Listen to my interview last week on Tone FM
Listen to my interview last week on Tone FM
Snuck out, just before Christmas, was the news that Somerset County Council is to receive £1m LESS than the already massively slashed level of Government funding that had been anticipated. Ever since being elected I have called repeatedly on the Conservative administration at SCC to mount a vigorous public campaign for equivalent Government funding to that received by our urban counterparts (see here for an example). Each time they have refused. They claim to believe that “private pressure” is a more successful means of bringing about fair funding for Somerset. Well the final nail was banged into that particular coffin with the news that not only did we fail to gain any sort of rebalancing at all, we actually got an even bigger cut than planned. Either the “private pressure” they claim never really happened or they’re just not very good at that either.
Before these funding decisions were made, 119 Council leaders from across England and the political spectrum wrote calling for an end to the savage cuts imposed by Government on council budgets. Yes, 119! But not Somerset’s John Osman. He waited until after the announcement had been made to make any public call for fair funding for Somerset. While I’m naturally pleased that he’s come round to my position on this, it’s deeply disappointing that he made no effort to mount a concerted public campaign BEFORE next year’s funding was announced. This is typical of how Somerset Conservatives have sold us down the river in recent years. The current crisis in Children’s Services is not gong to be fixed with yet more budget cuts. How are we going to deal with looking after vulnerable elderly people with a further £1m cut when we are already heading for a yearly shortfall of £8.5m in adult social care? I remain of the view that the Conservative administration is wedded to the ideology of creating a tiny council doing as little as possible, regardless of the impact on people. Not one of Somerset’s Conservative MPs voted against the funding package that disadvantages the county. But don’t think that the LibDems are any better; none of them voted against it either. Why not? Because party orders whip them into line like obedient pets. This is why we need a fresh approach – an independent MP for Taunton Deane, free to stand up for our interests and not hamstrung by extreme ideology and party orders.
For a decade now I’ve been fighting against the loss of pubs. I’ve objected to planning applications for conversion and drove the registration, as Assets of Community Value, of the two pubs in the village where I live. Pubs provide important social facilities in our communities and have endured a torrid time in recent years. A combination of cheap, supermarket booze, the smoking ban and the tightening of belts after the global financial crisis have led to a mass extinction of pubs over the last 10 years. The rate of closure is accelerating with almost 30 pubs now being lost each week. But perhaps the most dangerous threat to pubs has come, perversely, from their owners. Forty percent of the country’s pubs are owned by so-called Pub Companies or ‘pubcos’. In my view, this is something of a misnomer as they are in reality nothing more than property companies interested not in the pubs themselves but in the value of the buildings that they inhabit. For years, many pubcos have bled their tenants dry, with exorbitant rent increases and tied purchase, at excessive cost, of everything from beer to electricity. I can go to my local brewery and buy a barrel of beer at a lower price than the tenant of a tied pub. So much for economies of scale and their impact on buying power. Recently, a cross-party collection of MPs defeated the Government by legislating to cut some of the ties between the bigger pubcos and their tenants. The change gives 15,000 British pubs the chance to ask for an independently assessed market rent and allows them to buy beer on the open market rather than from their landlord at grossly-inflated prices. Continue reading “Defending Pubs” »
I am pleased to hear of the news that the A303 and A358 will be dualled along their entire length between London and Taunton. For many years from the late 90’s I travelled this corridor between Bishops Lydeard and Portsmouth 4 times a week. Half the time the journey was manageable and the other half it was awful, especially in the summer. A 2 hour journey could easily take 4 hours as I stop/started at each point where the dual carriage merged into one lane. Removal of these pinchpoints will improve trade, tourism and the lives of countless local people. I also think that bringing that traffic up a dualled A358 from Ilminster to the M5 at Taunton is the way to go rather than ploughing on through the Blackdown Hills AONB. So that’s me finished talking from a Westcountry perspective. As far as Taunton is concerned, the key will be to make sure that the already grossly-congested Junction 25 does not become even more overloaded than it already is. It acts as a block to further commercial and economic development in Taunton and that block must be removed. The design of the new junction of a dualled A358 and the M5 at Junction 25 will be crucial to the future success of our County town.
My only other slight reservation is that a major element of these plans, the Stonhenge Tunnel has been announced and not delivered 4 times already in the last 20 years, and each time promised in the run-up to a General Election. I’ll reserve my actual celebrations until the opening party…………..
The leaders of 119 English Councils have written a letter calling for an end to the savage cuts to council budgets imposed by central Government. The leaders, who cross the political spectrum with 65 Labour leaders, 40 Conservative and 10 Liberal Democrat, go on to say that English people will not accept the proposed Scottish devolution plans without an equal redistribution of power and funds in England.
The lengthy list of signatories is evidence of growing all-party resentment of the way that Council funding is set in Whitehall, with little understanding of local needs. The letter states, “There is compelling evidence that taking decisions closer to the people affected achieves better results and saves money.” Earlier this month, a poll commissioned by the BBC suggested some 80% of people in England supported having more powers devolved to local areas.
Now you’d expect Somerset County Council’s leader to support such an operation, wouldn’t you? After all he’s very fond of looking sad when he has to make his ‘difficult decisions’ and saying that he didn’t come into politics to make cuts. But, no. He failed to sign the letter. He has had plenty of opportunities to stand up for Somerset and demand fair funding – I have invited him to do so repeatedly – but each time, he behaves like an obedient child and doesn’t rock the party boat. If we needed any further evidence that John and his administration are one of the most ideologically-driven council administrations in the UK, then we need look no further than this Conservative failure to join their colleagues in calling for fair funding for Somerset. If John gets his way, Somerset County Council will ultimately comprise him, his cabinet and a few commissioners, meeting up in his front room every few years to let a number of outsourcing contracts. They are hell-bent on slashing services to the maximum extent regardless of the impacts on the people of Somerset and the damage that they are doing. The budgets for Somerset Children’s Services and Adult Social Care have both been shown to be inadequate and the failures laid bare for all to see. But they refuse every opportunity to publicly fight for fair funding. And let’s not forget that this is the same Conservative administration, in which Taunton Deane Conservative candidate Rebecca Pow has expressed her confidence. So much for sticking up for the electorate. Continue reading “119 Council Leaders Call for Proper Funding. But not Somerset’s John Osman.” »
After the previous meeting of Somerset County Council on 22 October, I wrote an open letter to John Osman pointing out that almost everything he said in his 8 minute statement about the post of Director of Children’s Services was untrue. You can read my letter here. John has sent me a reply in which he employs his usual tactic of failing to address the questions put to him and instead answers something completely different. You can read it here.. So to summarise, John Osman misled the Council by stating that Eric Pickles made his criticism of Somerset County Council without the full facts. That may or may not have been the case when Pickles spoke in the House of Commons but it is certainly not true when Pickles subsequently levelled the same criticism at SCC in the Sunday Times. John has no response at all on the fact that he misled the Council on the issue of insurance so I think we can take it that he accepts that. Also no comment regarding his silly criticism that Tessa Munt MP is not tabling a private member’s bill in The Commons to deal with pay arrangements for temporary council staff. She has not even been drawn in the ballot that decides which MPs can do that.
So, no apology from John and his Conservative buddies for presiding over such a shambles in Somerset’s Children’s Services or for misleading the Council about that shambles. And let’s not forget, these are the very people in whom prospective Conservative MP for Taunton Deane, Rebecca Pow, has recently expressed her confidence.
For some time now, I have been concerned about the management of Children’s Services in Somerset. The services we provide to children are some of the most important areas of responsibility for the County Council and it is worrying how poorly the service is performing. Since election in 2009, the Conservative administration has presided over a steady slide in performance from good to inadequate, where it remains. In that time, the County Council has parted company with 2 chief executives as well as Directors of Children’s Services at the rate of about 1 per year. Around a quarter of all Somerset’s social workers are temporary agency staff. In order to try and turn the situation around, the Council appointed, in April 2013, an interim Director costing the Council, over £400,000 per year, pro-rata. Peter Lewis was heralded as the saviour of the service but despite his appointment, the Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson, was so concerned that in November 2013 he issued an improvement notice, requiring that the Council drag up its performance in this area.
Following a slew of further inadequate ratings* this autumn, Mr Timpson is clearly not impressed by the rate of improvement and has summoned the Leader of the Council to a meeting in Whitehall. Regrettably, the Council issued a press release in response, describing the meeting as ‘perfectly routine’ and ‘entirely expected’. Such complacency gives little comfort that the current leadership even recognises the gravity of the situation, let alone has the capabilities to resolve the problems in the service. Unbelievably, the Cabinet Member for Children at Somerset County Council launched an astonishing rant at members of the public and opposition councillors, blaming their (legitimate) questions about Mr Lewis’s astronomical cost for his ‘slipping performance’. You can watch it here. Again, such a flawed assessment gives no confidence at all that those in charge are capable of improving the service. In October 2014, the County Council terminated its contract with the fabulously-remunerated Peter Lewis. The Council says it sacked him. Mr Lewis says he resigned.
Last month it was revealed that a Somerset County Council staff member had had sex with a 16-year-old resident. It just gets worse. Continue reading “Somerset Children’s Services Goes From Bad to Worse” »
Following yesterday’s campaign launch, I want to set out some of the key themes I’ll be focussing on. While much of what I want to achieve is based around making local improvements, I will also be seeking to engage with national issues. I have produced the following to give you some idea of my priorities.
These themes are by no means all I will be talking about but provide a focus for my activities.
You may recall my recent letter to Eric Pickles MP asking why we are letting housebuilders put up new homes without fibre internet service. It’s here Well, I’ve finally received an answer, just not a very good one. The letter from Brandon Lewis suggests that the Government won’t require fibre internet to be incorporated in new homes while they are being built because the house building and telecoms industries don’t want it. That’s the housebuilding industry that doesn’t want its profits dented by having to incorporate this essential service and the telecoms industry that makes loads more money retrofitting fibre than it does laying it during home construction all at taxpayers’ expense. Not difficult to see whose side the Government is on, is it?