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.
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. Over £3 million was distributed in the Wiveliscombe and District ward. In addition, Council recovery funding was given to several local groups, including Wivey Pool, Wiveliscombe Area Partnership, Wivey Food Project and 10 Radio.
As mass vaccinations started in January 2021, we could start to see a way out. 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 have still been spreading and the threat of future variants remains.
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. 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.
Among councillor motions, unanimous support was given to declaring an ecological emergency and developing an action plan, which I proposed in September 2020.
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 good to see our climate and ecological emergency declarations having a significant influence on planning policy and development decisions. And Mark and I frequently aimed to ensure Wiveliscombe and area needs were noted too, including for recovery and community grants.
I raised concerns about a Council 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 now 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 projects 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 the investments when reorganisation to create 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 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 pollution and 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 has been 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 due to 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. I have been working with the Council to improve cleansing and weeding in Wiveliscombe town centre. There have been improvements and more work done, but I am still seeking a better long term plan. Others, including the Town Council, have been working to ensure the fingerposts and noticeboard are returned to The Square, both of which were knocked over in separate incidents.
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 in Wellington, new cycle paths and to bring life back to Tonedale and Toneworks.
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, so soon after recent reorganisation and as we emerge from a pandemic, seems badly timed to me; but it is the path we are now on, thanks to the Conservatives at the County Council and in Government.
As councillors, we need to contribute to making the transition as smooth and effective as possible, although it will divert attention from service planning and delivery. We will also need to try to reduce the risks of the large new council being too remote from our communities and understanding local needs, especially in rural areas.
We should also be on a path to recovery from the pandemic and returning to a new normal. Our Councils will need to contribute to this recovery and, at the same time, I believe should ensure we move steadily towards a green future.
Somerset Waste Partnership collection services are currently suffering from driver shortages (a national issue arising from Brexit and Covid), which has delayed some recycling collections and led to a 6-week suspension of garden waste collections until 13 September.
Plans to roll-out new Recycle More collections to our area are continuing and this service change is 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. Managing 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.