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Districts Slam Unitary Proposal

On 2 July the four district councils of Somerset released a statement denouncing the Unitary proposal put forward by Somerset County Council. Their statement reads as follows: We want to make it clear that the District Councils of Somerset do not support ‘One Somerset’ and the proposals for a single council for Somerset. The detailed work which the five councils of Somerset commissioned together clearly concluded that a single council was the wrong solution for the people and communities of Somerset.. Somerset’s District Councils have been focused in recent months on supporting our residents and businesses through the Coronavirus crisis. This remains our priority including focusing on how we help Somerset’s communities and economy recover. However, as Somerset County Council is determined to push the debate on the future forward during the pandemic, as four districts we will now be putting our collective efforts to developing an alternative proposal. We have always said would refocus on this when the time was right.

We know we can offer a better future for the people of Somerset that reforms local government and is ambitious for our communities and their quality of life. Somerset does not deserve the cheapest local Government. Somerset deserves the best local government. We will develop the best plan for the future with the help and involvement of our communities.”

First a declaration of interest. The Leveller® supports and has campaigned for, a Unitary council for Somerset. That said we feel it incumbent upon us to point out a number of misleading statements made in the release above.

The District Councils are making a huge “holier than thou” point about not working on a plan during the COVID 19 crisis. Last week at a meeting of St Cuthbert Without council, Ros Wyke (Leader of Mendip District Council) made the claim that no work had been done by any District on the future of local government during the crisis. This is an untruth. South Somerset District Council have been actively pursuing alternative models throughout the crisis. We have asked them on 3 occasions to deny this, and, rather biblically, they have refused to do so. They have belatedly referred to an announcement of 5th June when they accepted they were indeed still working on the proposals – although we received neither a press release or a response to our emails on that date.

There is an implication here that the COVID 19 crisis is the only reason the District Councils have yet to formulate a plan. Again this is disingenuous. Anyone who has seen the Future of Local Government Report will have also seen the report date: February 2019. If the Districts were serious about coming up with an alternative to a Unitary council, they would have had a full year to come up with something before COVID 19 had even started in the UK.

In the Future of Local Government Report you’ll see there was a timetable for reaching business cases on all of the options. That timetable ran to May 2019. Of course it didn’t happen like that. Because everyone started arguing about the best way forward. But it could have happened.

The District Councils have a list of people to blame. Local elections, general elections, working alongside the county council, not working alongside the county council and now COVID 19. Even the plan the District Councils are talking about today, is simply another set of preferences with no hard ideas or proposals behind it.

The Districts claim in their statement that this report “clearly concluded that a single council was the wrong solution for the people and communities of Somerset.” This is not a big surprise. The Future of Local Government Report was written by independent consultants. It did not come to any such conclusion. This report was written by the all five councils, so the majority input came from the District Councils. Surprise surprise, it says what they have always believed. Although the county council had input, clearly it did not represent their view and at the point of publication they walked away from the process. 

But take a look at the District Council plan. This is an example of the precision and clarity of thought they have come up to date for the residents of Somerset: “The opportunity is to join up those parts of the system through greater dialogue, transparency and an understanding acceptance of everyone’s part in making this work. It is clear from the background evidence, initiatives and strategies that there is a underlying theme of needing to quantify the demand for services and, determining the means by which preventative interventions can be developed across the public sector improving efficiency, and realise savings.” Straight out of “Yes Minister”. Meaningless management speak.

What we are looking at here, is a precisely honed demonstration of government by committee, the option the Districts prefer for Somerset. What we have is a big talking shop. Will it still be talking with few firm proposals in a year’s time?

The Leveller® politely suggests that the Districts do not wish to change anything. The current system works well for District Councillors, less well for the residents of Somerset. There are literally hundreds of councillors drawing allowances who do not wish to see the end of a system that suits them well. The Unitary proposal would probably see anything from 150-200 councillors lose their jobs.

The option the Districts want to pursue is closer co-operation. This is short hand for working together in the style of South West One. Led, ironically, by a LibDem controlled County Council it remains a prime example of why co-operative working is not a good idea. It delivered no monetary savings, no efficiencies and a worse service that cost residents more.

Similarly Mendip District Council’s failed five council co-operation plan. Five geographically remote councils coming together to save money by working co-operatively with a private firm. Just like South West One with IBM, it didn’t work.

And finally, the District Council promise to you is that “Somerset does not deserve the cheapest local Government. Somerset deserves the best local government.” That looks like a statement of intent. What the Districts seem to be promising us is more councillors, less accountability and something that may well cost more money.

Of course cheap does not have to be better. But a Unitary is not about offering cheap. What it is about is offering to reduce the cost of administration and invest that money in front line services. Schools and adult social care instead of Directors, Chief Executives and a small army of councillors.

Remember South West One. It was not the cheapest form of local government, and it wasn’t the best either. It was however a fine example of co-operative working.

Indecent Exposure – Wells

Police patrols around the City of Wells have been increased following an incident of indecent exposure. The incident took place on 28 June at around 1.30pm at the brook in Gate Lane.

A family out for a walk were confronted by a man who exposed himself. The man was described as white, aged 25-30, of average build, had facial stubble and curly brown hair, which was said to be relatively long. He was topless and wearing flip flops and blue Hawaiian-style shorts.

Avon & Somerset Police say they believe it was an isolated incident.

However to reassure the public and as a precaution, the local neighbourhood team have increased patrols in the area.

Anyone with information is asked to call 101 and give the call-handler reference 5220141961, or online at www.avonandsomerset.police.uk/report

More good news – COVID 19 in Somerset

The latest weekly figures published by Somerset County Council on COVID 19 show a continued improvement. But before looking at the figures, we need to be a little dull and explain what exactly they are. Unlike NHS data this includes care homes and incidences of COVID 19 “at home”. The data is prepared to 19th June (although different dates are used for some of the figures). 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 , back to the data! There are some positive trends to bring out from these latest figures. First, that only 4 new cases of COVID 19 were identified in the last week.

Although it is of course no consolation for the families of those who died, only 2 deaths were recorded in the week for the second week running. This is a significant reduction in the scale of deaths in the county.

There is an oddity here. Both deaths were recorded at Care Homes – for the first time in over a month, there were no deaths in our hospitals. The reason that looks odd is that a different set of figures shows that as of 15 June no Care Homes had outbreaks of COVID 19. This was the first time since the beginning of March that no Somerset Care Homes had an outbreak.

We cannot stress enough, the importance of maintaining social distancing and following government guidelines on the pandemic. the renewed lockdown in Leicester should serve as a warning to everyone. We need to take this seriously until a vaccine is available.

As ever we have included the full dataset so that rather than relying on our summary, you can read for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

Big win for Chard

Tonight a major investment boost was announced for Chard town centre. South Somerset District Council has been working on a regeneration scheme for Chard around the Boden Mill area of town for some time. Unlike the tentative steps to proceed with a similar scheme in Yeovil, the Chard scheme has been full steam ahead.

Work resumed safely in April on the site as contractors were able to return to the site. SSDC claim that they were able to carry out Covid-19 risk assessments and adopt of new working practices to make this safe.

The sheet piling for the new swimming pool now completed, and work has started on the foundations for the main building.

SSDC applied for a grant of £1m to be match funded to help with the work on Chard town centre. They have now been advised by Historic England that the full amount requested would be awarded. This means that approximately £2m will be invested in and around Fore Street over a four year period.

Councillor Jason Baker, SSDC portfolio holder for the Chard Regeneration Scheme and Chair of Chard Town Council welcomed the news. “Investing approximately £2 million in the high street over the next four years will make a huge difference in what we can do to improve the area and bring footfall to the town centre of Chard.”

Councillors ask for Parking Help

Lats month Mendip District Council agreed to waive parking charges for the car parks they run until 6th August. The intention (Somerset West & Taunton have done the same) is to help local business recover. After so many weeks of shops being shut, councillors believe free parking should help bring customers back.

Yesterday councillors representing wards in and around Shepton Mallet wrote to other private car park owners asking them to follow suit.

We therefore respectfully call on the owners of the two large private car parks in Shepton to commit to match the same charge-free period that has been offered by Mendip District Council. We are concerned that without this blanket commitment it leaves a degree of confusion that could hit high street businesses in the town – undoing at least some of the good that the Mendip Parking Charges Relief scheme is beginning to do.

Like our friends and neighbours, we all use Shepton for our main grocery shopping, visit the Post Office, the local bank and support many smaller stores that offer a variety of local services.  Keeping parking free in all the main car parks, for this specific period, would be a significant and welcome helping hand and would mean the bigger stores would be acting as local champions of a safe return to the high street.”

Mendip has also announced the reopening of the Friday market in Shepton Mallet from 9am to 2pm in the Market Place.

Accident on A37

Yesterday morning (Tuesday 30 June) a car and a motorbike were involved in a collision. The accident happened on the A37 Dorchester Road, close to Netherton Lane, near Yeovil at around 9.45 am.

A black Yamaha motorcycle and a white Fiat Panda were involved. The motorcyclist, a man in his 20s, was taken to hospital. He is said to be in a critical, but stable, condition.

The road had to be closed while emergency services treated the motorcyclist. Collision investigators also carried out their enquiries at the scene. The road reopened at 4.15pm yesterday.

Avon & Somerset Police are asking for witnesses to come forward. PC Owen Davies is “keen to speak to anyone who saw what happened or was travelling in the area and may have dashcam footage that could assist us with our enquiries. We’d like to thank everyone for their patience while we were on the scene.”

Anyone with information can call 101 and give reference 5220143316.

Vague – but more cash for towns

Part of the package of new funds announced today will involve money to the 101 towns that qualified under the Government’s Town Funds.

Whilst the details remain vague. it appears that Bridgwater and Glastonbury look set to get more cash. The two Somerset towns were successful in their bid to get on the initial list of 101 towns. Some funds have already been released to help them develop plans on how to develop a more vibrant town centre.

The announcement today suggests that every town on the list will get between £500k and £1m to spend on those plans. And I dare say that will be welcome in Bridgwater and Glastonbury. but even £1m does not buy much these days by way of infrastructure improvement.

However the Towns Fund, when it was launched, was supposed to have around £3.6bn allocated to it. The commitment today suggests only between £50.5m and £101m is being promised. We will have to wait and see what will happen to the rest of the funding.

Police Statement re Highbridge Murder

Avon & somerset Police have been investigating a murder which took place on Thursday 25 June after a man’s body was found in a garden in the Edithmead Lane area of Highbridge.

Subsequently a 44-year-old man on suspicion of murder on the same day. On Friday evening, he was transferred to a secure facility and into the care of mental health services. Their investigation continues.

This afternoon Detective Chief Inspector Mark Almond released the following statement: “We’re conscious that our presence at the scene over a number of days will have had an impact on the local community and we would like to thank everyone for their understanding. We’d like to reassure people that we don’t believe there to be any ongoing risk to the public at this time.”

However he also noted that “Due to prior police contact with those involved, a mandatory referral has been made to the Independent Office for Police Conduct this week. It would be inappropriate for us to go into further details while the referral is being considered.”

Anyone with information that could assist with the continuing investigation, and has not yet come forward, should call 101 and give reference 5220139224.

A37 accident – witness appeal

On Sunday 28 June a white van was travelling along the A37 at Key Hill, towards Yeovil. The van left the road and collided with a tree. The incident happened at about 12.05am.

The driver, a man in his 40s, sustained a serious injury and was taken to hospital in an air ambulance. He remains in hospital.

Avon & Somerset Police are now appealing for witnesses to come forward. They ask that anyone who saw what happened, or has dash cam footage, to call 101 and give the call-handler reference number 5220141368.

Assault in Wellington

On Sunday 21 June three people were walking along Courtland Road in Wellington in the early hours. They were approached by a group of youths or young adults who they did not know.

The trio were assaulted. A 30-year-old man and 45-year-old woman suffered a minor head injury but did not require hospital treatment. A 50-year-old man did not suffer a significant injury.

Following the incident Avon & Somerset Police arrested a 17-year-old male on suspicion of causing assault and causing actual bodily harm. He has been released under investigation while enquiries continue.

Police believe that one of the other assailants was male, white, about 5ft 8ins and in their late teens, wearing a white baseball cap, grey jogging bottoms, a dark puffer jacket and trainers. A second was said to be male, about 6ft and wearing a dark North Face jacket, white T-shirt, jeans and white trainers.

The Police are now appealing for witnesses to the assault. PC Adam Bayliss is asking “anyone who witnessed what happened – and hasn’t yet spoken to us – to come forward with any information they have. We’d particularly like to hear from anybody who saw a group of 10-15 youths in that area of Wellington between midnight and 2am.”

Anyone with information is asked to call 101 and give the call-handler reference 5220135252.

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