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.
A Review of the Year
For our ward over the last year, I have shared information on improving local broadband and objected to a luxury shooting lodge with helipad, which has been built, without the correct planning permission, just outside Wiveliscombe. I helped with many local issues raised with me, with the most common being on planning. I arranged for old litter bins to be replaced in The Square, asked for problems with public open spaces at Nordens Meadow and Willows Mead to be addressed, and have worked with others on seeking to install electric vehicle charging points in Croft Way car park. I attended parish council meetings and Mark and I organised two joint meetings for parish councils.
The new district council for Somerset West and Taunton (SWT), has been formed from merging Taunton Deane and West Somerset Councils. After last May’s elections, all councillors received initial training, iPads for meeting papers and email, and have continued to receive briefings on a wide range of topics from flood protection to street pastors.
Accompanying the merger, the Councils undertook a transformation programme to completely change the staff structure. The latter has had the greatest impact, as it was accompanied by the offer of voluntary redundancy for all staff and shedding over 20% of the councils’ officers. The programme did not go well, has not yet delivered the forecast savings and the new council structure and services are still to stabilise.
There are 30% less Councillors for the new authority, reduced from 84 to 59. The new Wiveliscombe and District ward has added 6 parishes to the previous Wiveliscombe and West Deane ward, and now covers the town and 10 neighbouring parishes.
The political make-up for the council is also new, with the Liberal Democrats (now 32 Councillors) forming the new administration and Executive. Mark and I are in the second largest group, consisting of 13 Independent Councillors and 2 Greens (Andy Pritchard and myself). The Leader of our Group is Gwil Wren, who represents Milverton and District. Within the group, I am Shadow Portfolio Holder for Climate Change, which allows me to attend additional officer briefings.
I have one of our group’s seats on the Scrutiny Committee, which considers issues before decisions are made and can review public services. Since May 2019, subjects for reports have included: the Local Plan, the Firepool development in Taunton, climate change strategy, Watchet harbour, financial strategy and budget, voluntary and community sector grants including support for Citizens Advice Bureaus, homelessness and rough sleeping, and car parking charges.
I am one of the Council’s two representatives on Somerset Waste Board, where the biggest issue has been preparing for new Recycle More collections. These will add plastic pots, tubs and trays, cartons, small electrical appliances and batteries to weekly recycling collections and change refuse collections to every three weeks. A new contractor, Suez, takes over from Kier in April 2020, and the new collections will start to be rolled out across all Somerset districts from June. The Wiveliscombe area will be in the third phase from June 2021.
Before retiring, I managed the Recycle More project for Somerset Waste Partnership, including the successful trials in Wivey in 2014. As a board member, I support the continued development of services to reduce, reuse and recycle. I also wish to ensure some challenging issues are kept under review for future progress, including: heat offtake for the new energy for waste plant taking Somerset’s household refuse, the use of electric powered collection vehicles and the introduction of more Reuse Shops.
Climate Change and Other Priorities
Climate change has been high on the agenda for the new council and featured in most new strategies and plans since last May, which includes the Corporate Strategy, Local Plan Issues and Options, and the Garden Town Vision and Design Guides. All of these have been adopted at Full Council meetings. Other decision reports have included Firepool, declaring a Frack-Free Zone, small council housing developments, Coal Orchard development in Taunton, Council Tax Support, Commercial Investment Strategy, Taunton bus station, car parking charges, and the budget and Council Tax for 2020/21. There have also been finance and portfolio holder reports.
Another major report to Scrutiny and Full Council has been on the Housing Business Plan. This includes a welcome new programme for council house building, although it will only be possible to afford an average of 33 per year, leading to a further 1,000 homes over 30 years. Another important part of the plan is retrofitting improved insulation and heating for the current stock of 5,700 council houses. This has proved a difficult issue and still requires further work. I have been advocating that an approach called Energiesprong is fully considered due to the potential benefits offered.
Working groups have been established with representatives from all parties to address climate change. There is a district group and a joint county-wide scrutiny task and finish group with two representatives from each council. I am on both groups. The county-wide group has meet monthly and focused on a producing a strategy, supported by officer workstreams. Final reports will be submitted to a separate portfolio holders group and a leaders and chief executives group. The district group has focused on a parallel plan and some actions, but has met irregularly and had a turnover in senior officer support.
I am trying to make the best of both working groups, but have been frustrated at some directions taken and the pace of progress. In particular, I wished to see a focus on identifying and implementing early actions and taking longer on producing plans and strategies. Instead, there have been few actions so far and plan production has often felt rushed. I also believe it would assist to use national strategies, such as Net Zero and Zero Carbon Britain, to provide guides on where we need to aim, which I suggested from the start.
Nevertheless, progress is being made on plan and strategy development and I remain hopeful the work put in by all involved will prove worthwhile. I have contributed many specific suggestions and aim to ensure we keep in mind where we need to be heading, as well as thinking about practical steps we can take towards outcomes needed.
Confidential Reports and Council Investment Strategy
At SWT, a number of reports to Council meetings are confidential, which means the press and public are excluded when they are debated. I accept the need for confidentiality and respect it, but also feel that more is kept confidential than should or needs to be. One example was a new Commercial Investment Strategy that was considered in confidential session on 17th December 2019 (item 93), and followed from theme 4 in the Corporate Strategy.
In a subsequent public report to Full Council on 19th February 2020, the new strategy was outlined as follows: “The Council invests in a diverse investment property portfolio both locally and nationally with the intention of generating surplus income that will be spent on local public services delivered within the district. This is an essential response to significant reductions in government funding over recent years, in order to meet service delivery objectives and the place making role of the Council, and avoid service cuts. The council plans to increase its investment by up to £100m over the next 2-3 years.” (para 5.1 of Investment Strategy – also see Section 8 of Capital Strategy)
Like other councillors, I have reservations about the investment strategy, not least the chase for profit and risks involved. Due to the lack of scrutiny and lack of clarity on some issues, I did not vote to support this strategy, but accept it may be necessary to avoid service cuts. However, the root cause to address is the severe cutbacks in government funding to local authorities.
We will see what the following year brings, but issues I expect to focus on at SWT include:
- Climate emergency plans for SWT and Somerset and moving both forward with worthwhile actions.
- Energiesprong (see above) – ensuring this is fully considered and the best options adopted to retrofit council homes so they have the potential to be as close as possible to zero carbon.
For the ward, the following are likely to be on-going issues to address:
- Broadband – seeing how the Technological network progresses at Skilgate and beyond, and if any other realistic cable options emerge, including from Connecting Devon and Somerset.
- Wiveliscombe shooting lodge and helipad – can it be stopped by the planning system or, at least, the worst aspects of its use controlled.
- Infrastructure – I will look out for opportunities to improve the town’s infrstructure, especially using funding from new housing built in Wiveliscombe.
Parking may emerge as a greater issue for the town and new solutions may be needed.
It would be great if something can be done to improve the design of new buildings planned for Kingsmead School, so they are energy-efficient and generate more renewable power.
The debate on the future of local government in Somerset seems certain to grow. There are good efficiency arguments in favour of unitary authorities, but replacing the County and District Councils would be disruptive and has dangers. Decision-making could become more remote and centralised, and the lack of government funding for high-spending social care could add to cuts in other service areas. Currently, I feel co-operation and joint working between Somerset authorities should continue and that this should move to establishing new unitary authorities based on district boundaries, with on-going joint working across the county for some services, such as waste, highways, education and social care.
Finally, for my review of the year, I wish to pay tribute to Patricia Robertson, who sadly and unexpectedly died a week after last May’s elections. Patricia was a big supporter of my work as a councillor and passionate about green issues. As Chair and Secretary, we had helped run the Wivey Action on Climate group for several years. Patricia was a friend to many in the area and a big loss. Some of us only recognised how much after she had gone. Patricia joined me at the election counts in both 2018 and 2019. I am pleased she was smiling alongside me in the by-election photo from 2018. After we had a chat and a drink in The Bear, both slightly amazed and very pleased at the victory. Thank you Patricia for your support, for being a good friend and for being so kind-hearted and wise.