Somerset County Council – Partial Climbdown on Countryside Cuts

Environmental services inc countryside management & flooding received the fourth highest number of votes in the Council's poll for additional investment.

Environmental services inc countryside management & flooding received the fourth highest number of votes in the Council’s poll for additional investment.

Before the proposed changes, Somerset County Council’s Countryside Team comprised the following posts: –

• Team Manager
• Arboriculturalist
• Biodiversity Officer
• Project Officer
• Ecologist
• Part-time project officer
• Works team comprising 3 staff

In January, the Team Manager, Biodiversity Officer, Project Officer, Ecologist and the Works Team were all told that they were being made redundant on varying timescales. In the last week, the Biodiversity Officer and Project Officer have been told that their redundancy notices had been a ‘mistake’. This would be hilarious if it were not for the sad fact that the Project Officer had decided to take a job elsewhere having been told that she was being made redundant. The Ecologist has now been told that he is also to stay because a belated attempt has been made to charge his fees to the District Councils – and while some of them have agreed, there is no guarantee that this arrangement will endure for longer than a year. So, some partial success in retaining parts of the Countryside Team, which had been scheduled for complete abolition. But what a way to treat people. I have never in 20 years of business and local authority experience heard of staff being ‘accidentally’ notified of redundancy. It appears that Somerset County Council is staggeringly incompetent, which given recent performance, isn’t hard to accept. It further appears that they are trying to cover up this incompetence by pretending to bow to public pressure from me, the public, wildlife organisations and the Independent on Sunday.

In addition to the scrapping of Countryside Services it is also planned to make redundant a flood and water officer. Brilliant timing after the 6 years of wet weather we have experienced and the recent mega-floods. But what’s worse is that my research indicates that this officer has been responsible for bringing over £7m of external funding into Somerset. This money has created jobs and delivered countless environmental improvements. Whether you agree with spending in this area or not, that funding is out there and if we don’t take it, Kent, Cornwall, Romania or wherever else will. In those circumstances I’m pretty clear that I’d rather the money was spent in Somerset. This officer has recently won new project funding for Somerset that brings £1.35m in to Somerset over 2 and a half years. If this post goes, it is not clear how the project will be delivered and the funds could be withdrawn. If this occurs, the reputation of Somerset County Council could be so damaged that it would be barred from accessing all such funding in future. Only someone with staggeringly little understanding of the situation would propose such a person for the chop. I don’t work at SCC, yet a few minutes online research makes all this clear to anyone prepared to look. The senior officers and/or members that proposed these cuts appear clueless about the facts.

Whether the reversed cuts will enable the continuation of a Countryside Team appears unlikely given that the Team Leader is still scheduled for redundancy, the Project Officer has, not surprisingly, decided to leave and the Biodiversity Officer and the Works Team remain scheduled for the axe in 2014/15.

What is most surprising about this whole episode is that just a few weeks ago Council Leader Osman was trumpeting the results of the recent questionnaire asking where the public wanted to see more funding. The fourth highest option picked by the public was environmental management including countryside services. Given that Osman has repeatedly invited us to believe that he listens to what we say, in an attempt to put clear water between him and his deeply unpopular predecessor Ken Maddock, it is bizarre that having asked us what we want, he does the complete opposite. Come on John, show us you’re listening and reverse the rest of the proposed cuts to the Countryside Team.

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