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Somerset COVID 19 latest figures

The headline number of confirmed cases of COVID 19 has fallen this week. 507 new cases were confirmed across Somerset for the week to 25 November. That compares with 779 new cases the week before (to 18 November) and 521 for the week to 11 November.

We would caution that it is still too early to be discerning a trend. Especially as there is evidence that the governments recording system is still not what it could be. A surge can still be the result of errors in recording the data in the correct period.

But before we move on, please bear with us as we give our health warning on what these figures represent, and what they do not represent. Unlike NHS data these numbers include care homes and incidences of COVID 19 “at home”. The data is prepared to 25 November for cases (although different dates are used for some of the other figures – for instance deaths are reported to 13 November). 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.

So what is the data telling us? At best the number of new cases is flattening out. The totals however remain significantly higher than they were during the first outbreak in the Spring.

We know that deaths tend to run a fortnight after a surge in infections. Last week we reported 6 deaths all in hospitals for the week to 6 November. This week there were a further 8 deaths, 7 in hospital and 1 in a care home. That leaves the total number of deaths for the Somerset County Council area since the start of the outbreak at 228. Once again the majority of deaths from COVID 19 have been residents of Sedgemoor, 6 of the 8 recorded.

The R number has been reduced. we can only reiterate that anything below national level it tends to be a guess. But with preparations to come out of lockdown tomorrow, we are waiting to see which tier of restrictions Somerset will be placed in. Up until last week, Somerset or at least the South West has had the highest R number in the country. this week it is quoted as a range from 1.0 to 1.3. This puts us on a par with the east of England and below the South East.

The expectation in Somerset has been we will be placed in the lowest tier. That is not a given. Bearing in mind the number of cases and an R number that remains too high, we may yet get an unpleasant shock tomorrow.

It remains the view of The Leveller® that lockdowns have probably been necessary.

But only because of an abject failure of government to create a workable test and trace system. It is our view that less time and money should have been spent on a largely pointless app. More could and still should be done to use local tracing, funding local bodies to do the work. Not large organisations run with central government with centralised control. A further lockdown must be avoided at all costs. But that requires a significant change in the approach to testing and the track and trace system.

In the meantime, as ever here are the latest figures so you can draw your own conclusions

Warburton wins funds for langport Station

It has been around 6 years in the making. A slew of government ministers visited Langport and Somerton in 2014 and 2015. Among the projects they discussed at the time was funding for a new station for Langport. Or at least a station to serve the Somerton and langport area. Exact location to be determined.

Since then the idea has been mentioned in budgets, match funding has been discussed. Somerset County Council were willing to put funds in, but South Somerset district Council refused. Some towns and parishes were happy to contribute, but nothing happened.

Somerton & Frome MP David Warburton kept lobbying. it just seemed that nobody was listening.

Until now. Finally in the regional small print to the Chancellor’s Autumn statement is some good news. We’ll quote it verbatim “Receiving feasibility funding through the Restoring Your Railways New Ideas Fund for proposals for:
reopening St Anne’s Park station in Bristol, a station in the Langport/Somerton area of Somerset; improved services from Falmouth; restoring services between Swanage and Wareham; reinstating rail access to Cirencester. Plus, new station funding for Edginswell rail station

Before we get carried away, this is not going to deliver a new station just yet. But until now getting a feasibility study done has proved impossible. The promise of funding for that study means the road to getting a new station is finally being travelled.

“LVA” and Langport and Martock developments

We recently learnt of two major developments proposed for Martock and Langport. In both cases residents have been approached with nice glitzy leaflets. The leaflets are interestingly similar. What struck us was the use of not just an LLP for each venture, but an LVA. Now to be honest we did not know what an LVA was. It turns out to be something called a Land Value Alliance. It appears to be both a generic name for a development. But it is also the name of a planning consultancy and property investor based in Harrow.

This is what LVA have to say about themselves: “Land Value Alliances (LVA) is an investor and planning project manager in UK land and property. We focus on forming responsible alliances with landowners and all other stakeholders to create developments which add value to their communities. LVA’s approach relies on forming alliances with property owners in which all parties’ interests are mutual and aligned. We are a market leading business in the strategic land investment and planning promotion sector. Our portfolio consists of over 60 sites totalling in excess of 1,000 acres throughout the UK ranging from 1 acre to over 300 acres. Within the portfolio, we have land at different stages of the planning promotion process, from sites being prepared for application through to those which are being sold for residential or commercial development with the benefit of planning permissions achieved.”

And The Leveller has discovered that it is behind both the Langport and Martock proposals.

The site in Martock is for 120 homes and is right next to the existing approved Coat Road development. This is also for 120 homes and run by Barrett Developments. That would mean 240 new homes in a spur away from the main urban envelope. Whether or not it is a good idea, the original Coat road development was fought all the way by local residents and the Parish Council, and SSDC Area North Committee. It only won approval because the Regulation Committee overturned the decision. And that was essentially because SSDC could not demonstrate a 5 year land supply. The first Coat Road site was also famously a site that according to the planners did not flood. It is worth including, once again, this picture taken of the Barrett site not flooding:

The new proposed site for a further 120 homes is next door. You’ll be relieved to know that here too, according to the LVA leaflet, “land is at low risk of flooding“. Interestingly, part of the proposals include the provision of a wetland habitat.

The site in Langport is opposite Kelways Nursery on the Somerton Road. This site is being promoted by Langport LVA LLP. It too is not a site that had been earmarked for development previously. They would like to put 100 houses on the site. The site was presented to Huish Episcopi Parish Council at their November meeting. At present the leaflets distributed for the site are seeking feedback.

However there are common themes in the proposals for Langport and Martock. For Martock, LVA tell you in their leaflets that the sites will provide open market and affordable homes. For Langport LVA tell you the scheme will assist in the delivery of much needed market and affordable housing for Langport and the wider area.

Yet Martock and Langport (with Huish Episcopi) are two of the most overdeveloped villages in Somerset. Both communities had in the region of 3,500 people before the current Local Plan kicked in during 2016. To date Langport and Huish have had 456 homes with plans for another 150. Most have not been affordable. That means a small market town has seen a population growth of 45% assuming a ratio of 3.5 people per home.

We know there is a real need for housing locally. What there is not, is a need for more houses priced in the £250,000 bracket. There is a real need for affordable homes to buy. We have seen over the past decade a consistent failure to deliver homes in market towns at a price that local people can afford. If these units were all for sale at a price point of £150,000 it would be hard to argue. There is a real need for these. What we would suggest we do not need, is another swathe of housing local people cannot afford.

There are other issues too. South Somerset District Council now accept that there is 5 year land supply (they actually believe there is a 6 year land supply). This was something they could not previously demonstrate. It has led to the Local Plan being set aside for much of the past five years. We also know, and have reported on, the fact if the government is working on a proposed new planning regime. If that is put in place, South Somerset will be one of the only Districts in the south west required to reduce the number of houses it approves per annum.

There are now good reasons to expect a slowing in the pace of development. Anticipating that, we may now expect a large number of similar planning applications in the coming months. As speculative developments try to get in before the bar comes down.

Mendips back office deal in trouble

We have often written about the wretched track record of Somerset councils with shared service contracts. This is something that forms one of the bedrocks of the Stronger Somerset plan. There would be two unitary councils in the plan. However they will get together to have a shared services company to provide back office functions.

So it is interesting today to learn of the existing shared service contract that Mendip District Council has. Along with Havant, South Oxfordshire, Hart and Vale of White Horse. They have a shared contract with Capita to provide a range of back office and procurement functions. The deal was started off in 2016 as a 9 year, £140m contract.

Now they have signed a contract variation with Capita which dramatically reduces the scope of the deal. The It service scope will be reduced. Procurement will be taken back in house. Most exchequer services will also come back in house. Bear in mind that this is the second time this year the scope has been reduced. In March HR, Licensing and payroll services were all reduced. 34 council staff moved from Capita back to their respective Districts.

The contract has been riddled with problems. Although Mendip have consistently denied that the contract is not working. It clearly is not working. It would be poor business practise to reduce the scope of a contract if it was delivering successfully.

This does not bode well for the sort of shared contract services proposed for the future governance of Somerset.

We understand that the new pared back contract with Capita will come into effect from 1 January 2021

Conservatives attack Mendip land deal

Mendip’s Conservative Group yesterday launched a scathing attack on Mendip’s Social Housing program. The Mendip plan would see four sites being developed to provide around 160 homes. Importantly these would be social housing.

The Conservative group have focused on two issues:

  • Firstly the effective preferred bidder status of Aster. The Conservative Group note that normal budgetary procedures have not been followed. No competitive tender organised. And as their press release rather dryly puts it “did not fall within 8.5.2 (d) of the Constitution and could therefore be made “not in accordance with Council’s budgetary procedures”.
  • Secondly the inclusion of the Easthill site which adjoins Frome Cemetery in the plans. The Conservatives argue this is currently a designated green space. It is shown as such in the Local Plan. They decry the loss of an attractive wildlife haven with a rich and diverse ecology. As Councillor Eve Berry, the Conservative Ward Councillor, stated “It is simply ridiculous to be developing this land. There has been no consultation with local communities and no understanding of the destruction that would be caused to the wildlife and habitats at this site.”

However as we reported last week, there have been concerns about due process too. Cabinet decision to proceed with the deal on 2 November. Five Frome LibDem Councillors asked for the decision to be “called in”. In other words considered by the Council’s Scrutiny Board. Ordinarily that would involve a full debate. Questions would be raised on specific aspects of the plan. Questions that Cabinet would then be obliged to address.

Instead, the Leader intervened at the start of the meeting. She stated they would refer the matter back to Cabinet. So instead of a full debate, the Scrutiny Committee simply voted to send it back to Cabinet. And as a result, Cabinet will not have any specific objections to discuss.

Councillor Philip Ham, the Conservative Chairman of the Scrutiny Board, resigned in frustration. He told The Leveller “we are supposed to be able to scrutinise decisions taken by the Cabinet to ensure that the interests of Mendip residents are protected. This has been a stitch up. I was denied access to background papers. I was placed under pressure by Officers on how to conduct the meeting and there has been no opportunity given for proper debate and scrutiny. The Leader of the Council uses fine words in stating that her administration welcomes transparency, but her actions speak louder than her words. Her administration dithered and delayed and now they have closed down open debate on this matter, particularly with regards to the market value of these sites. It seems that they are mis-managing the Council finances to save face.”

Meanwhile the Conservative Group are seeing red. They claim the Cabinet now propose to quickly reconsider the proposals on 26th November. In their view Cabinet “seem intent on pushing them through, subject to agreeing to a review of the plans to develop the site at Easthill.

Expensive Shrubberies for Chard

In many ways Chard has been lucky over the past few years. A new leisure centre and swimming pool. New housing and employment buildings in the Boden Mill area of town. A grant of £1m from Historic England, matched by another £1m from South Somerset District Council. this will be spent on tidying up the high street, renovating frontages and generally improving the town centre.]

Earlier this month SSDC told us the metal structure of the swimming pool building was complete. The roofing over the pool is also completed with internal walls for the changing room and office area. The building of the pool itself has also commenced with testing of the pool likely to take place before Christmas.

Then of course, on the down side, the hammer blow of up to 850 job losses and the likely closure of Oscar Mayer.

So against this background an announcement on Wednesday from SSDC’s Area West, was hard to evaluate. Essentially it is a plan to tidy up the eastern gateway to the High Street where Silver Street meets Fore Street. It is hard to get precise details of what is involved. This is SSDC after all. But listening to the meeting it appears to involve some repaving, landscaping and er, that’s it.

This would not ordinarily be a big deal.

However the fact it is now set to cost over £97,000 is certainly a big deal. This total projected cost includes design fees, surveys, works and materials estimates and contingency. Some of those words will set off alarm bells in the mind of anyone who has done project management.

The original project cost was estimated at just £38,000. To be split £15,000 from Chard town Council and £23,000 from SSDC. Why have the costs gone up? Well the paper supporting this plan that was presented to Area West explains. “The previous project cost presented to the Committee was a generic estimate and didn’t include this detail.”

If that is shorthand for hopelessly inaccurate, then we can all agree. But the best bit is that having approved a new budget of £97,193, more than double the original, there is another request. “It is therefore recommended that Area West Committee delegates the final design development for the scheme to the project team leading Chard’s public realm projects, with final sign off delegated to the Chard Regeneration Board.”

In other words delegate control of the project. And to the very people who made such a hash of estimating the initial cost. This does not sound like a fine plan.

Even Val Keitch, leader of SSDC seemed to be wary of agreeing this. £97,000 on some landscaping when 850 residents may lose their jobs makes little sense. It is insensitive. But Chard Councillors on Area West pushed hard for it.

Chard Town Council had already voted an extra £15,000 as their contribution (making £30,000 in all). But we can only point out that Chard Town Council have doubled their contribution, but SSDC are being asked to nearly treble theirs to £67,135. That might merit someone taking another look at whether or not this project is reasonable.

It would make more sense if there was less sense of urgency. If some of those who were to lose their jobs at Oscar Mayer could be employed on this very project. Yet SSDC’s sense of urgency to complete it, means that is highly unlikely to happen. And that sense of urgency is hard to understand. The swimming pool is already running several months late. And bearing in mind the COVID 19 outbreak, really that seems entirely reasonable. So what would be wrong in taking a bit more time and regenerating Chard with local labour and skills?

Burnham Switch on online

The annual Christmas lights switch-on for Burnham on Sea and Highbridge is moving online this year. Faced with the immovable object that is lockdown, the council decided to live stream the event on the Council’s website. The switch on will still feature socially distanced participation for the evening. There will be singing from local children and over one hundred lanterns made by the local community. Students at Brent Knoll Primary School will provide the singing and Lyra Cole will switch on the lights. As this year’s guest of honour, Lyra made her name last Christmas with her version of ‘When A Child Is Born’. The number one download over Christmas beat the likes of Stormzy and Robbie Williams

The GlowHome project with Create You distributed 500 free ‘make your own lantern’ packs across the community. having made them, 57 photos and 61 videos of some amazing lanterns have been submitted.

These images will feature in the virtual event. It will be streamed on the Town Council website on Saturday 21 November at 7pm. You can find the details and join the switch on at the councils website

Somerset COVID 19 figures

This last week saw the number of confirmed COVID 19 cases in Somerset reach 4,404. The increase on the week to 11 November is 779 cases. This latest case count is significant. In the 5 months to 31 August, the total number of cases in Somerset stood at 1,390. That included the whole of the initial spike in cases in the spring . In the 10 weeks since then, there have been a further 3,014 new cases. That is not any reason to either panic or over-react.

Somerset’s infection rate remains one of the lowest in the country. Whilst that may put the current case load into perspective but…. There is always a “but”. The fact is that the rate of cases/100,000 in Somerset has now trebled in the last month.

But before we move on, please bear with us as we give our health warning on what these figures represent, and what they do not represent. Unlike NHS data these numbers include care homes and incidences of COVID 19 “at home”. The data is prepared to 4 November for cases (although different dates are used for some of the other figures – for instance deaths are reported to 23 October). The reason for this delay is to keep the numbers accurate. 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.

That said, we can return to the latest figures. It is sad, but sadly not surprising that the number of deaths is now rising again. Given that 68% of the total cases in Somerset have occurred in the last 10 weeks, the rise in deaths was expected. in the week to 6 November a further 6 people died of COVID 19, all in hospital. This takes the total number of COVID-19 deaths in Somerset since the start of the pandemic to 219. Not a large total, especially when compared with some regions of England. But it is sad nevertheless.

Once again the deaths seem to be hitting Sedgemoor disproportionately. Of the 219 deaths, 77 have been residents of Sedgemoor. Indeed four of the six deaths in the week to 6 November were residents of Sedgemoor.

The South West continues to have the highest estimated R number in the UK. In a range of 1.2-1.4 for the week to 13 November. To some extent this is reflected in the rising number of cases.

We have given our thoughts on the current lockdown in our editorial in our November edition of The Leveller. However, whatever the pros and cons of lockdown, the public health message remains important. Social distancing, wearing masks and keeping to good basic hygiene remain a priority. It is clear that the disease will not simply die out any time soon. And questions remain around the timing and implementation of any vaccine program.

Meanwhile for those of you who want to see the detail and draw your own conclusions, you can download the figures here

One NHS for Somerset too?

Just as Somerset looks destined to be turned into one or two unitary councils, so too Somerset’s NHS. The merger of the county’s mental health trust and Musgrove hospital on 1 April 2020 started that process. It put community hospitals, mental health services and a full 600 bed hospital at Taunton under one management. The new Trust was titled Somerset NHS Foundation Trust (Somerset FT).

Now, in a much anticipated move, the process may go one step further with the inclusion of Yeovil District Hospital too. This morning it was announced that a merger is on the cards. The boards of Yeovil District Hospital NHS Foundation Trust (Yeovil Hospital FT) and Somerset NHS Foundation Trust (Somerset FT) are working towards this goal. They have agreed to develop the strategic case. It will be the logical conclusion of an attempt to bring together the disparate NHS services in Somerset. The vision is to create one single NHS provider trust for Somerset. That the trusts believe will better support the health and care needs of the local population.

Most importantly, the move appears to have the backing of Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group. They are important as they dispense the cash that pays for the NHS in Somerset. James Rimmer, Chief Executive, explains “We know that to truly make a difference to the lives of people in Somerset we need to change the way we work.”

Point Scoring for Somerset

We at The Leveller® do not always find ourselves in favour of getting rid of elections. But this week we have witnessed a paucity of debate and some not inconsiderable hypocrisy. If Somerset County Cricket Club could score points off opponents the way our County Councillors do, they’d have been County Champions for the past decade.

We are left wondering if we might be better off with direct rule by civil servants. OK – not really. But sometimes……

Part 1

The week started off with a Mendip District Council (MDC) Scrutiny meeting. A decision by Mendip District Council’s Cabinet was to be scrutinised. Specifically a number of people objected to the land at Easthill, Frome being scheduled for development. This is one of four plots of MDC owned land scheduled to be developed for social housing. Most people agree with the social housing bit. However quite a few object to Easthill being chosen as a site.

What could have happened, was a debate on the decision made by Cabinet, and a vote. Scrutiny can ask the Cabinet to reconsider their decision. But they can also give some specific reasons for Cabinet to reconsider.

However before the meeting had time to get under steam there was an intrusion. Ros Wyke, LibDem Leader of the Council, addressed the meeting. She announced that the decision on Easthill would indeed be taken back to Cabinet. She had already decided this. It felt like a cry of “nothing to see here”.

Nevertheless the meeting proceeded as planned. Four members of the public were registered to speak. One of whom turned out to be Denise Wyatt. She was so enthusiastic in her attack on MDC councillors for not following the Nolan principles…. That she forgot to mention she was “Somerset Independents County Council Candidate for Frome”. At least according to their blog. Something that might be considered relevant to those attending the meeting.

Nevertheless the public all had their say. All were against Easthill being developed. But four people is not a vast number.

No sooner had the public had their say than Independent Cllr, Chris Inchley spoke. “I’d like to propose we send the Easthill part of the proposal back to cabinet for reconsideration.” It was duly seconded and had to be put to the vote. It was carried by a majority of the committee which has 7 LibDems, 3 Greens, 3 Conservatives and one Independent.

So there would be no discussion, no debate. And no opportunity to give specifics for Cabinet to look at when revisiting the issue was lost. And to be clear the Monitoring Officer made that very point. He told the meeting; “Cabinet need to be aware of scrutiny’s concerns. It is legitimate for members of scrutiny, both here within this meeting to list their concerns, summarise their concerns, at the decision that has been taken and then they will have a similar opportunity as has been explained to do that at Cabinet as well.”

So no sooner had the vote been recorded than the Conservative Chair of Scrutiny, Philip Ham, resigned. Before going he explained: “I feel rather let down by the whole process. We have now had three Scrutiny meetings where we are supposed to be scrutinising what is going on. Stronger Somerset was a walkover, they just took over. The climate change one was we couldn’t change anything and now we’ve had this one we are not allowed to change anything. The whole thing about Scrutiny is to delve into what is going on behind the scenes and it has not happened. And on that note I resign as chair of the Scrutiny Board.”

Part 2

So two days later and we are at Somerset County Council. Leader of The Council, Conservative David Fothergill is presenting item 7. This is to seek a mandate. A mandate to write to the Secretary of State to request 2021 elections are deferred. Cllr Fothergill repeated ‘til he was blue in the face, that this was not his decision. Merely a request for the Secretary of State to make one.

But then as LibDem Cllr Adam Dance put it: “if it is down to secretary of state then let him make the decision. Let us not push him in one direction or the other. Let him decide.” It seemed like a fair enough point.

Independent Cllr Neil Bloomfield merely noted that holding two elections in two years would cost £1m. So actually skipping 2021 elections to have a unitary election in 2022 was a good idea. Of course quite a few councillors in the chamber regard spending taxpayers money as a gift that keeps on giving. Not as a responsibility to be carefully guarded.

Cllr Jane Lock protested up front that although she didn’t agree with the Leader, LibDem councillors would be given a free vote. Now we at Leveller® Towers are naïve. We thought councillors were always free to vote with their conscience and answer to residents/voters. Cllr Lock’s protestation could have carried more weight. Especially as every LibDem speaker seemed to be singing from the same hymn sheet. It might have been a free vote. It certainly didn’t sound like one.

From this point things degenerated rapidly. The beleaguered Chair of the meeting, Cllr Taylor struggled to maintain order. He struggled beneath a mountain of points of order. Some points of order just kept coming back. The Council’s solicitor opined. The Council’s Monitoring Officer opined. Councillors tried to ignore both.

Councillors were still telling the Chair he was wrong as he called a vote on the amendment. It was an unenviable position to be in. There was point scoring. There was nit picking. There was a complete absence of intelligent debate.

As an amendment was called by, and seconded. The amendment suggested that rather than defer elections, the consultation on the unitary decision be deferred. So the Chair put it to a vote. Oddly (given events on Monday) the LibDems immediately cried foul, saying they wanted to debate the issue before it was voted on. Now the Chair, (pace Mark Antony) is an honourable man. So he ruled, but then to be on the safe side, ensured the council constitution was read out. It sounded as if his ruling was correct. The amendment was put to the vote and the LibDems lost.

Foul cried the LibDems again. We wanted to debate the issues! Again. Apparently still unaware that LibDem majority had done exactly the opposite on Monday in Mendip.

Now it was the turn of the Conservatives to put the original proposal to the vote. The one where Cllr Fothergill writes to the Secretary of State.  By this time you could pretty much guarantee that Conservatives would all vote one way, LibDems would all vote the other. They could all protest about wanting to debate the issues. Everything we had seen and heard to that point suggested most councillors were incapable of debating issues. Point scoring yes. Debating serious points with each other, err no.

For the record the vote was passed as the Conservatives have a comfortable majority on the council. So again the LibDems cried foul. Again they protested that debate was being stifled. But this time the irony was double. Among the Conservatives voting for the proposal and hence stifling further debate, was one Philip Ham.

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