2021/22 into 2023

A very late annual review this year. Elections in May kept me busy. After success then, I now serve on both the county and district councils. Both are being reorganised to form a single new Somerset Council from April 2023, when Gwil Wren and I will continue as the unitary councillors for Upper Tone.

Below is my look back at council work over the last 12 months or so, and a look forward, with business increasingly dominated by local government reorganisation (again).

Despite the on-going challenges of Covid recovery, Brexit disruption, war in Ukraine with accompanying reductions in energy and food supplies, the ensuing cost of living crisis, and a badly misstepping government, some progress has been made by our councils; while some challenges faced have become worse, not least on budget restrictions and the need for effective action to halt global heating.

Looking Back

In early 2022, Town recovery projects continued in Wiveliscombe with funding from Somerset West and Taunton Council and the government: street furniture in The Square was painted and graffiti cleaned off the bus shelter and signs on the approach up Taunton Road into town. I chaired a place-making group on Wiveliscombe town centre, which consulted and prepared a vision for design improvements and to address traffic and parking problems. The next steps will be to seek funding and make the changes, which it is hoped can be achieved.

It has been great to see communities throughout the area coming back to life after Covid lockdowns, although not everything has returned and some have needed to be wary of potential dangers. Many sports and social activities have resumed, which bring pleasure and many benefits.

Photos: Martin Valuks

Further hope is provided by some tremendous new community initiatives. High on the list has to be the Wivey Food Project, which provides 100s of meals every week, Wivey Grows, which provides activities and inspiration in the grounds at Langley House, and Wivey Welcomes Refugees, which has provided support to hosts and about 60 Ukrainian guests. I was privileged to be invited to a tea party at St Andrews Church, along with many local guests, hosts and civic leaders for a visit by Her Royal Highness Sophie, the Countess of Wessex on 9 November 2022. It was good to bring people together for this event, which was very moving.

I attend many parish and town council meetings, covering 11 parishes in my district ward and a further 8 in the county division, which I share with Mark Blaker (SWT) and Gwil Wren (SCC). All parishes have volunteer local councillors and most a part-time paid clerk to help with administration. All work hard to do the best they can for their areas. Although it saved on costs, it was a little disappointing none had enough candidates for a contested election in May and so nearly all co-opted additional members afterwards.

I regularly pick-up issues to pursue at parish meetings, with highways matters being the most common now that I’m a county councillor too. Anyone can report problems on the road online, which is often effective. Gwil and I are happy to help, especially where problems are not addressed. We are becoming increasingly aware of what the county highways department can and cannot do in current times. Problems with the buses and the need for improvements are another common concern often raised. There is a little hope these may get better.

As district councillor, the most common issues raised with me involve planning, waste collections and housing.

Broadband is another local concern, especially full-fibre cable provision in rural parishes, which is managed by Connecting Devon and Somerset. I continue to follow roll-out plans and encourage better progress.

Many council issues are raised directly with me by local people. The number has steadily risen since I was first elected in 2018. I aim to keep track of these, especially to note unaddressed problems that need further chasing, so have a record that shows over 100 local issues were raised with me last year. In 2022, there have been over 160 issues raised up to November. In many cases, I am pleased to be able to source help, improvements or answers, but sometimes it is unfortunately not possible to find a good resolution, as there are limits on the councils’ resources and what they can do.

As a district and county councillor, I aim to find and encourage ways to improve council services, so that they can better meet local and wider needs as effectively as possible. Portfolio holders and officers are responsible for the planning and delivery of local services, with all councillors able to influence plans and strategies and being responsible for approving council policy and budgets. There is also a role undertaken by committees in scrutinising and making recommendations on the provision of council services and the decisions taken by portfolio holders and the executive.

I contribute as a member of full council (one of 59 members at Somerset West and Taunton, one of 110 at Somerset County) and sit on a number of committees. In 2022/23, I have seats on two boards (climate emergency and waste), three scrutiny committees (community, local government reorganisation and places) and have contributed to several working groups (council housing retrofit, ecological emergency and cost of living).

In July 2022, Somerset West and Taunton Council agreed an ecological emergency strategy and action plan, which followed the declaration I proposed in September 2020. This has led to new initiatives, such as a grassland management strategy to support pollinators and invertebrates, projects to plant thousands of trees, and support for wildlife on council land and through the planning process.

In 2021, I chaired a working group on the zero carbon retrofit of the council’s housing stock with insulation and electric heating systems. The group’s report was approved by Community Scrutiny Committee in January 2022 and the Executive in June 2022 (item 107). Officers then presented a Low Carbon Retrofit Strategy and Action Plan, which was largely aligned with the working group’s recommendations, to Community Scrutiny in October 2022 and to Executive in November 2022 (item 7).

The retrofit strategy and action plan is to be considered by full council in December 2022. If approved, as expected, it will put in place a £135m programme for the retrofit of the council’s housing stock (5,700 properties) so that it will be zero carbon by 2050. This will be achieved in stages, starting with much better insulation. Funding will partly come from delivery as part of the Council’s planned maintenance and capital improvement programmes, and partly through funding bids to government and energy companies, which the council is now well-placed to receive. There will be close working with tenants on the delivery of a whole house fabric-first approach that aims to reduce average heat demand by 63%, so giving residents warmer homes at much lower energy costs. The new strategy matches zero carbon guidance from LETI and exceeds energy saving targets in Zero Carbon Britain.

Over the last two years, I have been pleased to see the roll-out out of Recycle More collections, with more plastics and other materials recycled, and less-needed refuse collections now made every three weeks. This has been successful in boosting recycling and saving the council over £2 million every year on collection and disposal costs. It was a project I initiated and managed while still an officer up to 2017 and have now overseen as a board member since 2019.

Somerset Waste Partnership has also made some progress on reuse, with the Fixy van supporting repair cafes around the county. However, action planned to increase reuse at Recycling Centres and to fund a co-ordinator for Community Action Groups has stalled. I remain hopeful these will soon be put in place and continue to press for these projects.

I was hopeful that progress was being made to introduce electric vehicles to the waste collection fleet. From December 2021, a test vehicle was purchased to test on rounds throughout Somerset, especially to check if it had the range to cover rural rounds as well as urban. Results were looking promising, with plans proposed to purchase ten more the next time vehicle replacements were needed in 2024. I was very disappointed when this number was reduced to only two electric vehicles out of 22 planned. I have sought further information on why more rounds could not be covered. I expect it is partly due to the current higher cost of electric collection vehicles, but that was not suggested in the board report. Unfortunately, my proposal was not supported to defer the decision to allow time for more testing to be completed and information to be provided to the board.

The replacement vehicle decision by the waste board was further complicated by a recommendation in the meeting papers to start testing hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVOs) as fuel for collection vehicles, with the promise it could lead to a 90% reduction in carbon emissions. I am doubtful about such claims and became even more so, when I found that Balfour Beatty had decided not to use or promote HVOs in their construction fleet. Balfour Beatty say HVO supply chains are complex and opaque, and point out that research has shown that once the effects of land use change and draining of peatland are taken into account, greenhouse gas emissions for palm-oil derived HVO can be up to 3 times greater than standard fossil fuel diesel.

Since then, I have found there are more reasons to be concerned about increasing use of biofuels, such as HVOs, so I will continue to challenge plans to increase their use both by Somerset Waste Partnership and the County Council.

More promisingly, councillors have heard work on a new Somerset Local Transport Plan will move away from previous ‘predict and provide’ planning for more roads that increases car use. Instead, government guidance now requires a new vision-led and multi-criteria approach, which should involve greater emphasis on walking, cycling and public and shared transport.

Another issue on which I have pressed is to increase local renewable energy. In particular, I have long called for a resource assessment (including constraints) of sites in Somerset, including for solar and on-shore wind power, together with identifying suitable sites on council land, and to work on a local energy plan with partners, such as energy suppliers, community energy groups and network providers. The first steps are now being taken with a study to take this forward being commissioned for early next year.

Other decisions at Somerset West and Taunton Council over the last year have included: measures to prevent increases in phosphates pollution at protected sites on the Somerset Levels and Moors (a big issue that is delaying planning applications), provision for homelessness and rough sleeper accommodation, creating a new Taunton Town Council (for the only unparished area in the county) from April 2023, reviewing voluntary and community sector grants, adopting a district-wide design guide (Supplementary Planning Document), building new zero carbon council housing in North Taunton, Minehead and Oake, coastal protection at Blue Anchor, progressing major regeneration plans for Firepool, and additional funding for the Coal Orchard regeneration project in Taunton (shown below).

At Somerset County Council, there was a comprehensive induction programme for newly elected councillors from May to July 2022, when we learnt a lot about county services, including on adult and children’s social care, which was new service area for many of us.

County council decisions have included: appointing a new chief executive for the County Council and new Somerset Council, declaring an ecological emergency alongside the climate emergency, ending the council’s lease of Dillington House, Integrated Care Partnership arrangements with the NHS, reviewing bus services, electric vehicle infrastructure, and Council Tax reduction and Business Rates relief policies for Somerset Council.

Looking Forward

Reorganisation currently dominates thinking and decisions at the county and district councils. A big programme of work is proceeding to have everything needed in place for a smooth start of the new Somerset Council from next April. The county council will continue and simply have its name changed, while the initial changes will be bigger for district councils who are being merged into the single unitary authority, with service contracts and staff transferred.

Duncan Sharkey has been appointed as the new Chief Executive. Staff are being consulted on a new organisation structure, with internal appointments to soon follow to the top tiers of Executive Directors and Service Directors. Staff in other tiers will remain in the same posts for now and they will not be transferred to posts in the new structure until after vesting day on 1 April 2023, when the new teams will be gradually assembled (some will stay the same, especially for county services). Meanwhile, work is proceeding to put new single IT and finance systems in place and to create the new council website. There will be new branding with a low cost approach adopted and a new logo phased in over time.

Spending by Somerset county and district councils in 2022/23 is summarised below, showing the total budgets and % splits between the main service areas.

The biggest initial challenge for the new council appears to be setting a budget and preparing a medium term financial plan. Costs are increasing due to more demand for some services, especially in social care, and rising inflation. This year, current projections show an overspend of £21.2m by the county council and £2.4m by district councils, which will have to be taken from reserves. The budget gap for the new council is projected to be £74m in 2023/24, followed by £50m in 2024/25 and £36m in 2025/26. Savings, including from reorganisation, will bring the gap down, leaving gaps of £38.2m in 23/24, £38m in 24/25 and £33m in 25/26.

A balanced budget has to be set and finance officers warn service cuts are inevitable. A draft budget for the new Somerset Council is due to be published in January and a final budget needs to be agreed by full council in February (early March at the latest).

I have raised concerns over the continuation of district council grants to parishes for burial grounds, footpaths and playing fields in Taunton Deane, which it appears are not paid in other districts. I hope these grants will continue, which will be decided when the Council’s budget is set. If the grants were to end, reasonable notice should be given. As parish and town councils are now setting their budgets and precepts for next year, this has already been left late, so it has to be hoped no changes will be made for 2023/24.

In the Government’s autumn budget statement, it was announced councils will be able to increase Council Tax by up to 5% for 2022/23 (higher than the previous 2% cap, but still below inflation). We will see, but I expect it will be agreed to take the 5% increase for Somerset. Not to do so would require increased cuts in local public services to achieve a balanced budget and it’s unlikely the increase could be made again in future to recover.

Those on low incomes can claim Council Tax support, which will be made simpler from next April.

Another change resulting from local government reorganisation will be the creation of new Local Community Networks (LCNs) from next April, which will cover all of Somerset. Each network will involve unitary councillors and representatives from town and parish councils, health services, police, businesses and others. LCNs will have direct communication into the new council via reports to the Executive and, potentially, be able to manage some local services, where agreed. There is still a lot to be confirmed on what LCNs may do and how they will work, as they will be partnerships and not have direct control over other organisations. A lot will depend on the appetite of those involved. Administration support will be provided by the new Somerset Council.

There has been consultation on the areas to be covered by the networks over the autumn. For this part of Somerset, options included LCNs centered on fairly small areas around Wiveliscombe and Wellington, up to a much larger area wrapping round Taunton from Wiveliscombe to Wellington and on to North Curry and West Monkton. Options for Exmoor ranged from small LCNs covering parts of the national park, up to a large area that matches the former West Somerset Council boundary. The consultation found none of the options had clear support. Final proposals are to be agreed in January. It has been recommended that LCN areas need to allow both urban and rural priorities to be respected, natural clusters should reflect the landscape character, there should be alignment with the Integrated Care System, and town and parish council boundaries need to be observed.

It is clear that next year will be another year of challenges, change and uncertainty, but the form and reach of our new unitary council should start to become clearer. I will continue to seek the best for our area and to promote good, speedy and fair progress towards a green future.

Buses update

After the exciting promise of last year’s Bus Service Improvement Plan, the follow-up in 2022 has been disappointing, but there are still grounds for some hope.

Bad news is that bus use is still only 70% of pre-Covid levels, which has reduced revenue and led to timetable cuts by local bus companies in June. There may be further service reductions if current funding support from government ends next March, although timetable changes in June should have allowed for this to some extent and support could be further extended.

Some good news is that the County Council’s bid for government funding was one of only 31 bids to be successful (out of over 70); but instead of the £163m requested, just £12m was awarded.

Problems on route 25

On the 25 service from Dulverton, through Wiveliscombe to Taunton, a double-decker bus was introduced from June, which replaced the two single-deckers previously running for college students in the morning from Wiveliscombe. Initially, the new timetable from June was too late to get Richard Huish College students in on time. Many complaints were made and officers at the county council were helpful. We were successful in requesting that buses left 10 minutes earlier and for a stop at Taunton railway station to be reinstated. I also asked for the new timetables to be displayed at bus stops and for a flag to better mark the new stop outside the railway station.

Unfortunately, service timing was unreliable over the summer, which led to more complaints. When college terms restarted in September, First Bus apologised, after finding that they had scheduled the first bus of the day to leave too late from the depot. Time-keeping has been better since, but the 25 has still run late on some days.

Bus timetables and service complaints

Local and regional bus timetables are available from First Bus, Think Travel (Somerset County Council), and Traveline South West.

Problems with First Bus services should be reported online at: tellfirstbus.com. If problems persist, complain at: firstbus.co.uk. If they still persist, let me know and I’ll try to see if anything can be done. Unfortunately, the County Council only has a little influence, as First Bus operates a commercial service between Wiveliscombe and Taunton.

Bus it campaign

To encourage greater bus use, the County Council launched a Bus it! campaign in August. This highlighted savings from buying multi-ticket bundles and making full use of bus passes.

Bus service improvements

Plans to use the government funding for bus service improvements had to be revised and agreed with the Department of Transport. The aim is now to demonstrate bus use can be increased in targeted areas and to then seek more government funding to achieve the same results in other areas.

Most improvements will be in Taunton, which has started with new £1 fares for park and rides services, which will soon be extended to other Taunton bus services. There will also be trials for new weekend and evening services in Taunton.

Most of the funding has to be spent on capital projects, which will include new bus priority lanes and re-establishing the bus station with a mobility hub in Taunton. Work should start next summer and be completed by the end of 2024.

Bridgwater will also benefit from a new bus priority lane and bus priority detection at traffic lights.

There will be a trial to improve rural services in Somerton, with a mobility hub and a digital demand responsive feeder trial involving the Slinky service, which should be in place by Spring 2023.

New Bus and Transport Plans

There was an annual review of Somerset’s Bus Service Improvement Plan by the Places Scrutiny Committee on 11 October (item 9). I supported keeping the same improvement plan in place for now, with changes considered alongside the preparation of a new Local Transport Plan (item 8) over the next 18-24 months.

I also said basics needed to be got right, such as making new bus timetables available, and the County Council needed to look at providing more funding for bus services, which might come from new workplace parking levies (on larger employers) and reconsidering the developer funding used for travel plans, which currently seem to achieve very little.

Upper Tone voted for Dave & Gwil

The result for Upper Tone in the election on 5 May 2022 to Somerset County Council (one year) and to the new Somerset Council (from 2023) was:

Dave Mansell – Green (1,687 – 50%) – ELECTED

Gwil Wren – Independent (1,487 – 44%) – ELECTED

Roger Habgood – Conservative (1,158 – 34%)

James Hunt – Conservative (1,082 – 32%)

John Hassell – Liberal Democrat (641 – 19%)

Mike McGuffie – Labour (267 – 8%)

Philip Thorne – Independent (137 – 4%)

The total electorate was 7,625, who could vote to support two candidates, although a few only cast one of their two votes. The turnout for Upper Tone was 44.6%, which was above the overall turnout in Somerset of 37%.

Thanks for all the help and support given. Gwil and I will do our best as representatives for Upper Tone on the new council. I also look forward to working with four other Greens elected in Frome and with other councillors from around the county.

Along with Mark Blaker, I will continue for to be a district councillor for the Wiveliscombe and District ward on Somerset West and Taunton Council until April 2023. Then Gwil and I will continue as the unitary councillors for Upper Tone on the new Somerset Council that replaces the districts and county council.

The overall result for the new county council is:

Liberal Democrat – 61

Conservative – 36

Green Party – 5

Labour – 5

Independent – 3

Full results at Somerset County Council website.

Parishes in the Upper Tone division are shown below.

Council achievements

Over my four years as a district councillor, I have done my best to represent Wiveliscombe and neighbouring parishes in my ward, to work with others and to be a positive Green voice on the Council.

Since 2018, I have helped with hundreds of local issues. I have spoken up at council meetings, read many reports and voted on their recommendations, sometimes proposing amendments. I have also sat on a number of working groups and delivery panels, and had monthly briefings on local climate change and ecological projects as the shadow portfolio holder.

The following are some highlights that have resulted from contributions I have made, often working with others.

WIVELISCOMBE AREA

  • Provided information on Covid support in the ward.
  • Installed the first public charging point for electric vehicles in Wiveliscombe, working with the Community Centre, Town Council and Brendon Energy. More council points have followed throughout the district, including in North Street car park.
  • Given support for funding to Wiveliscombe Community Centre, Town Hall Trust, Wiveliscombe Area Partnership, Wivey Pool, a new skate park at the Recreation Ground and to village halls.
  • Sought better progress on the local roll-out of full-fibre broadband and reported on new plans. I have met with Gigaclear, Connecting Devon and Somerset, and Airband, and organised a joint meeting for parish councils with Technological.
  • Sought improvements to town centre weeding and street cleaning, as well as to open spaces in car parks, which has included over-growth being cut back and more growing of wild flowers.
  • With a local steering group, supported town recovery projects with funding from Somerset West and Taunton Council. In particular, I helped arrange the painting of street furniture in The Square, updating of direction signs in Croft Way car park, and the cleaning of signs and removal of graffiti along the road into Wiveliscombe.
  • Proposed and chaired the place-making project group, which has organised consultation and is finalising a plan to improve The Square and traffic management in Wiveliscombe town centre – see update.

SOMERSET WEST AND TAUNTON COUNCIL

  • Proposed motions to declare climate and ecological emergencies, which have led to many new council policies and projects.
  • Proposed a budget amendment which led to more funding for climate and ecological projects.
  • Contributed to working groups on the Somerset climate emergency strategy and district action plans, which have been rated the best in the UK.
  • Challenged the council’s commercial investment strategy being debated in confidential sessions, which led to public debates and investment details being published on the council website.
  • Proposed and chaired a working group on retrofitting the council’s housing stock with insulation and zero carbon heating systems. Our report was passed by Scrutiny Committee and is currently proceeding on the democratic pathway to the Executive.
  • As a member of Somerset Waste Board, supported the successful roll-out of Recycle More and called for more re-use projects, which are to launched in the coming year.
  • Selected as vice-chair of Community Scrutiny Committee and so involved in scrutiny agenda setting and chairing some meetings.
  • At full council and committee meetings, I have voted to support many new projects and council initiatives, including: new development plans for the Firepool site in Taunton; the building of new council housing to a zero carbon design; accommodation and support for rough sleepers; pedestrianisation of East Street in Taunton; planning for new safe cycle routes; and many more.

Help Ukraine

The war in Ukraine is heart-breaking. The brave resistance has to be admired. All the people affected need help and support.

The following are some links for information and how to assist:

UPDATED: 1 July 2022, 9 August 2022

Incinerator proposed at Greenham

Wasteology are applying for a low-level clinical waste incinerator at Greenham Quarry, near the A38, where they have existing waste operations. At this stage, the application is only on what to cover in an environmental assessment for the facility. This would be required for a future application for the plant itself, which has not yet been submitted, although there are details of what is proposed in the current application. Continue reading “Incinerator proposed at Greenham”

Help with heating and household bills

Click on links below for advice on saving energy and assistance with heating and other household bills.

Government payments

Somerset Household Support Fund – £3.8m to assist Somerset residents struggling to afford household bills and essentials. Also see other advice and support in next section below.

Other government help includes:

  • An automatic ‘Energy Price Guarantee‘ until April 2023 with a review to consider support after then;
  • 0% VAT on energy saving materials, such as thermal insulation and solar panels;
  • A £650 one-off Cost of Living Payment for households on means tested benefits (some first payments were made in July, more follow in September);
  • A £300 one-off Pensioner Cost of Living Payment to be paid alongside the Winter Fuel Payment;
  • A £150 one-off Disability Cost of Living Payment for people who receive certain disability benefits.

Energy Bills Support Scheme – £400 in non-repayable discounts on energy bills is to be provided this winter. This will be administered by energy suppliers and paid to consumers automatically over 6 months from October 2022. Traditional prepayment meter customers will be provided with discount vouchers in the first week of each month, issued via SMS text, email or post.

Council Tax Energy Rebate – Most households should have received this rebate automatically and the deadline to claim has now passed. The government provided a £150 non-repayable Council Tax rebate payment for households liable for Council Tax in Bands A-D, and a small discretionary fund administered by local authorities for others needing support but not eligible for the Council Tax rebate. See local information.

Winter fuel payments – Paid to those aged 65 or over and getting the State Pension or another social security benefit.

Warm Home Discount – Electricity bill discount that can be claimed by those on certain benefits.

Cold Weather Payments – An extra payment of £25 per week to eligible people if the average temperature drops below zero for seven days in a row.

Other advice and support

Additional household support for Somerset residents – Includes help with food, information and advice, help with childcare, and help with bills.

Citizens Advice:

Council debt advice – Help if you are struggling to pay bills.

Saving electricity at home – Good helpful tips on saving both energy and money from Good Energy.

FurniTrust – Pre-used furniture and household items at low prices for people in need. Delivery available. Donations welcome of unwanted furniture and white goods in good condition. Shop at 37-39 Bridge Street, Taunton.

Money Saving Expert – What to do if you’re struggling to pay your energy bills.

Saving energy and insulation

Safe and Warm Somerset – A range of advice and support with reducing energy bills and keeping warm at home.

Futureproof – Services to help home owners and landlords in Somerset to carry out energy saving home improvements and refurbishments with confidence; plus training for builders.

Somerset Retrofit Accelerator – Green Directory of local businesses and services to help with your energy saving retrofit project. Also videos of retrofit stories and green homes in Somerset.

Somerset Independence Plus – Home improvements for disabled and vulnerable people, including repairs and improvements and retrofit grants and loans for energy efficiency improvements.

Lendology energy efficiency loans – A social enterprise working with Somerset West and Taunton and other councils. Lendology can provide finance for all homeowners, including those who may be excluded from mainstream providers.

Somerset West and Taunton Council – Saving energy advice and support, including for tenants and on getting an Energy Performance Certificate.

Centre for Sustainable Energy – A wide range of impartial home energy advice. Also see my advice on home energy improvements.

Smart meters – Free smart meters are helpful in allowing you to see how much energy you are using, what it costs and which appliances, when turned on, add most to your energy use.

The Green Party wishes to see a lot more done to address fuel poverty and to assist all to have well insulated homes with zero carbon heating. More support has been provided since the first version of this post in December 2021, but more is still needed, especially for insulation and zero carbon heating to keep homes warm at low cost.

Green PartyCost of living crisis is actually an income crisis and inequality scandal

ORIGINAL  POST: 5 Dec 2021 – UPDATED: 5 Feb 2022, 1 July 2022, 22 July 2022, 30 July 2022, 3 Sept 2022, 8 Sept 2022, 18 Oct 2022, 27 Oct 2022

REVIEW: 2020 and into 2021

The last year has been unprecedented in modern times. Extraordinary for us all due to Covid and at the council for many reasons. The future for Somerset promises more changes and disruption on the way. As ever, I try to keep focused on doing the best for Wivey and our area and on encouraging steps towards a safer and fairer green future.

Later than previously, this is my annual review of the last year as a district councillor and thoughts on what the next year may bring. Continue reading “REVIEW: 2020 and into 2021”

One Somerset is unitary answer

Yesterday, the Local Government Secretary announced a single new unitary council will be established in Somerset. This is the One Somerset model promoted by Somerset County Council.

Consultation has been underway since last autumn. The change comes during a pandemic and only two years after two district councils were merged to form Somerset West and Taunton Council. That change was disruptive and wasted millions. Now we are faced with another disruptive reorganisation.

Both changes have been proposed by the Conservatives. It’s unbelievable that they could make one major change to be followed so soon by another.

Continue reading “One Somerset is unitary answer”

Green action in Wivey

In recent months, there have been a number of local green projects, with a new electric vehicle charging point installed at the top of Croft Way car park and lots of tree planting.

Click on the following links for further information:

I led and worked on the new charging point throughout, which started as a Wivey Action on Climate project a few years ago. We had a number of obstacles to overcome and had to adjust our plans several times, so it is very pleasing that we eventually got it installed. The point has been well used from the start and use continues to grow. By the end of 2021, it was used most days and often several times a day.

I provided support for the wildlife-friendly planting in Croft Way car park, with backing gained from the Council’s open spaces section.

In the past I have been involved in organising local tree planting.

More green projects will follow, as £18,000 has been awarded from the County Council’s Climate Emergency Community Fund to install solar panels at Wivey Pool and on our public toilets and to provide loft insulation at the Town Hall.

UPDATE (14 Sept 2021): Wivey Pool now has a set of photovoltaic solar panels at the back. This is a particularly good installation as the pool uses high power pumps, which can now be solar powered when needed most during the summer. I advised on installers for this project and am pleased it has come together so well.

Wivey Pool solar panels wide

Rural broadband progress

Broadband options for parishes around Wiveliscombe have progressed a little since my previous posts.

It remains best to register your interest with a number of potential providers, with some looking more likely to offer a service in some parishes, as detailed below. There is also a new broadband universal service obligation, provided by BT, which may offer a connection opportunity for some.

Register and find out about services offered at:
• Technological – www.technological.co.uk/ex16
• BT broadband universal service – www.bt.com/broadband/USO
• Gigaclear – www.gigaclear.com (start by entering postcode)
• Openreach – www.openreach.com/fibre-broadband/community-fibre-partnerships

The following outlines local progress made by these providers and by Connecting Devon and Somerset.   Continue reading “Rural broadband progress”

A Green Climate Strategy

Somerset Green Party Councillors have produced A Green Climate Strategy to show how we propose to address the climate and ecological emergencies in Somerset.

Our Green strategy shows how to improve a joint climate strategy prepared by Somerset councils, which is too weak and lacks urgency. The joint Somerset strategy (see full version and summary) fails to show what will be needed to work towards carbon neutrality or how to work effectively towards this by 2030. The joint councils strategy also passes too much responsibility for achieving change to communities and individuals.

Action should have started earlier, following council climate emergency declarations in 2019. More needs to follow once actions plans are adopted by Somerset councils in October and November 2020.

A Carbon Neutrality and Climate Resilience Action Plan for Somerset West and Taunton (SWT) could be improved, but is much better than the Somerset Strategy, and should allow a better start to effective climate action in our district.   Continue reading “A Green Climate Strategy”

Somerset West & Taunton declares an ecological emergency

Last night (29th September 2020), Somerset West and Taunton Council unanimously declared an ecological emergency, supporting a motion I proposed with Councillor Dixie Darch. See full motion and a webcast of the debate (starts after 1 hr 26 mins 20 secs).

The motion recognised that the human and natural worlds are intertwined. We rely on nature for air, water, food, medicines, raw materials and energy. But we are over-exploiting natural resources, leading to species extinction rates which are now tens to hundreds of times higher than historical averages. As David Attenborough has said: “We’ve overrun the planet”. Continue reading “Somerset West & Taunton declares an ecological emergency”

The unitary question

There are two proposals to reorganise local government in Somerset by combining county and district councils. The county council favours one single authority covering the whole of Somerset. All four district authorities have confirmed they favour two unitary authorites, one for the West (covering Sedgemoor and Somerset West and Taunton) and one for the East (covering Mendip and South Somerset).

This has been prompted by Somerset County Council calling for a new unitary authority and then the Government announcing that a white paper on devolution and local recovery will be published this autumn. Council meetings with a Minister have suggested Somerset will be in the first wave of new unitary authorities to be created, with public consultation this autumn and a decision early in the new year (see update on timing at end below).

Personally, I favour unitary authorities, as they have the potential to be more efficient and allow the joint planning and delivery of services currently split across the two tiers, such as highways and planning and car parks, on-street parking and transport.

However, I think the timing is terrible, given the on-going need to address the COVID pandemic and climate change, as well as due to Somerset West and Taunton having only just been reorganised.

I would also prefer unitary authorities on current district boundaries, with collaboration on services requiring management and delivery at a larger scale, possibly along the successful lines of Somerset Waste Partnership. The Government has indicated the size of four unitary councils for Somerset would be too small and so the maximum number possible would be two.

As a single Somerset authority, covering a large rural area from Simonsbath to Frome and Brean to Chard, would be too big and remote, I favour the Stronger Somerset case for two new unitary councils in Somerset (East and West).

Continue reading “The unitary question”

Shooting lodge approved but helipad removed

In late 2019 and early 2020, the peace of Wiveliscombe was disturbed by helicopters flying low over the Southern part of town to a new shooting lodge built off the the main road to Waterrow and close to Culverhay, Culverhead and the Recreation Ground.

Planning approval for Bulland Estate to convert a barn to a shooting facility had been given in February 2019, but the application had made no mention of the helipad or the luxury accommodation rumoured to have been included in the conversion.

During 2019, I received complaints and expressions of concern about the new development, which I raised with Somerset West and Taunton Council. Planning enforcement action soon followed.

The barn conversion built was found to include a whole additional floor of bedrooms as well as the helipad, which had not been included in the original planning application.   Continue reading “Shooting lodge approved but helipad removed”

Controversy over Kingsmead School new buildings

Earlier this year (January 2020), there was consultation, followed by a planning application for substantial new buildings at Kingsmead School. These will replace old buildings that are no longer fit for purpose, with funding from the Government’s Priority School Building Programme.

The new buildings are very welcome and much needed, but the proposal proved controversial as the design lacked sustainability features and was not carbon neutral. This prompted a local campaign, which was covered by The Guardian.    Continue reading “Controversy over Kingsmead School new buildings”

Sandys Moor – approved plans for 94 new homes

A planning application was submitted in March 2020 for the detailed design of access, appearance, landscaping, layout and scale of 94 new homes at Sandys Moor, Wiveliscombe.

Outline planning permission had previously been controversially given in March 2019.

The detailed application (number 49/20/0016) can be viewed on the planning application search page of Somerset West and Taunton Council’s website. The main document to view is the Statement of Compliance with the planning layout images (as shown above) giving a quick indication of what is proposed.

UPDATE (5 August 2020): This application has been approved and planning permission given. See my comments on the plans.

UPDATE (16 Nov 2020): A number of trees have been felled on the Sandys Moor site, which appear to be in keeping with approved plans that I have checked with the Council’s Tree Officer. Trees to be retained and those to be removed are shown in extracts from the landscape strategy and arboricultural statement. In addition, all poplars on site are being felled, as they are not thought suitable alongside new buildings. They will be replaced with other species as part of the landscape scheme. Further details are shown in the Landscape Strategy Plan and Arboricultural Method Statement.

UPDATE (18 May 2021): A new planning application (49/21/0025) has been submitted for 19 dwellings on the Sandys Moor site. 13 of the new houses proposed are changes and 6 are additional. If approved and this proceeds, it will bring the total number of houses to 100.

UPDATE (December 2021) – The new houses at what is now called Elworthy Place are under construction and the first will soon be ready for occupation. The new residents are welcomed and it is hoped they will be happy in their new homes. I pressed for better pedestrian access to the town centre and schools, but only an improvement along Church Street to Kingsmead School was agreed. Unfortunately, this will lead to a loss of parking bays and only improve walking access to Kingsmead School. In my view, a pedestrian crossing for Church Street or Taunton Road is needed. Infrastructure funding will be available for play equipment, which may be used at the Recreation Ground to provide a new skate park and maybe an all-weather games area, both of which are still to be confirmed. There should also be some funding for more schools places and for other improvements in the town, which are also still to be confirmed and will involve the town council. It seems unlikely the additional houses proposed will be built (see update in May 2021 above), due to planning applications for new housing being delayed, as a result of phosphate pollution in the water catchment area feeding into protected sites on the Somerset levels and moors.

Coronavirus guidance and vaccinations

LAST UPDATED 2 April 2022

The government has removed domestic restrictions, but still suggest the following to reduce the risk of catching and spreading COVID-19:

  • Get vaccinated.
  • Let fresh air in if you meet indoors, or meet outside.
  • Consider wearing a face covering in crowded, enclosed spaces.

The NHS have published 11 tips to cope with anxiety about getting “back to normal”.

See government guidance on living safely with respiratory infections, including COVID-19.

The BBC continue to update a helpful summary of COVID-19 guidance and measures.

Communities in the Wiveliscombe and 10 Parishes area have done a great job in helping people stay safe. Please continue to look after yourselves and others too.

Government: Coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance and support, including staying safe, testing and staying at home, international travel, long COVID, work, self-employment and business support.

Somerset Coronavirus Support Helpline – closed on 31 March 2022.

Somerset NHSCovid-19 vaccinations in Somerset

NHS advice about Coronavirus (COVID-19), including symptoms, testing, vaccination, self-care and treatments, people at higher risk, how to avoid catching and spreading COVID-19, and long-term effects.

Mindline Somerset – Coronavirus emotional support helpline available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from Mind in Somerset on 01823 276 892

Somerset West and Taunton Council advice online advice and support:  www.somersetwestandtaunton.gov.uk/coronavirus

Somerset Waste Partnership on disposing of waste for anyone with symptoms of coronavirus: www.somersetwaste.gov.uk/coronavirus

Somerset County Council: Latest Coronavirus updates

BBC website is good for answering questions and providing the latest news: www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers

LAST UPDATED 2 April 2022

I will continue to update this list with important and reliable sources of advice. Please contact me if you need any additional help and I will do my best to assist.