Wednesday, 16 September 2020

South Somerset Votes for a Stronger Somerset

 




In the wake of last week’s decision at South Somerset’s virtual full council meeting at which 38 of the 51 councillors present voted in favour of the Stronger Somerset business case put forward by the four district councils, I have been reflecting on the debate that took place.

Although the proposal was presented to us as a joint proposal from all four district councils, it is clear that South Somerset was very much in the driving seat. Given the short timescale involved, we should all be grateful that at least one local authority took the initiative.

Whilst across the districts the figure of 84% of councillors voting to support the proposal may well be true, in South Somerset it was just under 75%, and we must not forget that 9 out of 60 councillors chose not to attend the meeting, admittedly several due to ill health. All political parties did not express approval for a Stronger Somerset. In South Somerset, all Conservative councillors voted against. Apparently, the proposal is also receiving the backing of residents, but no evidence of this, or community engagement, was provided.

In putting people, businesses, and the environment first, whilst investing in Somerset, and remaining close to our communities is something to be applauded, in this ‘high level business case’ there was a palpable lack of specifics. If the proposal is actually the result of ‘extensive research and expert advice’, where was the evidence to demonstrate this?

When the named vote was taken, I was concerned that during the course of the meeting, which lasted for almost 90 minutes, at least 5 councillors seemed to be absent for part of the debate. I have always felt that if a person is not present for the entire proceedings then they should abstain from voting.

Although present at the meeting myself, it is not always easy to take in the full measure of an event when actively involved in proceedings. Now that we are all using technology to replace face-to-face meetings, I welcomed the opportunity to take advantage of viewing the Youtube video in full afterwards.

As much as we may want to re-assure the electorate that politics does not come into play when discussing the future of local government in Somerset, and whilst I do agree that we all want the best possible outcomes for those we represent, political divisions were very much present at the meeting.

At least we all agreed on two things; that in both cases there was a lack of detail and substance in the two business cases presented to us in recent weeks, and that there is a need for change. What has come into play is deciding exactly what form any change should take. Where many of my fellow South Somerset colleagues had, at the beginning of this year, been adamant that pursuing the case for a unitary authority was not the way forward, it was heartening to hear one key member state at this meeting that ‘a unitary authority, whether one or two, is one of only two practical solutions’. Even if this paucity of choice has been forced upon us by central government.

If part of the reasoning is that a one unitary authority is far too large, then there was little mention of why a north/south split of the county was considered unviable when compared with the east/west proposal put before us. Perhaps it was because that to suggest the main route for business and social travel for South Somerset was along the A37 towards Bath is nonsense. I have been travelling that route three times a week for the last 2 years, and it is a nightmare.

Whilst promising the delivery of this ‘bold new plan’, and real change in the way that services are provided for residents and businesses across Somerset, what it seems we will end up with is two councils and three other bodies, all with associated administrative costs. If that is the case, surely we may as well retain the status quo.

Much has been made of the ‘democratic deficit’ should the choice be for one single unitary authority. As I argued at the time, is not about geography but how actively engaged one’s political representatives are. Figures bandied around concerning population numbers seem to have become confused. Although the population of Somerset is around 560,000, the electorate is just 430,000, which I assume is where the figure of 100 councillors each representing 4,300 people comes from. The argument that this is too many flies in the face of the large number of councillors who are not only elected at district level but also serve as county councillors. By and large they seem to manage OK whilst at present representing on average over 7,000 electors, so even if the higher figure were taken, representation would still be significantly better than at present.

What disappointed me most was the paucity of the debate that took place. When any proposal is put forward, we should all expect there to be robust challenge and enquiry to ensure the right outcome. Last Thursday evening just 14 out of the total of 51 councillors present chose to take an active part. Of these, we were treated to repeat performances from some, which is to be expected; we all like the sound of our own voices from time to time. I counted what can only be described as statements, from just 7 councillors, all in favour. Even so, I would have expected there to be some effort at seeking clarification of some points produced in the 100+ page document. It was left to seven of us opposed to the proposal to ask a total of 12 questions. With such a lack of engagement, I worry that we are not truly serving our democratic purpose.

Monday, 14 September 2020

WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE!

 


Anyone who knows me will confirm that I have a mouth like a sewer. In my defence, as a council flat kid, from a single parent family, I actually learnt to swear like a trooper as a scholarship child at public school. 

Like everyone else, the pandemic has meant having to come to terms with the challenges that the ‘new norm’ poses, and our increased use of technology to communicate, has meant that we all need to be more cautious about our behaviour. Every now and again I express my views in ways that I appreciate may cause offence to others, for which I absolutely apologise.  

At this week’s SSDC full council meeting we were debating one of the most important issues we are likely to be facing for many years to come, the future of local government in Somerset. This is something that, contrary to what others may wish to believe, I take very seriously indeed. However, being away from home and having interrupted a holiday to partake in the meeting, one of many this week, I was forced to attend whilst in the company of others. Observant members noticed that at times during the meeting I was seen to be speaking to a third party. Quite true, as I was being pestered with questions whilst trying to pay attention to the proceedings. Finally, exasperated by the continual interruption I responded to one question in frustration, saying ‘I don’t give a f**k’. As soon became apparent by the shocked faces of some of my fellow councillors, the sound had not been muted, and the comment was widely broadcast.  

This is of course unacceptable but, in my defence, I was most certainly not referring to the content of the meeting. Whilst one cannot take back something that has been said or done, and whilst I have no desire to cause offence, I would argue that over my many years as a councillor I have seen other elected members behave equally badly, showing open contempt towards the public they represent, frequently sitting in full view whilst doing crosswords and sudoku, dozing off, accessing their private text messages and emails, as well as eating and drinking.  

Anyone viewing the Youtube video of SSDC’s meeting will observe that I was fully engaged, more so I would suggest that some others who whilst being present in body failed to actively participate, challenge and question the important issues we were faced with. Yes, I have a foul mouth, but I pay my taxes on time, have never abused anyone, threatened physical violence or been accused of dodgy business deals. Those who are eager to throw stones need to take heed of the proverb relating to glass houses.  

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

ONE SOMERSET OR A STRONGER SOMERSET?

As part of the ongoing debate in relation to the Future of Local Government in Somerset, the release of the business case prepared on behalf of the four district councils this last week has, as might be expected, been the cause of much interest. 

With few other commitments over the bank holiday weekend, I settled down to review the 103-page document.  

Having now fully considered this latest ‘business case’, with South Somerset being the lead authority for the district argument, I have been left with a strong sense of foreboding.  

Whatever one’s views on whether Somerset should become a one or two unitary authority, all of us involved with local government pretty much agree on two things. Firstly, there are five keys areas within the county where we do not perform as well as others, and secondly, if we wish for the lives of those who choose to live here to improve, then things must change. All that is understood. However, what there is not, anywhere in this documentation, is an acknowledgment that the districts are as much responsible for where we find ourselves economically and socially as the County Council.  

At the SSDC full council meeting in Feb. the option of a unitary was dismissed out of hand, with a focus on ‘collaboration and cooperation’ being the preferred option. I argued then that there has been plenty of opportunity for our local authorities to work together, but each, continue working with their own ‘silo’ mentality. 

For me, what is so evident in this current piece of documentation is its total lack of professionalism. Notwithstanding the tight timescale to produce it, it has clearly not been proof-read. The language used is often cumbersome, and full of ‘buzz’ words. In addition to the considerable amount of repetition, taking up as much as one third of the entire document, the number of errors littered throughout its glossy pages (typographically, grammatically, in sentence structure, omissions and spelling mistakes) are truly shocking. One of the most shameful sentences refers to the Heart of the South West Local Economic Partnership; it is actually Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership. This is a basic schoolboy error. 

Such a poorly produced document concerning something so important can leave us with little faith in those purporting to bring about the necessary changes to ‘level up’ our county.  

What I want to know is who hired P A Consulting Ltd., and how much of our tax-payers money were they paid to produce something that to put it kindly, is so amateurish. 

Communities are promised ‘greater power and control devolved to local people’. Not if the current planning reforms at SSDC are anything to go by, where it is now almost impossible to contact a planning officer direct, and those without internet access are left behind. Amongst local residents, there is a real fear about proposals to give more power to parish and town councils they will be expected to take on more responsibility, but with little expectation of any additional funding.    

Much is made of ensuring that services provided by local government remain ‘modern, responsive, efficient, close, accessible and accountable to people’. Ask any one of those I am contacted by on a weekly basis and they will refute this robustly.  

In the options given, ‘C’ is listed as ‘Stronger Somerset’, whilst Option ‘D’ states ‘county unitary’, rather than One Somerset, clearly implying a county takeover bid.  

Much is made of transforming the way we work, but few of us will forget the failures of South Somerset‘s transformation programme, or the complete disaster that incurred when West Somerset and Taunton Deane merged.  

Both Glastonbury Festival and Bridgwater Carnival are mentioned several times. Whilst yes, they are key attractions, these are just once a year events, not forming part of the day-to-day lives of the vast majority of us.  

Likewise, the success of Hinkley Point is cited. All very exciting for the economy, until further on in the document it is blamed for the rise in house prices in that area. 

When it comes to the funding of two unitary authorities, rather than one, the cost of setting up two is said to be ‘marginally’ more costly, but little consideration is given to the ongoing costs of running two authorities. 

Our ageing population also comes in for some stick. There are just too many of us down here, and we live too long. We are not economically active, push house prices up, and are a drain on health services, so we can expect ‘prevention interventions’ to be put in place to keep us healthy and out of hospital. Perhaps euthanasia will help? 

In Somerset we have a ‘very low comparative council tax base’ when compared with areas such as Surrey (hardly a fair comparison). One reason given for this is the six years of council tax freeze; for which read, an increase in council tax in the near future. 

Forget rural tranquillity. Despite our crowded roads, it is pointed out several times that our population density is too low when compared with other parts of the country. However, we can be rest assured that communities will be involved in designing and delivering services that are tailored to local needs. Try telling that to the those I represent.  

In assessing options against critical success factors (3.4) building on a ‘track record of commercial investment’ forms the approach to improving housing and economic prosperity. Whilst I cannot speak for the other districts, SSDCs track record in this respect is hardly something to be proud of. 

Under the Quality Assessment Summary (3.5) the scoring mechanism used is scaled from low= 3; medium = 5; high = 10. Why then are scores of 5 given a ‘high’ on the critical success factor scale? This lack of attention to detail is worrying.  

Overall, although this document, with its jazzy coloured charts, may look impressive on the surface, in making such an important decision in relation to the future shape of our county and its governance, we must all learn to read between the lines and challenge what we are being told.  

Not once is there anything about ‘how’ any of these reforms may be achieved.  

The proverb ‘fine words butter no parsnips’ readily springs to mind. 

Friday, 10 July 2020

Unitary, to be, or not to be, that is the question



In the wake of the Coronavirus, coming to terms with the ‘new norm’ and rebuilding our communities, the topic gripping Somerset residents is the Future of Local Government. Whilst everyone agrees that things must change, recent press indicates that the battle lines are drawn, each side mustering support. Somerset County Council is plugging its business case for a ‘Unitary’ authority, whilst the four district councils are firmly against the proposal, keen to get their oar in first. The joint statement issued by the district councils makes their position crystal clear; they do not support the ‘One Somerset’ proposal.

Work that was commissioned concluded that a single council for Somerset is the wrong solution, but I remain unclear about what the rationale for this is, or how much taxpayers’ money was spent on the work undertaken.

In making up our own minds we must question the views and opinions aired, teasing out any hidden agendas.

The districts maintain that their focus has been on supporting communities, with SCC relentlessly pushing ahead with the Unitary agenda. As both a district and councillor, I believe that to suggest that SCC’s focus has been diverted from handling the Coronavirus is disingenuous.

For some time, central government funding for local authorities has declined significantly, whilst demand for services has increased, not helped by the reluctance of all parties to increase taxes to pay for appropriate service levels. We cannot have it both ways.

Both SCC and the district councils have undergone ‘transformation’ in recent years, maintaining that whilst achieving financial stability, services have been protected; many local communities would disagree.

Moving forward, everyone broadly agrees on the challenges Somerset faces: poverty, poor social mobility, older people in poor health, climate change, homelessness, lack of affordable housing, economic productivity, skills and wage levels.

South Somerset’s preferred option is ‘collaboration and integration’, but what has there been to prevent this happening anyway?

A Unitary will mean fewer elected members; perhaps there is a protectionist element from those opposing it.  

There is little hard evidence of anything coming forward from the districts’ alternative proposal for a ‘better future’ for Somerset. I look forward to seeing details of why this will be the best option, focusing on what local communities want and need.

Both sides highlight that their preferred option is not about cost saving. We would be na├»ve to buy into this notion; the first point on the district slide headed what ‘the alternative looks like’ is ‘reduce cost’.

There is also significant use of buzz words, ‘improvement’, ‘quality of life’, ‘positive change’; easy to state, but we need evidence to back up these assertions.

SCC are due to present their business case this month. Whatever is decided, we must robustly challenge to obtain the best outcome for Somerset, where other Unitaries have succeeded, and failed.
Meanwhile, the jury remains out, as we juggle this political hot potato.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

‘ALL FOR ONE, ONE FOR ALL’



In recent weeks I have had cause to give consideration to this quote from the 19thC novel by Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers; a group of chivalrous swordsmen who fight for justice. It seems that locally elected representatives have a lot in common with them.

The quote means that ‘each individual should act for the benefit of the group, and the group should act for the benefit of each individual’. All very interesting when it comes to local politics.

According to the Local Government Association ‘a councillor's primary role (their underlining, not mine) is to represent their ward or division and the people who live in it. Councillors provide a bridge between the community and the council, being an advocate for local residents, signposting them to the right people and keeping them informed about issues that affect them’

This is a view I share, but not one universally acknowledged by a number of my fellow councillors. Somerset is a largely rural county and we are fortunate in that many people, often of retirement age, choose to re-locate here. The impact of this can be a double-edge sword (Musketeers analogy?!). There are those, often with income at their disposal, who are perceived to be ‘taking over’, causing resentment amongst those born and bred in the area. Then, particularly when it comes to planning, there is the NIMBY (not in my back yard) syndrome; which frustrates the hell out of developers, and sometime planning officers. We live in a constantly changing environment and having invested money, time and emotional energy in your dream home it must be really angry-making to find development encroaching on the idyllic lifestyle you dreamed of. This is a view I can sympathise with on some levels; the NIMBY refrain is persistent but in reality most people just want to have their views and opinions considered, even if the outcome is not always desirable. All this aside, significant research has shown that where we live does have a huge impact on our mental well-being. For those making a conscious decision to seek a rural environment I can see why they would want to protect it, finding it distressing to discover that a housing estate is about to be built on their doorstep.

South Somerset are currently reviewing their planning process, which everyone agrees is long overdue. Local councillors are involved in the reform that is taking place, but it concerns me that some hold the view that ‘parish and town councils have to adjust to the district council’s way of working, and learn to vote with their heads instead of their hearts’. It will be interesting, come election time, if the electorate do indeed vote with their heads instead of their hearts. I stand by the view that I have been elected, in the face of increasing bureaucracy, to represent the local community.

Where we live IS an emotional issue; can it be so wrong for an Englishman to consider his home his castle?

Monday, 6 July 2020

GIVING FOR A SPECIFIC CAUSE





The gifts given to Nyumbani come in many forms: from donations of cash and funding pledges to school supplies for the children. Sometimes visitors who have been to Kenya see a need while there that inspires them to go back home and use their connections and fundraising abilities to fulfil that need.

For Linda Vijeh, a Rotarian and county councillor from Ilminster, UK, the need was milk. After six months of fundraising events such as dinners, quizzes, wine tastings and more, Linda and her supporters raised £1,000 (over $1,200) to buy a cow for the Nyumbani Village.

“When I contribute to causes, I prefer to find a specific project, which gives charitable efforts a better focus. It helps with fundraising because people are more willing to give if they feel there is something tangible as a result,” Linda explains. She should know because she’s involved with many different causes.

In the case of Nyumbani, “Protus (Nyumbani Home’s general manager) was able to give me an idea how much a cow would cost so I had a fundraising target. I have always thought that doing something practical is better than just a handout,” she explains.

Linda’s idea to purchase a cow sprang from a visit she took to Kenya several years ago with 14 other Rotarians who raised funds for Nyumbani and spent two weeks painting, decorating and doing maintenance work at the Home and the Village.

“Although I enjoyed the experience and felt what we were doing was worthwhile, I also began to feel we were a bunch of wealthy westerners turning up long enough to do a few things, then leaving. I wanted to do something more tangible to continue my support,” she says.

Inspired by the Village’s goal of sustainability and the children’s constant need for milk, she went back home determined to fulfill that need.

Although she raised the money in six months, it took another frustrating two-and-a-half years to cut through the red tape and other challenges in making the gift a reality. But in the end, not only did she get proof (a photo) that her gift had finally found its new home, she learned of an added bonus: the cow that arrived was pregnant. According to Protus, mother (name Baraka) and child (named Linda) are thriving, and the mother is providing a good supply of milk to support families in the village.

“That’s mostly certainly a gift from God,” the baby’s namesake says.



**Article to be published in Autumn 2020**

News on Nyumbani

Monday, 29 June 2020

IS INTEGRITY IN POLITICS DEAD?





Whilst I do not always get it right, as a locally elected councillor since 2003, I like to think that one of the reasons I enjoy such strong support is that I always aim to be seen as someone who is objective, unbiased and fair; my continued Chairmanship of a number of committees bears this out.

When holding public office, it is always wise to sound people out, and I conduct opinion surveys regularly. Some years ago, I asked 100 random people, who knew me in a variety of contexts, to describe me in three words. To my surprise, and delight, the word that occurred most frequently was ‘loyal’; my own solicitor also described me as incorruptible, a description that I hold dear.

Those holding public office are required to adhere to the seven Nolan Principles of public life, of which integrity is perhaps the most important; the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.

Politically we have been through pretty turbulent times recently, and there are many, having witnessed the behaviour of our elected leaders, who would assert that integrity is dead.

On occasion it would be hard to argue against this view. At both national and local level, we observe the constant jockeying for political position almost daily. Handling the impact of the Coronavirus has rightly been at the top of everyone’s agenda, with all sides keen to blame others for any failures, and to take credit for positive achievements. I find this behaviour distasteful, and it certainly puts the integrity of our leaders into doubt.

There are few who would contradict the view that the high level of honesty and truthfulness demanded by integrity is paramount to the success of any organisation. A lack of integrity may achieve short term gains for a few, but in the long term the truth will always surface. Organisational company culture can only be strong if a high level of integrity exists, which must come from the top. Integrity is not about why someone acts in a certain way, but about who they are.

Politically, to serve the electorate well, it is important that politicians have the power to make, carry out and control policy, by influencing others where necessary. There is the risk though that politicians will use this power to serve their own political ends, rather than for the benefit of the wider society. To resist the temptation to behave this way requires integrity, which demands knowledge and compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the law. Integrity also entails acting consistently, not just in the moral sense but also in terms of what is deemed to be ethical, and to be seen as such.

The tenet on which I base my entire life is to do the right thing, in the right place, in the right way, at the right time, for the right reasons, for the right people. Can the same be said of our leaders?