Tag Archives: recent

County audit costs soar

In recent months Somerset County Council auditors have been unable to finalise their report. The sticking point is the so called “Value for Money” audit. This is a bit of an odd name. The report is not really about value for money as you or I would know it. Instead it is all about the medium term sustainability of our county council.

Back in July the auditors Grant Thornton, explained they could not form an opinion. Bizarrely this was an improvement on 2017/18 when they formed an adverse opinion. In effect saying they were uncertain of the medium term viability of Somerset County Council.

They would have to do more work. As a result taxpayers in Somerset will be left to pick up a tab of a further £32,800 for various extra work because SCC could not demonstrate medium term viability the first time around.

However Grant Thornton are still not saying they can give a clean opinion on the “Value for Money” audit. They are prepared to say things have improved since last year. That much is consolation. But some of the complacent noises coming out of County Hall may need to be reigned back a bit.

There are some good things to take from this. But in the auditors own words “Our VFM conclusion covers the whole of 2018/19 and we note that at the start of the 2018/19 year it was the poor budget setting process that resulted in the need for reactive emergency measures to identify and deliver further savings to balance the budget.
The Council is on a journey and we recognise that it is still needs it demonstrate it can set a realistic and achievable budget that it can deliver to.”

And more to the point it rather looks as if SCC will not get a completely clean audit report. We’ll let Grant Thornton explain in their own words…..

The Council set its original 2018/19 revenue budget in February 2018. Early in the financial year it became clear that this budget did not accurately reflect the Council’s spending commitments and the pressing need to deliver further savings. In order to address these issues, the Council took several actions, including:
• setting a new more realistic budget for children’s services
• identifying and delivering additional savings
• making greater use of capital receipts to fund service transformation.
The Council has increased its general fund and earmarked reserves from £23.7 million at 31 March 2018 to £44.2 million at 31 March 2019 (excluding school reserves). Despite this increase, these levels of reserves remain low in comparison to similar councils and provide limited capacity to absorb unexpected future financial pressures.
These matters are indicative of weaknesses in the Council’s arrangements for strategic financial planning. They are evidence of weaknesses in proper arrangements for sustainable resource deployment in planning finances effectively to support the sustainable delivery of strategic priorities and maintain statutory functions.

75 years ago

Today is the 75th anniversary of D Day. This day in 1944 allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy.

We at The Leveller would like to add our own thanks to the men and women who took part in the planning, co-ordination and action to start the liberation of Europe.

Working on a newspaper you cannot help but understand that without their hard work and sacrifice we would not be publishing what we publish today.

Freedom of the press is just one of many freedoms we owe to those who planned, those who fought and those who died. Our fellow countrymen, our allies and members of what we then described as “our empire”.



Another vote

Well it would not be a proper week gone by if we didn’t have a meaningful vote on Brexit to update you about. Yesterday was the third so called “meningful” vote. The word meaningful is becoming tarnished by a process that is rendering these votes increasingly meaningless. But nevertheless we thought you would like to know which way our 5 MPS voted. The vote was to approve “the Withdrawal Agreement, the Joint Instrument and the Unilateral Declaration laid before the House on 11 March 2019 so that the UK can leave the EU on 22 May 2019″

Voting in favour were:

James Heappey

Ian Liddell Grainger

Rebecca Pow

David Warburton

Voting against:

Marcus Fysh

Police Launch Murder Investigation

Avon & Somerset Police have just announced they are launching a murder investigation. Yesterday a man aged 30 died in Wells. A post-mortem examination and formal identification will be arranged in due course. The man’s next-of-kin have been informed.

We understand that Police were alerted to a disturbance at a property on Merlin Drive involving a number of people at 4.25pm yesterday afternoon (Saturday).

Officers attended and discovered two men with knife wounds on Wookey Hole Road.  Sadly, despite the best efforts of the ambulance service, one of the men died of his injuries at the scene.

The other man, also in his 30’s who also sustained serious injuries continues to receive medical treatment at hospital for them. It is understood his injuries are not life threatening.

The Police operation involved a helicopter and armed officers were deployed to the area to assist beat officers in making arrests. In total, six men and two women, all from the Somerset area, have been detained in connection with the incident and currently remain in police custody.

The senior investigating officer is Detective Inspector Alistair Hammett of the Major Crime Investigation Team. He told us “We’re carrying out a full investigation into what is clearly a very tragic incident. Specially trained officers will be providing support to the man’s family and our thoughts are with them as they come to terms with the devastating news they have been given.”

Police believe this was an isolated incident and only involved a group of people all of whom were known to each other. However the Police presence in the area will remain to provide reassurance to the public. A police cordon has been placed around Merlin Drive.

In the meantime Police are keen to hear from anyone who saw or heard any part of what happened, or may have any information which you think could help. If you have information please phone 101 and tell the call handler you are phoning in relation to log 760 of yesterday (23 March).

Alternatively pass on information through the independent charity Crimestoppers 100 per cent anonymously on 0800 555 111 or via their anonymous online form at http://www.crimestoppers-uk.org. No personal details are taken, information cannot be traced or recorded and you will not go to court or have to speak to police when contacting Crimestoppers.

Mezzo comes home

Castle Cary have secured a singer from the world stage to join them for their Spring concert on Friday 24th May at Castle Cary Methodist Church. Marta Fontanals-Simmons is herself originally from the town but these days you are more likely to see her on stage at The Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne, Garsington, Wigmore Hall, St Martinin-the-Fields, The Teatro Real, Madrid and this year she also debuts at the Monte Carlo Opera. And for good measure she has been broadcast on Radio 3 too.

So it is quite a coup for the Castle Cary Choir to have her join them for the concert. There’ll be a full article in The Leveller nearer to the date of the concert.

On a Point of Order

Last week serious hostilities erupted between the MP for Aleppo (sorry Taunton Deane) and the MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset. For once Rebecca Pow bit back at Ian Liddell Grainger for his constant parliamentary interventions on the subject of Taunton. Which not being in his constituency is generally considered bad form. Especially if you don’t notify the relevant MP first. His point below that Taunton Deane and West Somerset will soon be one District is true. At which point he will have a legitimate interest in the affairs of the council as a whole. Including Taunton. That point however, is after 2nd May 2019 when the new council comes into being.

Nevertheless last week Ian Liddell Grainger, in absentia, got a fair old battering on the floor of the House of Commons. So yesterday, as Hansard records, he was jumping to his own defence:

Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset 

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I am sorry the Speaker is not in his place, but I seek your wisdom and learned advice on an issue, Mr Deputy Speaker. At the close of business questions to the Leader of the House on the Thursday before last my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow in a point of order raised a complaint about the contents of my interventions. She said I had made a serious allegation that had caused real distress in Taunton. It concerned a company which has now confirmed in the Somerset County Gazette, the local newspaper, that everything I said in this place was in fact correct, and I will be sending that information to the Speaker as soon as I can.

Sadly, I was not in the House to respond to my hon. Friend’s complaint, and if I had known I would have stayed. I never want to cause distress to any colleague, and I understand the Speaker made it clear that free speech must be used wisely, maturely and with sensitivity. I totally agree, and I always try to let parliamentary colleagues know in advance if I intend to mention their constituencies. I ask you, Mr Deputy Speaker, as Chairman of Ways and Means, if there might be any possibility of bringing this protocol up to date.

I have been lucky enough to have been called in almost all of the last 30 business questions to talk about Taunton Deane, and I have raised many serious matters about the government and governance of Taunton. All of them have been aired by me outside this place. I do not represent the people of Taunton, but Taunton’s new council, which is about to start, will soon control the lives of 35,000 of my constituents in West Somerset. Most of them were dead against this merger, and many of them are alarmed and very worried about what is happening in Taunton. Frankly, it is impossible for me to avoid talking about Taunton and still do an adequate job on behalf of my constituents.

The Speaker’s predecessor, the late Lord Martin of Springburn, ruled in 2001 that a Member should inform a neighbouring Member 24 hours in advance of making any intervention about the other’s constituency. Eighteen years is a very long time in politics, as we know, and times change. May I offer a suggestion: if I write to my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane just once at the start of each parliamentary Session, will that maintain the spirit of the protocol while recognising my duty to my constituents? I will of course send any of my more interesting comments to the Speaker in advance, as I have tried usually to do.

Now Mr Deputy Speaker happens to be Lindsay Hoyle, a Labour MP and you can almost see the smirk playing on his lips in the latter part of his response. Which went thus:

Lindsay Hoyle Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Panel of Chairs, Chair, Standing Orders Committee

Thank you for that point of order. There was a lot there; what I would say is that I think neighbouring MPs need to work closely together and I think customs and practices of the House should continue. One letter would not suffice, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, but I am sure there must be a way forward. You have certainly put on record the part that wanted to be corrected, and in the spirit of being good neighbourly MPs, especially from the same party, there must be a way of whipping this forward, and maybe a cup of coffee between the two of you will be a better way forward than raising it in the House. I wish you both well.

Beyond the Pale

Ian Liddell Grainger’s repeated abuse of Parliamentary protocol has finally come to a head. Liddell Grainger is like an itchy scab. He simply cannot help himself and he returns to scratch it time and time again. He represents a geographically large constituency running from Exmoor to Bridgwater with lots of interest and lots of local issues to deal with. Yet if his Parliamentary utterances are anything to go by, we assume he has little interest in Bridgwater and West Somerset.

Instead the records of Hansard over the past couple of years are full of Liddell Grainger’s interventions on matters arising in the neighbouring constituency of Taunton Deane (though his latest outburst also took in Marcus Fysh’s constituency of Yeovil).

As we have repeatedly reported in the past, Parliamentary protocol requires a member not to comment on matters in another member’s constituency. This time it seems even the mild mannered Rebecca Pow, MP for Taunton Deane, has had enough.

It all started with a Liddell Grainger special which Hansard reports as follows:

Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset

Can we have a debate on house building companies? Recently, based on inside information on a route going from Taunton down to Ilminster, Persimmon paid £16 million for a speculative development. That has been in conjunction, I suspect, with the local council and a well-known estate agent who was caught price-fixing. We need to ensure that when organisations have privileged information, it is not used for other means. The Secretary of State for Transport is being dragged into this tomorrow. It is not a happy situation. Can we have time to debate it?

The reply from the Leader of the House is interesting. Again I shall leave it to Hansard:

Andrea Leadsom Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I have chatted to our hon. Friend Rebecca Pow, who has been pleased to tell me about some of the excellent infrastructure projects that she has campaigned for in her wonderful constituency, including the upgrade of the Toneway at Creech Castle, the upgrade of the A358, the Staplegrove spine road and the upgrade of Taunton rail station, on which work is beginning now. Our hon. Friend is delighted with the efforts that she and others are making to improve Taunton Deane. I am sure that my hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger has given you, Mr Speaker, and my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane prior notice of his intention to raise her constituency in this place.

When she says “I am sure” you can probably guess that she is hinting that she is pretty damned certain, having already checked with the MP for Taunton Deane, that in fact no such prior notice had been given. It rather looks from here as if courtesy is something that the MP for Bridgwater expects to receive rather than to give. It probably comes from being a direct descendant of Queen Victoria. He’d send a gunboat to Taunton Deane if only the damn place wasn’t landlocked…

But now we move on to Parliament and the next speaker who was in fact the Speaker. Hansard again:

John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons

Well, I am not aware that that is so today, though I speak with care. The Leader of the House is quite right to say that if a Member intends to refer to another Member’s constituency, especially if he or she intends to do so in what might be called disobliging terms, it is a courtesy so to notify. Mr Liddell-Grainger has, on a number of occasions, notified me of his intention to refer to the Taunton Deane constituency, but—I express myself with care—I am not aware that he did so on this occasion, and that should have happened. [Interruption.] He is signalling that he either has written or will write; I think it is the latter—could do better.

But the MP for Taunton Deane has clearly found her teeth. She had not finished and was not going to let the matter lie. So back we go to Hansard:

Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance on a certain matter. You know how much I respect your running of the Chamber, so I wanted to ask you this question. What recourse does a Member have when a colleague uses business questions to make serious, damaging and unfounded allegations about another Member’s constituency that cause real distress outside this House?

Can you guess the identity of the member in question? One who is used to making unfounded allegations under cover of Parliamentary Privilege which he then is too afraid to repeat outside the House?

The Speaker will enlighten us:

John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of her intention to raise this matter, which could affect any right hon. or hon. Member here present. She asks very specifically what recourse she, or any Member, has when a colleague makes damaging and unfounded allegations about her constituency. She knows how seriously I take this issue, which we have discussed.

I expect an hon. Member to give notice to the colleague whose constituency he proposes to refer to, to give notice to my office and to ensure that he is properly careful in what he says. Members take responsibility for what they say in the House and for its impact outside this House. The privilege of free speech must be used maturely and with sensitivity. It is no part of a right hon. or hon. Member’s role to be merely abusive or insulting. I hope that an hon. Member causing offence in this way will reflect very carefully on such conduct. This matter, as I said, has been discussed by the hon. Lady and me, and it has been the subject of wider discussion—including, from time to time, with the Leader of the House, who referred very sensitively to it earlier in our proceedings.

Let me just say tactfully, but in terms that are not ambiguous, that I hope that I do not have to return to this issue again. The message should be clear, and the hon. Lady’s concern, which is very real and, I think, widely shared, should be respected. We will leave it there for now, and I hope it will be able to be left there.

Did you see Ashill Crash?

Another Avon & Somerset Police special – appealing for witnesses four days after a collision took place. All we can do is shrug, wonder what happened to the glorious world of instant communication and connectivity and ask for your help.

The incident they would like to hear from you about was a road traffic collision near Ilminster on the A358 at Ashill on 10th February at about 3.45pm. Read this carefully, it is a little complicated, at least it took us a few minutes to unravel what happened according to the official account:

Police believe that a silver coloured Ford Kuga was waiting to turn right into Folly Drove. A black Volkswagen Polo stopped behind it.

A grey Volkswagen car then collided with the black Polo forcing it into on-coming traffic. As a result the black Polo was then hit by a Mini travelling in the opposite direction.

The occupant of the Mini, a man, was taken to hospital with back pain but was subsequently allowed home after treatment. The two women in the black Polo received treatment at the scene.

Police are keen to hear from anyone who was in the area who may be able to help our enquiries into the incident. If you can help, contact them using the 101 phone number and quoting reference 5219030872

Reach in disgrace

Reach plc (formerly Trinity Mirror was attacked yesterday by the MP for Wells in a debate over the Cairncross Report. James Heappey attacked the newspaper group for removing the archives of the Wells Journal from the City and despite saying lovely words, doing precisely nothing to get them returned.

The Hansard report of his exchange with Jeremy Wright The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport went as follows:

James Heappey

Our local papers have an essential role in chronicling all that happens in our local communities. Their archives are therefore an important local resource, so the Secretary of State will be alarmed to hear that, when Trinity Mirror took over the Mid Somerset newspapers in 2016, it removed from Wells all of those archives, and despite many promises of their return it has failed to deliver thus far. Will my right hon. Friend intervene and seek to expedite their return from Watford to Wells?

Jeremy Wright

I will certainly look into what my hon. Friend says. I agree with the general tenor of his remarks. It is important that we not only preserve the ability of our local newspapers to report on what happens now and what will happen in the future, but do our best to preserve the crucial record that they have created of what has happened in the past.

It is not just a shame when a venerable newspaper group fails to understand the importance to a local archive of the local newspaper. It is almost incomprehensible.

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