A Somerset MP has accused the county council of using central government grants to “balance its books” rather than support residents during the coronavirus pandemic.
Planetradio.co.uk By Daniel Mumby, local democracy reporting partnership
Ian Liddell-Grainger, who represents the Bridgwater and West Somerset constituency, used parliamentary privilege on Wednesday (January 6) to accuse Somerset County Council of financial irregularities.
The Conservative MP (who has held the seat since 2001) described senior council officials as “cowboys” and urged prime minister Boris Johnson to personally intervene in the matter.
The council has strongly denied Mr Liddell-Grainger’s claims and said it would be writing to the prime minister directly to “set the record straight.”
Mr Liddell-Grainger made his comments directly to Mr Johnson during a debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon (January 6).
He said: “We in the Bridgwater and West Somerset constituency accept that the lockdown was vital and we appreciate the extra help for businesses, but will my right honourable friend consider urgently the way in which government help for local authorities is being paid?
“Somerset County Council has been given huge grants but has then diverted much of the money to balance its books, which is not what it was for.
“These cowboys want to become a new unitary authority. It is a con trick to use that cash, which was meant to fight covid.
“The Prime Minister is Somerset born and bred. I urge him to put a stop to this, so that the money goes to the people who need it most—the people of Somerset.”
Mr Liddell-Grainger has been a consistent critic of the county council’s One Somerset proposals, which would see both it and the four district councils dissolved and replaced with a single unitary authority.
The government is currently considering this proposal, along with the rival Stronger Somerset proposals for two unitaries, to which Mr Liddell-Grainger has lent his support.
Mr Johnson responded: “My honourable friend is absolutely right to highlight what is going on in Somerset.
“The county obviously has a duty to use covid grants for that purpose and not for any other. I thank him for drawing attention to what is going on.”
Somerset County Council has received a total of £31.9M of covid funding from the government in four tranches, the most recent being £2.8M in October 2020.
Leah Green, the council’s finance manager, told the cabinet in mid-December that these funds were being allocated to essential services to cover additional expenditure the council had accrued during the pandemic.
She said in her written report: “The four tranche of funding will initially be added to the corporate contingency and then allocated to services to cover their additional costs.
“The government is also covering some of the council’s losses of income and it is estimated that a total of £3.7M can be claimed back though this scheme.”
The council has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, and said it would be writing to Mr Johnson directly to assure him that all grants were being used appropriately.
A spokesman said: “We will be writing directly to the prime minister to set the record straight, but we can confirm that all covid grants received from the government have been used as they were intended – to help residents, communities and businesses in Somerset.”
The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government is expected to give its verdict on the separate unitary proposals for Somerset in the spring, including a ruling on the prospect of delaying the local elections in May.