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.
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.
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 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.
* UPDATE (9 Dec 2022): After raising and pursuing the issue, I have been informed the parish grants will continue in 2023/24 and have passed on the good news to Upper Tone parishes.
** UPDATE (18 Jan 2023): LCN areas have been agreed by the Executive and differ from the three consultation options. The final areas reflect consultation findings and better align to how communities naturally align. All Upper Tone parishes are in a Wellington and Wiveliscombe LCN area, which includes Wellington and West Buckland.
*** UPDATE (10 Feb 2023): Proposals to switch waste collection vehicles to HVO biofuel were quietly dropped from the business plan at the Somerset Waste Board meeting on 10 Feb 2023, following my challenge to this at the previous meetings in September and December.