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Arrest in Glastonbury

A man is in police custody after a driver crashed a vehicle in Glastonbury.
The incident started in Wells when officers patrolling in a marked car attempted to stop a Mini in the Glastonbury Road, just before 10.30pm on Sunday 2 February.

They followed the vehicle as it was driven at speed until it crashed in Old Market Court, Glastonbury at about 11.15pm. The driver made off on foot.

Officers arrested a 30-year-old man nearby on suspicion of dangerous driving and other driving offences. He remains in the cells at the time of writing.

If you witnessed the incident or have any other information which could help the police investigation  call 101 quoting reference 5220026840.

Right of Reply – SSDC

We have received a detailed response from Cllr John Clark, SSDC Portfolio Holder for Economic Development and Commercial Strategy. This is in response to a piece we published online and in the December edition of The Leveller®. We are happy to publish this and will do so by way of giving the other side of the argument.

The original piece this relates to was “Secret Service” (A similar piece “Funny Smell in Yeovil appeared in our print edition of 15th December) and if you want to read more to get the context of the response you can follow the link here Secret Service

Response 1: The Commercial Strategy and its recent update are not secret: they were published in the agenda papers for (and subsequently approved at) the full Council meeting of 19th September.

The update to the policy did contain a Confidential Appendix with commercially sensitive information, and members’ discussions on those aspects of the policy were therefore held in camera. The total amount that Council has now approved to invest is £150m: the additional £75m was stated in the Financial Strategy 2020/21, which was approved at the District Executive meeting on 5th September 2019.

Editor’s note. Whilst we welcome this new response from the portfolio holder, our original piece contained a full response given by the SSDC Communications team. That response read as follows:  “The position is that the disclosure of the investment fund would be prejudicial to SSDC’s affairs, because parties with whom we might wish to transact will be aware of how much we have to spend and this may weaken our negotiating position on price and other matters.  It was also reasonable as there was a real chance of members wishing to discuss sensitive specifics of individual transactions and projects, whether past, current or contemplated – in other words, officers have to be mindful of not just what’s in the report but also where debate on that report might lead.”

Response 2:

Thank you for conceding that the extra £75m investment permission was in the public domain.

I cannot actually find in your original online piece that you raised the issue of the authority limit, but I will address it anyway. The arrangement that decisions on investment are taken by the Leader and Chief Executive, acting on the unanimous recommendation of the Investment Acquisition group is vital to implementation (more below on this).

Why? Because as I have said earlier, speed of bidding is an essential part of success, and to put a bid permission on the main Council agenda with the notice that requires would in almost all situations lead to loss of the opportunity.

The amount that Full Council delegates on investment needs a defined limit, appropriate to the expected maximum value of individual investments that may be considered.

That said, I have some sympathy with your view that this figure should be in the public domain, and will discuss with colleagues whether there are any valid reasons why we should not release it.

The referral to an ‘inner sanctum’ requires further detailed understanding of the commercial situation in which we operate. As we are competing with other commercial bidders, it is essential to work on any particular opportunity with speed, total confidentiality and thorough management of risk to the Council. The Commercial Strategy, approved by Council, addresses these elements well, but I will try to give you some insight into the detail. The expert commercial officer team looks at about 40 opportunities a month, and does a preliminary analysis on about the best-looking 10. Of these, an average of two opportunities are brought by a Chartered Surveyor, RICS Registered Valuer and investment property specialist before the Investment Acquisition Group (IAG), whose membership is openly stated in the Strategy (a highly qualified investment surveyor who manages our Commercial Property Service, the Council’s statutory ‘Section 151’ Financial Officer, the Council’s statutory Monitoring Officer (legal), the Director of Commercial Services, and myself as Portfolio Holder). Each opportunity has written proposal papers and a Red Book valuation circulated in advance, and is thoroughly examined for suitability and risk.

Only if this group is unanimously in favour is it forwarded to the Leader of Council and Chief Executive for their approval to proceed: again these two have to be unanimous. You might think that with the expertise of the commercial team, approval would always be given (and it very often is): however there have been examples where the IAG has turned down opportunities put before it, and also where the Leader and Chief Executive have turned down opportunities that the IAG has unanimously recommended (obviously we cannot go into details).

Mendip numbers don’t add up

Literally as it happens. Last week at the Mendip Audit Committee we got some insight into how the authority is struggling to run a decent accounting function.

But first a curiosity. The report of External Auditors presented at that audit meeting was dated November 2019 but still had not been signed. This is highly unusual, it is after all February 2020. It appears to point to unresolved issues in the way the council prepares financial reports and problems with controls over those finances.

Why might this be?

There are some significant clues. There are significant issues identified by the auditors, Ernst and Young, that do not reflect well on the running of the council. However first a word of caution. The council now in place is a LibDem administration supported by Independents. This audit report is on the accounts prepared by the previous Conservative administration that was in power for the year ended 31st March 2019 and immediately thereafter.

This includes a failure of the finance team to understand and correctly reflect a new set of accounting rules (IFRS11 Financial Instruments.)

The auditors state “The Council’s draft financial statements did not display sufficient and appropriate knowledge of the new accounting standard. Preparations, which could have been undertaken significantly earlier in the year, were not adequate to meet the 31 May deadline with material accuracy even though the Council lacked any complex financial instruments.”

It also seems the finance team struggled to prepare an accurate set of accounts. Even the basics were wrong:

Ernst & Young again “The financial statements published on the Council’s website on 31 May 2019, for the public to review, contained a significant number of basic errors and were significantly below the standard we expected.”

As an example they note “ the Cashflow Statement, showing £4.790 million of Cash and Cash Equivalents, was inconsistent with the £1.610 million of Cash and Cash Equivalents in the Balance Sheet.” Added to which information that is usually looked at by the public in detail was also wrong: “an incorrect Senior Officers Remuneration note” was included in the accounts.

But there were also material weaknesses in the way the council was run. This is what the auditors had to say about it:

management is in a unique position to perpetrate fraud because of its ability to manipulate accounting records directly or indirectly and prepare fraudulent financial statements by overriding controls that otherwise appear to be operating effectively. We identify and respond to this fraud risk on every audit engagement.”

In fairness they admit that they could not find evidence that fraud had been committed but this is really extremely poor management of a local authority.

The new administration elected in May 2019, have a lot of work to get things back to normal.

Yeovil man in court

Daniel Smith has appeared at Yeovil Magistrates’ Court charged with a number of burglary related offences.

He has been charged in connection with two incidents. In the first  a property in Carisbrooke Gardens, Yeovil, was broken into on 22 January, and in the second incident, a property on Chelston Avenue in Yeovil was burgled on 23 January in which a handbag, jewellery, car keys and a Honda CRV car were stolen.

Smith, 32, of Rainbow Court in SwallowCliffe Gardens, Yeovil, has been charged with two counts of burglary, driving whilst disqualified and driving without insurance.

He did not enter a plea for any of the charges and has been remanded in custody ahead of his next court appearance on 24 February at Taunton Crown Court.

 

Merger disaster – Critics Speak Out

Yesterday South West & Taunton Council published the audit report  on the failed merger between Taunton Deane and West Somerset. Mike Rigby (Portfolio Holder for Planning and Transportation) spoke to us about the report highlighting the issues that the current administration has inherited.

He told The Leveller® “It was obvious as soon as we took control of the council that the so-called transformation had gone horribly wrong. It was predicated on the basis that council services could be delivered by fewer face-to face and telephone contacts, with IT and a new website taking the strain. It was expected that the changes would enable 120 jobs to be lost. Through a hamfisted redundancy policy, 200 staff actually left, almost doubling the cost of the scheme. And at the point when those 200 staff had left, almost none of the magic IT that was supposed to replace them was in place. 

It’s hard to conceive how the Conservatives’ Transformation project could have gone more badly wrong. Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong, did. The costs spiralled to such an extent that we are left with a black hole in our budget, which we’ve had to fill with raises in council tax and parking fees. Given that TDBC’s free-for-all redundancy programme was so horribly conceived, we’ve had to recruit more staff to fill the holes.  I do hope that all those responsible for this mess will take a moment to reflect on how all the promises they made for this programme went so badly wrong on their watch.”

Meanwhile long term critic of the merger, MP Ian Liddell Grainger has been especially barbed in his comments: “The auditors have dug up a scandal. The plan to transform West Somerset and Taunton Deane councils was based on lies. The promised savings were inventions. The most basic research was missing. The redundancy scheme cost double because so many staff took advantage of its generous terms – including the Chief Executive! It was a disgraceful scheme which cost taxpayers a fortune and has left the new council with a system that still doesn’t work.”

Finally the role of Councillor Andy Sully is bound to be of interest.

Mr Sully was a Conservative Councillor at Taunton Deane Borough Council and also “Executive for Corporate Resources*”. Today however he sits as a LibDem councillor in the current SW&T administration.

*Mr Sully has asked us to point out that he was not “Executive for Corporate Resources and Transformation” as previously stated in this piece. He also contacted us to tell us that he had nothing to do with the Transformation exercise.

(Public Pack)Agenda Document for Full Council, 20/03/2019 18:30(Public Pack)Agenda Document for Full Council, 20/03/2019 18:30(Public Pack)Agenda Document for Full Council, 11/12/2018 18:30(Public Pack)Agenda Document for Full Council, 11/12/2018 18:30

 

Savings? What savings?

A report has been published today by SWAP internal audit services for Somerset West & Taunton. It investigates the process by which Taunton Deane Borough Council and West Somerset District Council came together. The merger was supposed to lead to significant annual cost savings.

The SWAP report itemises a catalogue of poor management, lack of control and poor execution of the project. It comes after a report to SW&T’s Executive on 22 January revealed £2.45m will have to be set aside for extra staffing costs during 2020/21 alone.

The savings that were supposed to come from the merger now look increasingly unlikely

The SWAP report merely concludes “the expected benefits from the Transformation Programme have not been realised as expected at the 1st of April 2019 and the programme has gone significantly over budget.”

The report suggests that a lot of that failure is due to the way the redundancy programme was handled. Redundancy costs are now running at approximately £6.35 million compared to the original estimate of £3.7 million. The extra cost of £2.7m to the new SW&T authority of this failure to control the redundancy programme compares with a total budgeted spend on services of £14.15m for 2019/20. That is over 20% of the spend on services lost through mismanagement.

The report may use temperate words but the conclusions are damning:

  1. The decision to allow voluntary redundancy for all staff ultimately undermined the Transformation Programme There was also a high degree of uncertainty in the level of savings that could be delivered through the efficiencies;
  2. Redundancies should have been staggered as the new services were brought on board so that as efficiencies were realised that would inform redundancy decisions.
  3. There was also no allowance for retaining staff beyond the 31st March to deal with the transition period while new processes continued to be created and introduced.
  4. By removing the staff before new processes were in place additional pressure has been put on the remaining staff to deliver services to customers following the old processes but with less resource.

The idea that £2.92m of annual savings could be made is also greeted with some scepticism. The report notes “Where a business case is based on high-level subjective assumptions these should be regularly reviewed during the implementation stage to ensure they are realistic and achievable. If not projected savings could be unachievable as expected efficiencies through customer self-serve, reduced failure demand, technology and process reengineering have been over estimated.

We are told that “The original business case itself stated that the assumptions were high-level and there would be a need to revisit assumptions during the implementation stage. We found no evidence that assumptions were revisited to ensure the ultimate end saving target was achievable through the anticipated increase in efficiencies.”

In the end the report seems to find that there was a sad inevitability about the outcome. Without efficiencies being realised “There would be no choice but to employ additional staff and use agency staff that would then offset the anticipated on-going revenue savings predicted by that 22% reduction.”

This appears to be exactly what has happened. It is worth remembering that Ignite were paid a lot of money for leading this initiative. It remains to be seen if SW&T will now look to negotiate a repayment of those fees or to pursue Ignite through the courts.

For now SW& T Council Leader Cllr Federica Smith-Roberts, is sanguine about it all “The SWAP audit report paints a very stark picture of the unreasonably ambitious and intrinsically risky programme the former councils embarked on. It has been important for us to understand how this process was implemented and why it went wrong so that we can focus our efforts as a new Council to deliver the services residents need. We need to draw a clear line between what happened at TDBC and WSC, and what is happening now at SWT. It’s not about the past, it’s about learning lessons and looking forward.

Assault in Taunton

A man in his 20s was attacked by a group of young men in Taunton last night. The incident happened between 8-9pm in Galmington Road.

The victim was walking with his female partner when the assault happened near to a fish and chip shop. He was struck in the face with a baseball bat, causing him to fall to the floor, where he was kicked. He required treatment at Musgrove Park Hospital for facial injuries but has since been released.

Three teenagers – two aged 17 and one 18 – have been arrested and remain in police custody. Police enquiries into the incident are continuing. The Police tell us that officers are patrolling the area to receive further information and provide community reassurance.

Police are keen to hear from anyone who was in the area at the time of the incident who may have information to help with their enquiries. Theywould particularly like to hear from anyone who has mobile phone or dash-cam footage of the incident.

If you are able to help, please call 101, quoting reference 5220020590

 

Incident in Chard

You’ll have to accept our apologies that this is being sent out so long after the fact. We have been contacted by Avon & Somerset Police about an incident in Chard before Christmas.

On 21 December Police were called to the Phoenix Hotel in Fore Street  at about 2am. A man in his 40s suffered facial and head injuries which required hospital treatment. A woman and two other men were also involved.

Another man in his 40s has voluntarily attended a police station in connection with the incident. Police enquires are continuing.

Were you in the area at the time? The event seems to have been traumatic and not the sort of thing that might be easily forgotten. Police are keen to speak to anyone who was in the area at the time of the incident who may have information, especially any mobile footage.

Anyone able to help is asked to phone 101, quoting reference 5219293477

 

Time to deliver?

With five our of five of the Somerset constituencies covered by The Leveller® returning Conservative MPs, and the Conservatives being the party of government, what does that mean for us? We have had five Conservative MPs in the period since 2015, the first time in a couple of decades that Somerset has been completely blue.

But to date, despite the efforts of our MPs, we have precious little to show for it. All agree Somerset should get a better deal on education funding. It has had an increase, but remains among the worst funded regions in the country. Rebecca pow has campaigned for a Wellington Station, David Warburton for a Langport one – neither had materialised.

The 2019 Conservative manifesto was big on infrastructure spending, big on transport investment and big on spending pledges. What it was not big on, was obvious investment in the South West. The word Somerset did not appear in the manifesto at all, the words South West just twice. Once in connection with extending the rebate on water bills in the South West, the other a vague commitment that reads “We will also invest in improving train lines to the South West and East Anglia”. And that is it.

Given that electrification to Bristol has already happened, and that our new Prime Minister has a track record of promising things that are either

a) not true or

b) have already happened;

that certainly leaves our region looking like a pauper at the back of the queue when investment cash is handed out. The Queens speech introducing the new legislative programme made no mention of the South West at all.

The manifesto was weak on environmental issues. Plant lots of trees would be a good precis of the policy. But nothing to actually address the fundamental issue, which is we need significant lifestyle changes. And that needs thought in terms of the costs, implication for taxation and the intervention of government.

Which leaves us to ask our MPs questions. Now they have returned to power, what will they do for us? All of them could do something to help the green agenda. But without any real government support, it is debatable whether that is actually realistic.

However Each MP has some questions to answer about what they can deliver for their own constituency and here are some suggestions:

Bridgwater and South West

Ian Liddell Grainger could ensure that money is set aside for the tidal barrage we have been promised for the River Parrett. He could also lobby to get proper funding for the close to non-existent bus network in West Somerset. And some thought towards relinking Minehead and Taunton by rail would be nice.

Somerton & Frome

David Warburton became an MP on the back of his work on the Somerset floods. However in office he has championed better broadband and a station for Langport. Despite his best efforts, neither have, as yet actually happened.. With Brexit done and a Conservative majority in Westminster, it would be good to see some actual delivery on both these projects.

Taunton Deane

Staying with the floods, Rebecca Pow had failed by the time of the election to commit to incorporating the elements of Mr Warburton’s Bill to fund the SRA into the new Environment Bill. Will that now happen given that this is still part of her portfolio? Funding for the SRA is a major issue for Somerset following the 2012-14 flooding. And given that we have established that Musgrove hospital is not one of the 6 hospitals to be rebuilt in the next parliament, what exactly is she going to do with the promised £2m of seed funding, to prioritise it for the next round of major NHS projects.

Wells

James Heappey has a problem in his constituency with broadband. That and transport seem to be the big issues. With hardly any rail network (apart from Highbridge Station) bus transport is especially important. Will we see more sustained funding for buses? And will we see broadband being prioritised so we can finally get what we have been promised since 2012?

Yeovil

The big question for Yeovil MP Marcus Fysh is what happens to Westland. Especially when the ERG member gets his Brexit done. As we have reported here previously, British taxpayers paid for the tooling for the latest generation of Westland helicopters. To date little if anything has been done to secure the future of assets that we actually own.

So if the Brexit deal done later this month leads to Leonardo reconsidering manufacturing in the UK, and that is a serious prospect, the Conservatives have two major tasks on their hands. The first is to secure the tooling and make it clear to Leonardo that it will not be allowed to leave the UK. The second is to secure a pipeline of orders from the UK government that, it is made clear to Leonardo, are dependent on manufacturing remaining in Yeovil.

Theft from Langport garage

A break in took place at what the Police will only describe as a “garage business” in Langport on Monday evening (19 January).

The thieves took power tools plus car diagnostic equipment shortly after 10.10pm.

A man, of stocky build, wearing a blue jumper and red gloves was captured on CCTV who the Police would like to speak to in connection with this burglary.

Their enquiries continue.

Anybody in the Somerton Road area at the time who saw the man or a dark BMW estate car is asked to contact the Police on 101 and quote reference 5220014822.

Langport power tool burglary

 

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