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Blue for you

A tributary of the River Frome has turned bright turquoise. The unusual colour change prompted fears of a chemical spill into the river. As of lunchtime today the main River Frome is still flowing clear and has been largely unaffected.

EA river frome

So far the EA  (whose picture of the incident is above) have said only this “We are investigating a pollution incident near Frome that has turned a tributary of the River Frome bright blue. There are no reports of wildlife in distress or dead. Samples have been taken for testing. We will continue to monitor the stream over the weekend.

This comes barely a week since thousands of fish died in the River Sheppey. In that case the cause seemed to be a sudden fall in oxygen levels in the water. The EA are still investigating the incident.

However the River Sheppey flows from Shepton across to the River Brue and so out into the Parrett Estuary.

The River Frome is part of a different water system, flowing north east into the River Avon and so out into the Bristol Channel at Avonmouth.

Drugs and cash seized

Officers from Avon & Somerset Police executed a search warrant in Shepton Mallet today. The neighbourhood policing team searched a property at Wainwright court. They seized drugs and cash under the Misuse of Drugs Act

The drugs are being forensically examined but Police believe them to be class A drugs.

In addition a large amount of cash was seized during the search, together with mobile phones and scales.

Two men, aged 22 and 56 years, voluntarily attended a police station and have been released while Police enquiries continue.

St Margaret’s: What went wrong?

Public meetings are springing up all over Yeovil to discuss the fate of St Margaret’s. The closure of the Yeovil in-patients beds and the loss of 8 beds overall in Somerset is bad enough news. But why? Why has the charity suddenly hit the wall?

Accounts for the year to March 2019 are not due to be filed yet. But there are three interesting items in the 2018 accounts which may offer some clues.

  1. Firstly the number of high paid employees (earning over £60,000) at the charity had risen from 5 in 2017 to 9 in 2018. Of course the accounts do not tell us if these are clinicians or directors.

 

  1. There had been a significant rise in shop costs. For example in 2017 the charity sold £4.3m through its shops and made £686,744 profit. Not a great return given that this is a charity trying to maximise income to spend on its charitable purposes.

However in 2018 although the shop income had risen to £4.6m the shops only made £401,449 profit after the costs of running the shops went up by £556,000. If that trend has continued into 2019 the shops will have become a significant burden for very little return.

  1. The charity also embarked on a new venture to raise funds; St Margaret’s Funerals. Again the 2018 accounts (interim accounts so in fairness these numbers could change) show that the operation made a loss of £59,733

Those would certainly be interesting questions to ask the representatives of St Margaret’s at the public meeting next week (The Octagon Theatre, 14th August, 6.30pm)

Yeovil Hospice to close unit?

There appears to be something of a crisis developing at Yeovil Hospice. Proposals have been announced to close the in-patient unit there. This has attracted a lot of agitated correspondence here at Leveller Towers.

The 12 bed unit that is proposed for closure provides a much needed service to the local community and is according to several of our correspondents “always running to capacity.”

St Margaret’s that run the hospice say they will now consolidate in-patients at their Taunton Hospice which will go from 12 to 16 beds. That still leaves a net loss of 8 beds to the county as whole.

However the charity that run the hospice claim the closure is due to financial pressures and staff shortages. Presumably the two are likely to be linked.

There will be a public meeting at the Octagon Theatre, Yeovil on Wednesday 14th August at 6.30pm to discuss the future of the Hospice and to get a better understanding of what has led to the proposed closure. This is not the venue that has been publicised elsewhere – the meeting venue has changed due to the large numbers expected.

Incident at Meare, Glastonbury

Avon & Somerset Police are asking for the public’s help after a serious incident in Meare.

At around 8.30pm yesterday evening (2nd August) a motorcyclist was heading along St Mary’s Road, Meare.  All the Police can say for certain is that the motorcyclist hit a wall.  The victim was a man in his 20s.

He sustained serious head and facial injuries – including a broken jaw. Whilst the injuries are not believed to be life threatening or life changing he was taken to Southmead Hospital.

The Police are keen to hear from anyone who was in the area at the time of the incident who may have information to help their enquiries.

They would particularly like to contact the driver of a blue Seat Leon car which was believed to be in the area at the time. Police believe he has information that would help their enquiries.

Anyone able to help is asked to contact the Police on 101, quoting reference 5219177509

Help the Police find Robin Leaver

Avon & Somerset Police are appealing to the public for help to find Robin Leaver, who is wanted for failing to attend court.

32-year-old Leaver was due to attend Taunton Crown Court on 18th July for sentencing following an unprovoked assault on a woman in Taunton in August last year. The assault left her with life threatening injuries and a broken jaw.

Robin Leaver is “a black man, about 5ft 4ins tall of muscular build with black hair and brown eyes.”

The Police tell us he has close links with Bristol, especially the St Werburghs and St Pauls areas of the city. However until very recently he was known to be living in the Taunton area

Anyone spotting him is advised not to approach him but call 999 quoting reference 5219165276Robin Leaver 18.05.1987 wanted FTA

Slow Progress

Earlier this year Langport was successful in bidding for £179,000 of EU money. The money to be spent upgrading the riverbanks of the River Parrett. Further grant funding topped up the project to £200,000.

The Town bought the embankment between the River and the town, known locally as Cocklemoor from the Environment Agency a couple of years ago. So the plans which included pontoons, a new upgraded walkway along the river to Black Bridge, canoe steps and leisure facilities on Cocklemoor were due to get under way this spring.

Since when there has not been much evidence of anything happening. But with a first deadline of 31st July (the funding requires a series of interim targets to be met) nearing there has been a rush of activity.

The EA continue to object to plans for the walk way along the river bank. And separate plans to repair the slipway at Black Bridge have been delayed due to the Autumn. Yes whatever the weather may look like to you, apparently the water levels are too high!

So what has happened. A lot of yellow tape has appeared along Cocklemoor and that was put in place before the 31st July deadline. This marks the place where the pontoons and canoe steps will go.

Some things have been done though. Solar lighting is installed at Black Bridge and Westover footbridge, together with a table tennis table and ‘trim trail’ on Cocklemoor.  The trim trail is outdoor fitness equipment mainly designed with young people and adults in mind.  The new table tennis table has been likened to a work of sculpture and requests put in to have more!

But from now the pace will have to quicken. The funding is dependent on the project being completed by April 2020.

Pow survives cull

Taunton MP Rebecca Pow has survived the new Prime Minister’s night of the long knives.

Pow was promoted to Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in May (and in fact by May) this year. Earlier today Boris Johnson completed his rearrangement of junior ministers.

Whilst ministers of the calibre of Harriett Baldwin, Stephen Hammond and George Hollingbery were ditched, Rebecca Pow has been left in place in the same role as before.

Based on announcements to date there are no ministerial posts for other Somerset MPs in the class of 2015, Marcus Fysh, David Warburton or James Heappey.

I see no ships!

Thank heavens we do not have a Brexit crisis.

Only a day or so ago Boris Johnson was proclaiming we had barely 100 days to sort Brexit out. Prompting a comparison with Napoleon’s 100 days from Elba. Which also ended, by coincidence near to Brussels.

On assuming power the new Prime Minister got straight to work appointing a new cabinet.

It all had a real sense of urgency to it. Everything had been couched in terms of a national emergency. This was a time for action.

Then this evening the following announcement appeared from the House of Commons:

Thursday Jul 25, 2019 5:30pm: House of Commons rises for summer recess 2019. Commons Chamber will next sit on Tuesday 3 September 2019

And there we were thinking there was urgent business to attend to.

Playing with numbers

Over the past 7 months we have heard a lot about what Somerset County Council has done. The turn around in its finances, the rebalancing of the budget. We have often been told about the improving financial position.

This has led residents and council employees to believe that more will be able to be done with SCC’s scarce resources. Especially in terms of delivering services.

But how real is this turnaround. Now Grant Thornton, SCC’s auditors, have issued their preliminary audit report. An dit does contain some alarming language.

Whilst much of it is couched in technical terms there are some clear and easily understood messages which are worth bringing out. The auditors acknowledge that the underspend against budget achieved in 2018/19 was £5.9m.

They also note “This underspend masks a greater underspend that has enabled the Council to increase the combined value of its general fund balances and earmarked reserves by a total of £20.4 million over the last 12 months providing more resilience in this area.

So that’s good, right? How did they do it? Grant Thornton tell us “Elements of this total underspend were as a result of a combination of: nonrecurring; one-off; technical savings (e.g. minimum revenue provision totalling £4.2m benefit in 2018/19); additional use of the capital flexibilities (which was budgeted at £2.6 million but £8.6 million used), and; unplanned additional central government income (including £2.5 million extra adult social care funding).” In other words these are largely either one offs or technical accounting savings.

Things that it is less likely will be available to balance the books in 2019/20. And that has implications for the degree to which a turnaround has been achieved.

And some special earmarked reserves remain firmly negative. Grant Thornton are especially concerned about reserves for our schools and education “The Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) has a cumulative deficit of £6.7 million, up from £3.9 million in the previous year. Despite the Council having submitted the required DSG Three-year Deficit Recovery Plan to the Department for Education (on 28 June 2019) that sets out the plans to recover this deficit, the increasing deficit against this reserve remains a concern and places further pressure on the already depleted financial position of the Council.”

In fairness you may ask if we are simply looking for the bad stuff. So let us put in some context. As of today, SCC has the worst reserves position of all the County Councils in England except Northamptonshire that last year was effectively declared bankrupt.

Grant Thornton put it very starkly: “However, biggest continued concern we have as your auditors remains the ability of the Council to balance its books into the medium term. Our high level analysis of the budget allocations to both Children Services and Adults Services across the MTFP indicates low levels of growth over the next 3 years in both areas and reflects the impact of increased debt charges (principal and interest) restricting the ability of the Council to increase budgets in line with historic annual increases in spend. “

So starkly that they will not, as yet issue an audit opinion of any sort on the councils financial statements in respect of Value for Money (which includes looking at SCC’s financial viability).

This means the auditors need to do more work to satisfy themselves which Somerset’s tax payers will be picking up the tab for. In fairness to SCC it could be worse. They could simply say that the council is not viable and they have not said that.

And the areas that give greatest uncertainty to the viability of SCC are the very areas SCC themselves have been trumpeting to any politician that will listen. Telling them the system is broken and needs fixing. For which great credit is due.

But the fact remains other county councils face the same problems and have not allowed their finances to get into such dire straits.

Again we will finish with Grant Thornton in their own words “As a result of this proposed additional work we are unable to conclude our VFM conclusion by 31 July 2019. Our auditors expert are aiming to complete this work by the end of August 2019 and we proposed to use their findings to inform our final VFM conclusion for 2018/19 that will be reported to the Audit Committee at their September 2019 meeting.”

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