and families in our communities…”

The call in will be heard at a special Scrutiny meeting  at10am on the 8th October at Shire Hall, Taunton and will give people the chance to have their say on this particular aspect of the cuts. Any questions or statements from anyone wishing to debate the plans, need to be in by 1700hrs on Tuesday 2nd October and can be submitted using the form at: https://secure1.somerset.gov.uk/forms/PortalShowForm.asp?fm_formalias=aaq

 

County to close Chard pool

We were told this morning that Somerset County Council has informed the Kingfisher Community Pool (KCP) group that it has rejected the business case that KCP put forward for taking on the running of Cresta swimming pool next to Holyrood School in Chard.

Regeneration plans for Chard launched recently by South Somerset District Council include a pool as part of leisure facilities. However in the meantime the town of Chard will be left without a swimming pool and a large academy school will now have to travel to give pupils swimming lessons.

Was the cost of travel now necessary for pupils to get swimming lessons factored into the decision? Or has the idea that pupils should have access to swimming lessons simply been abandoned by a County Council running out of cash.

The pool, which is owned by the SCC has outlived its planned lifespan by more than a decade and now needs more than £1m of investment to replace failing equipment and to bring it up to standard.

It is interesting to note that as upgrading the Cresta Pool could have been conceived as a capital project, SCC could have borrowed money to upgrade the pool without impacting directly on its current cash crisis.

It only remains to reflect on the fact, as you can read in this month’s Leveller, that the current financial mess that SCC is in was a self-inflicted financial disaster.

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