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 green future.
A little later than previously, this is my annual review of the last year as a district councillor and some thoughts on what the next year may bring.
The Covid-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020, with the first lockdown announced on the 23rd. Cllr Mark Blaker had called a meeting with community leaders the week before to discuss what should be done. Wiveliscombe Area Partnership set-up a helpline for those needing and offering help and leaflets were soon distributed across town. Local shops, churches, Wivey Cares and local people rallied round. The same occurred in neighbouring parishes and we checked all had local assistance available.
Thankfully, our area had lower infection levels than others, people took care and great support was offered throughout our local communities.
Support also came from our Councils, including by contacting the most vulnerable and distributing government funding for grants to businesses and community organisations.
As mass vaccinations started in January 2021, we could start to see a way out of the waves of spreading infection. The programme has proceeded quickly, but takes time and is not yet completed. Legal restrictions have been eased, although it’s important we continue to be cautious and follow guidance given. We now have good protection from vaccinations and health services, but infections are still spreading and the threat of current and future variants remain.
At Somerset West and Taunton Council, meetings were suspended with the first lockdown and soon resumed online at the end of April 2020, when new delegated decision-making provisions were agreed (along with an amendment I proposed). Online council meetings continued until early May 2021, when the Government failed to extend provisions to allow local authorities to hold public meetings online, despite lockdown restrictions still then applying.
On the whole, online council meetings using Zoom worked well, although they lack some of the interaction of in-person meetings and the valuable chat before and after.
Unitary council proposals from Somerset County Council and the Government have taken up a lot of time. At Full Council meetings we also took decisions on: coastal protection and Watchet wall repairs, Taunton town centre funding bids, development plans for Coal Orchard, Firepool and Tangier in Taunton, new zero carbon council housing, discretionary business rate relief and grants, test and trace payments, small scale industrial space development, town centres recovery, the climate emergency, Galmington playing fields, the budget and Council Tax, community grants, a Town Council for Taunton, constitution changes, and commercial investments.
I supported many of the decisions taken by Full Council, with those on zero carbon design for new council housing being a highlight. It was very good to see our climate and ecological emergency declarations having a significant influence on planning policy and development decisions. And Mark and I frequently ensured Wiveliscombe and area needs were noted too, including for recovery and community grants.
I raised concerns about the programme to borrow and invest £100 million in commercial property around the UK. These big decisions were all taken in confidential session. Due to the Council secrecy, I objected several times to motions to exclude the press and public from our debates (including on 15/12/2020 – item 112). Eventually, but only after most decisions were made, publicity was given to the Council’s investment programme, along with information finally being published on the Council’s website. Mostly offices and large shops have been purchased, with locations spanning from Bristol to Glasgow.
In future years, investment income may be needed to avoid service cuts, but I remain concerned about implications and the risks taken. Last November, following earlier consultation, the Government banned local authorities with debt for yield investments, such as SWT, from using the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB). So SWT has to use other short-term borrowing sources, including other local authorities.
I’d prefer the Council to retain PWLB access and to only borrow to invest in regeneration and renewable energy in our district, accepting lower returns that were more beneficial to our area and our future. I also questioned the need for risks on large borrowing and future returns when the move to a new larger unitary authority is imminent.
Most Councillors supported the investment programme, although a recommendation to further develop it was nearly defeated on 15/12/2020 (item 113), after a motion I proposed to review it, following the Government changes, was ruled out of order. In time, we will see how well the investment portfolio performs as the economy recovers (with some significant changes) following the pandemic.
I was also dismayed at the failings of the Council’s climate emergency strategy and action plan. New projects that have resulted are greatly welcome, but Council action is still too limited and strategic thinking on moving towards carbon neutrality is completely inadequate. Working with other Green Party councillors, I published a Green strategy to show how improvements could be made.
At Scrutiny Committee over the last year we covered many topics, including: unitary council proposals, rough sleeper and homelessness accommodation, climate emergency strategies and planning, council housing, electric vehicle charging, phosphates planning issues, and council budgets, commercial investments and performance. We questioned a number of portfolio holders and had two very interesting sessions with company representatives to look at bus services and post offices.
I continued as one of the Council’s two members on Somerset Waste Board, where I supported roll-out plans for new Recycle More collections, called for more work to trial electric collection vehicles (some undertaken), measures to reduce carbon emissions from waste incineration and more Reuse Shops at Recycling Centres.
The Council and Scrutiny Committee set up several working groups. I sat on district and county climate emergency groups, both of which came to unsatisfactory conclusions during Covid lockdowns. I was a member of the Council Governance Arrangements Working Group which concluded the Council should adopt a committee system to replace the current leader and executive model. This would allow greater involvement in decision-making by all councillors and political groups, with committee seats allocated in proportion to group size, which currently only occurs on scrutiny and regulatory committees.
The governance debate proved controversial and divisive for the (slim) majority Liberal Democrat group, leading to two of their members resigning from the Council and one from their group. Many were upset that the change to the committee system was not agreed to start from May 2021 and only from May 2022 (unless a decision to establish a unitary authority was taken). I preferred a 2021 change, but it had become apparent this would not be practical or possible. I proposed other approved recommendations, including for SWT to propose a committee system for a new unitary authority, to introduce a second Scrutiny Committee from May 2021, to give a role to Shadow Portfolio Holders in the constitution and to remind officers of the need to provide local information and notifications to ward councillors.
I also sit on task and finish groups looking at public transport and zero carbon retrofit for the council’s housing stock, which I proposed and was nominated to chair. Both are due to report later this year.
As ward councillor, I am asked to assist with many issues for local people and parishes. I am pleased to help where I can and have often been able to assist. Since first being elected as a district councillor, over 200 local concerns throughout the ward have been raised with me. Many involve planning. Others have included housing, broadband, recycling and refuse collections, litter, blocked drains, weeds, speeding, flooding, tree safety, nuisance from bonfires, and support for funding applications.
During the last year, I have worked on several local projects. After long delays from council reorganisation and Covid, Town Councillor Julie Mitchell and I worked with the Community Centre and funders to install the first public charging point for electric vehicles in Wiveliscombe. I have been pleased to contribute to the town centre recovery steering group, along with Mark and representatives from the 10 Parishes Business Group, Town Council and Wiveliscombe Area Partnership. We have allocated funding provided by Somerset West and Taunton Council to local projects, including: Welcome to Wivey banners, Community Centre improvements to the farmers’ market area, hanging baskets, planting on Croft Way car park bank and in the community herb garden, a new wicker bench for Jubilee Gardens, Shop Wivey umbrellas for local shop queues, a grace period for on-street parking during Covid restrictions and town centre weeding. Further projects are planned, including to work with local people in designing plans to improve The Square and address traffic and parking problems.
In addition, Mark and I were able to assist in securing Council funding of £60,000 to help with building works at Wiveliscombe Community Centre and the Town Hall.
For the new Council year, I was nominated to be vice-chair of the new Community Scrutiny Committee, which covers matters relating to external operations, climate change, housing and communities. I remain on Somerset Waste Board and Shadow Portfolio Holder for Climate Change.
It is likely to be a year of consolidation for Somerset West and Taunton Council, with existing projects progressed and some services reviewed, including for rough sleeper accommodation, arts and culture, parking, and climate and ecological emergency action plans. It is also hoped to progress plans for a train station and to bring life back to Tonedale and Toneworks in Wellington.
Inevitably, increasing attention will be paid to establishing a new Somerset unitary authority to take over from existing councils in April 2023, with a new Shadow Council elected in May 2022. Making this major change as we emerge from a pandemic seems madness to me, but it is the disruptive path we are now on, thanks to the Conservatives at the County Council and in Government.
Nevertheless, we should be on a path to recovery and returning to a new normal. Our councils will need to contribute and should also ensure we move steadily towards a green future.
Plans to roll-out new Recycle More collections to our area are continuing and this service change is still expected in November 2021, with direct communication to all households in advance. Despite the challenging times, these new collections have already been rolled out successfully in Mendip and South Somerset and led to 20% increases in recycling and corresponding decreases in refuse, along with cost savings.
I look forward to Recycle More collections returning to Wiveliscombe. Some will remember we successfully trialled the service in 2014, which then led to it being agreed as the new service model for the whole of Somerset. This was one of my last projects before retiring as Development Manager at Somerset Waste Partnership in 2017, with all councils agreeing to the change at the end of 2016. After some delays, it will be very pleasing to see the new collections introduced and working throughout Somerset.
At SWT, I will continue to support good service provision by the Council, seek to look after community interests in Wivey and the surrounding area, and look for opportunities to better address the climate and ecological emergencies in our part of the world.
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.
At this time, no change would have been more sensible, but we were told that was not an option. It was only a choice between the size of unitary council or councils to be introduced. I much preferred the Western and Eastern two unitary model promoted by the four District Councils as Stronger Somerset.
However, a single county-wide council is what it is to be, replacing the County Council and all the District Councils.
It is proposed to form a Local Government Reorganisation Board from September, involving existing Councils and other representatives, including from parish councils and the voluntary sector.
A shadow council will be elected in May 2022 and the new council will take over in May 2023.
It is planned to create 15-20 Local Community Networks involving new unitary councillors, representaitives from town and parish councils and other statutory and voluntary sectors. These will have some spending powers and officer support. Wiveliscombe and West Deane Parishes could be in a LCN with Wellington. Brendon Hills Parishes could be with the rest of West Somerset.
However, there are still many details to be confirmed and many decisions to be taken. I will update this page as more becomes clear.
We now know change is on the way. All involved need to ensure the transition works as well as possible and that we make the best of the new situation.
More green projects will soon 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 insultation at the Town Hall.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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 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.
Somerset Coronavirus Support Helpline – 0300 790 6275 for Coronavirus-related support from Somerset West and Taunton Council and Somerset County Council. Open 8am-6pm, 7 days a week. Council advice and information is also online – see below.
The following post summarises key points from budgets set by Somerset West and Taunton Council (SWT), Somerset County Council and other local authorities, including how much Council Tax we will pay to each. The fate of a budget amendment I proposed for energy and climate protection projects is also covered. Continue reading “Council tax, budgets and an amendment”→
The following is a look back on 2019 as district councillor for the Wiveliscombe and District ward and a look forward on what may be to come in 2020.
Last May, I was pleased to be re-elected as one of the two district councillors for our ward, alongside Mark Blaker. My aims, then and now, are to represent the best interests of our ward, to help people with local issues, and to be a green voice on the council. Continue reading “2019 and into 2020”→
Events are being held in January and February 2020 to consult on a Carbon Neutrality and Climate Resilience Plan and a new Local Plan for Somerset West and Taunton (SWT) and on a Climate Emergency Strategy for Somerset.
These include a roadshow with displays at Wiveliscombe Community Centre from 10am to 3pm on Thursday, 20th February 2020. Council staff will be on hand to discuss the plans and to record your ideas.
Following the first consultation stage, climate emergency action plans will be produced for both SWT and Somerset. There should then be another short public consultation before final plans are adopted by the summer.
Key elements of the Net Zero scenario (see my summary) are:
HEAT – Improved home insulation, smart control systems and widespread use of efficient electric heat pumps; together with hybrid hydrogen boilers, particularly in older homes that cannot be insulated to the highest standards. In suitable areas, bio-methane gas and district heating may be used.
TRANSPORT – Reduce car use by walking, cycling, using buses and trains, and travelling less. Also switching to electric cars and flying more efficiently and less frequently. Trains and lorries to be either electric or hydrogen powered.
ELECTRICITY – Fully decarbonise the power supply through more large-scale renewables, together with some gas power combined with new technologies for carbon capture and storage. Also more local renewable energy and storage, together with a flexible smart grid, which is able to better manage demand.
DIET – Reduce meat (especially beef and lamb) and dairy consumption, which have high methane emissions.
WASTE – Reduce waste, especially food waste, and reuse and recycle more.
LAND – Low emission and efficient farming practices, more energy crops and less productive agricultural land switched to other uses, particularly more woodland and peatland restoration.
INDUSTRY – Decarbonise industrial operations and phase out the use of fluorinated gases in medical inhalers, refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pumps.
OFFSETTING – Any remaining greenhouse gas emissions to be offset through carbon capture and storage.
We should choose to adopt carbon-saving habits and technologies whenever we can. As well as reducing our carbon footprints, better diets, warm homes and more walking and cycling improves our health too.
Widespread adoption of changes needed to achieve net zero carbon will require new policies and programmes by government and local councils. These need to be introduced and developed as quickly as possible. They also need to be implemented fairly, so that changes are affordable for all and extra assistance is provided where needed.
Gigaclear themselves are close to completing a fibre network around Croford, which extends from Langley Marsh along Grant Lane, Quaking House Lane to Spring Grove and Bindon Farm. They expect to start connecting customers by next March, and may then extend the network further if there is demand. In future, they plan to install fibre cables overhead on telegraph poles and in Openreach ducts where possible.
A new entrant to the local market is Technological Services, who are building a fibre network from Shillingford and up to Skilgate, where they are already signing up residents. Working with Parish Councils, they plan to extend to the Upton area in Spring 2020 and then on to Huish Champflower by Summer 2020.
Technological is a small company providing internet services for rural businesses, with residential broadband a new market for them. To avoid the cost of digging up roads, they are working with landowners to mostly lay their cable in fields (using a mole plough as shown in photo above). If there is demand, they could eventually cover all rural areas in the 10 Parishes.
A potential provider on a bigger scale is Openreach, who have a Community Fibre Partnership scheme, which involves working with a local community to build a customised solution where there is demand.
With regret, I resigned from Wiveliscombe Town Council. Unfortunately, some on-going issues made this role difficult and it seemed better to focus on my role as a district councillor.
As a town councillor, I particularly contributed to retaining our public toilets and library over the last couple of years, which were threatened with closure due to cuts by the former Taunton Deane Borough Council and Somerset County Council, respectively. In particular, progressing library decisions through the Town Council was at times challenging and exposed problems.
There have been improvements since the elections in May, when many good new people were elected, especially through Wivey-Community-Together. Most are new to the Town Council and, with some good old hands, I know will aim to build a positive and forward looking town council for Wiveliscombe and our community. One of my last contributions was to propose a governance review and to start on this with others on a working group, which has already led to beneficial changes and it would be great if it led to more.
I willcontinue to work hard as district councillor serving the people and communities of the Wiveliscombe and District Ward on the new Somerset West and Taunton Council. The District and County Councils are the principal local authorities and provide most of our local services.
Work will be starting soon on preparing plans to tackle the climate emergency at both Somerset West and Taunton Council (SWT) and jointly by all five Somerset principal councils, including the county council.
This follows climate emergency declarations we all made earlier this year, including as a result of the motion I proposed at SWT, which was one of the first.
Working groups are being set-up for the district council and jointly county-wide. I have a seat on the all-party working group for SWT and the joint scrutiny group for Somerset.
I am a little frustrated at the time it has taken to get the working groups established, but am very keen to see work get underway, and hope to contribute to the development of effective plans and to see good policies adopted and projects started. Continue reading “Achieving carbon neutrality”→
Good candidates were elected to Wiveliscombe Town Council, including all eleven standing as Wivey-Community-Together (W-C-T). This like-minded group wishes to see a positive and forward-looking town council and to work well and constructively with all town councillors. W-C-T was set-up to jointly campaign for the election and not to continue as a separate group.
The full result, declared at about 6:30am on Friday 3 May 2019, was:
Dave Mansell (W-C-T) – 750 votes Mark Blaker (W-C-T) – 730 votes Gaby Bellamy (W-C-T) – 705 votes Ele Laker (W-C-T) – 652 votes Eddie Gaines – 585 votes Patrick Boyle (W-C-T) – 492 votes Martin Keane (W-C-T) – 487 votes Ruth Irvine (W-C-T) – 481 votes Julie Mitchell (W-C-T) – 474 votes Pauline McNichol (W-C-T) – 473 votes Cath Irvine (W-C-T) – 470 votes Jon Burgess (W-C-T) – 451 votes Brian Collingridge – 339 votes Roger Wilson – 313 votes Peter Berman – 305 votes Bryn Wilson – 283 votes Fodo Higginson – 275 votes Adrian Woollaston – 274 votes
Stephen Shopland – 269 votes
Tim Parker – 237 votes
Alison Woollaston – 234 votes
Martin Rook – 187 votes
Jill Berntsson – 177 votes