Somerset to Become the First Rural County with NO Countryside Service

SCC Logo“We will protect our unique environment” is the proud boast of Somerset County Council Leader John Osman in the County Plan. But as with so much from Mr Osman in his short tenure as Leader, the words do not match the action. In the latest example of environmental vandalism, Somerset County Council is proposing to become the first rural county in England with no Countryside Service. Plans before the Council propose the total abolition of the much-respected Countryside Service, which is already tiny compared with many other Counties. Hampshire considers that its countryside warrants the protection afforded by 120 staff, Dorset has 60 and Devon 31. But John Osman thinks he can protect our unique environment with precisely ZERO countryside staff. How on earth does he propose to do this? Following hard on the heels of the ideologically-driven give-away of land on the Quantocks, I think the only conclusion that the public can sensibly draw is that Osman and Co don’t give a toss about the beautiful Somerset countryside and that the County Plan is just a load of old flannel. What’s most disappointing is that many of us have grown up with the impression that the Conservative Party are the natural protectors of our green and pleasant land. But the continued failure of the national economic strategy to deliver the growth required to cut the deficit and reverse the ballooning national debt seems to be leading to a development free-for-all. We’ve seen the planning rulebook torn up, the imposition of huge numbers of planned new homes on communities and and now the loss of all the staff that have worked hard to conserve our natural environment in Somerset. That hard-won reputation as the defender of the countryside is now entirely lost to the Conservative Party.

We all understand that Somerset County Council budgets have been cut by central government but rather than just rolling over like a compliant puppy, how about pushing back and explaining that the Council cannot provide a meaningful service on the basis of the existing funding formula? Even the shambolic Conservative group at Cornwall Council have started doing this, why not Somerset? There is no fight in Osman and Co. They are fond of telling you of the advantages of voting in an administration of the same colour as the national Government. We hear things like “We have a direct line to Government. I know David Cameron, etc” While we might think this gets them special access, the reverse appears to be the case. Because they don’t want to rock the boat with the national party (no party advancement in doing that), they just suck up whatever awful financial settlement is tossed their way, without complaint and we, the residents, just have to accept whatever poor service they then offer us. Time to say ‘Enough’ and elect new Councillors who will stand up for Somerset and the ‘unique environment’ that Osman and Co clearly care so little for. I will be one such Councillor. Help me make it happen in May.

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9 Responses to Somerset to Become the First Rural County with NO Countryside Service

  1. We can emphatically say that we will continue to protect our unique Somerset environment through a dedicated countryside service, albeit a smaller team. Our recent budget announcement made it clear we are facing a £20million budget gap and every service the County Council provides is undergoing review. In light of this, the Countryside team has been restructured and streamlined. If budget proposals are accepted in February’s Full Council, 15 posts will remain within the team working on countryside issues.

  2. Mike Rigby says:

    Thanks for your response. Can you explain where the ‘Countryside Team’ will be located following its ‘restructuring and streamlining’? Does the figures of 15 posts include the AONB teams and Rights of Way functions? I look forward to receiving your clarifications.

  3. Simon Clifford says:

    Hi Mike, I can’t check on the team location you’re asking for, I’m assuming you mean within the organisation. As no decision on the budget has been made yet, they will remain where they currently are, and the budget paper does say with the loss of the management post that the remaining staff will have to be line managed in a different way.
    As to who is in the various teams, yes, of course AONB staff are included, I think most people would regard them as directly working on countryside issues. No, it does not include rights of way team members though.

    Hope that helps with your questions,

    Best

    Simon

  4. Mike Rigby says:

    Thanks Simon. Alas, this is typical of this administration. You absolutely cannot include the AONB teams in your claims to be providing a countryside service for two very good reasons. First, they cover only two small areas of the County and second (and perhaps most important) the budget proposes that the County Council ceases all funding of the AONB teams so they will be nothing to do with the County Council. So now we’ve removed those 8 from the 15 that you quote, we are left with 7. Please can you describe the job titles/functions of these 7 posts so that we can be sure that these are real County Council jobs and not ‘virtual co-optees’ like the AONB teams. There are currently only 8 in the Countryside Team. I understand from the papers that all or most of these are to be made redundant so how do you get to a figure of 7?

  5. Simon Clifford says:

    Sorry Mike, But I’m assured you are wrong on this. I’ve spoken to the manager in this area and there is no budget saving for AONB staffing in the papers. AONB staff remain on the SCC payroll. Not sure where you got this info but drop me a line on Mon and I’ll get the other points answered.

    Simon

  6. Mike Rigby says:

    Simon, As you will be aware, the AONB staff are 75% funded by central government. The remaining 25% is contributed from a variety of sources including some Districts and has, until now, included Somerset County Council. Para 13.307 of Appendix I of the MTFP paper going to next week’s Scrutiny Committee suggests that SCC is seeking to make all AONB costs rechargeable, i.e. that SCC is going to stop contributing to the AONB service. If this is not the case, someone needs to learn how to write more clearly. Regardless, while the AONB staff may technically be on SCC’s payroll, the funding comes almost entirely from elsewhere so it is simply not credible to describe these 8 staff as SCC employees. Is it?

  7. Barry James says:

    Mike,

    At the moment no decisions have been made and won’t be until our February Full Council. There are still discussions underway which will affect the final proposals and these will be published as soon as possible.

    We can however confirm that Somerset County Council will retain a budget in excess of £1.6m in this area, including specialist officers and others in rights of way, the AONBs and planning. Overall this does mean a reduction of around £340,000 as the Council faces up to a significant reduction in funding and an increase in demand for our services, particularly in care for the elderly and protecting vulnerable children.

    With reference to AONB: most, if not all, AONBs have to cover the cost of being hosted by a local authority in some way. Currently SCC charges £3000 to each AONB but this does not in any way reflect the full cost of hosting the service, hence the proposed increase. The County Council is not reducing its financial contribution to the valuable work the AONBs do (for the Quantocks this amounts to £21,500 and Mendip Hills £17,500) but is merely seeking to cover our costs. You are correct that the AONB teams work in certain areas (although there is a great deal of work that goes on jointly between them), and that SCC do not pay for them entirely, however the fact remains that they undertake countryside-related work on behalf of the County Council and other partners.

    Barry

  8. Mike Rigby says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Barry but it’s no good trying to ‘big up’ what is left as a ‘Countryside Team’. The proposal is to abolish the Countryside Team. Rights of Way and Planning are not The Countryside Team; they perform statutory functions mandated by various Acts of Parliament and it really is disingenuous to count the AONB staff, when the County Council pays such a tiny amount towards them and, as you concede, they do not cover all of Somerset. In fact the Mendip and Quantock AONB teams cover just 7% of the County of Somerset, leaving the remaining 93% of Somerset with little or no Countryside Service. If the Council is happy about this outcome, it should not be necessary for them to attempt to ‘hide’ the plan by offering up the planning and rights of way teams and AONB teams as being able to continue providing the service that you are abolishing. They will not.

  9. Clare Watts says:

    I am horrified that Somerset is proposing to do away with the environment aspect of local government. This is a really backward step, especially form a county that has been at the forefront of recycling, etc including green energy. how about a petition for people to sign on the internet?

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