Conservatives abstain as council declares cost of living emergency

A second Somerset council has called on the government to urgently address the cost of living crisis – though Conservative councillors abstained from the final vote.

Daniel Mumby www.somersetlive.co.uk 

Somerset West and Taunton Council became the second local authority in Somerset to pass a formal motion urging government action on the cost of living, following a similar vote by Mendip District Council in late May. In a full council debate held in Taunton on Tuesday evening (July 5), councillors from all parties spoke out about the pressures being placed on working families, urging action on energy bills, universal credit and fuel duty.

However, members of the Conservative opposition group abstained from the final vote, with their leader stating the motion was “overtly politicised” and the debate was a “missed opportunity” to find common ground. The motion called for a cut in the standard rate of VAT from 20 per cent to 17.5 per cent, restoring the universal credit supplement of £20, and reinstating the pension triple lock (whereby pensions rise in value by either average earnings, inflation or 2.5 per cent a year – whichever is higher).

It also called for the government to cut fuel duty in rural areas and to uncouple power prices from gas prices (which would enable a drop in household electricity bills). Like Mendip‘s declaration in May, the council also committed to staging a “cost of living emergency summit” with Citizens Advice, food banks, trade unions, chambers of commerce and the district’s two MPs – Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) and Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane – and until recently a Defra minister).

The council has also committed to creating a £50,000 support fund for those residents most affected by rising food and energy prices, which will be administrated alongside Citizens Advice by the end of the summer. Councillor Chris Booth, portfolio holder for communities, introduced the motion by stating: “We are all aware of the difficult times that our residents are going through, and it’s now the time to show that we want to do more than we already are.

“We urgently need more of this government as the shadow of hardship consumes more of us.” Councillor Benet Allen, portfolio holder for communications and corporate resources, said he was “dismayed” that the government had dithered over restoring the £20 uplift in universal credit.

He said: “The cost of living crisis is real, it affects many of us, and I’m dismayed that the government has avoided doing the one, simple, affordable thing that it could do to put money in the pockets of those who need it most – which is to restore the £20 on universal credit. They’ve done lots of other things, most of which are headline-chasing.

“I believe that this government for political reasons has avoided doing anything along the lines of putting money back into the pockets of the very poorest. We are overtaxed on our use of electricity because our electricity bills are directly connected to our gas bills. Very little of our electricity is generated by gas.

“The cost of renewable energy has plummeted in recent months – we are actually all overpaying for electricity by a factor of two or three.” Councillor Libby Lisgo, who leads the Labour opposition group, joked that the council would struggle to find a minister to whom these concerns could be addressed in light of the copious resignations from Boris Johnson‘s administration.

She said: “The way that the government is almost, it would seem, wilfully ignoring the needs of the people who most need support probably ought to beggar more belief than it does. The way they’re falling tonight [July 5] suggests that [finding a secretary of state] might be easier said than done.”

Councillor Dave Mansell – one of two Green Party councillors – added: “The motion focusses on short-term solutions, and those are definitely needed and important. I would like to add that long-term solutions are needed too, particularly for our energy security.

“The government has stopped us investing in the lowest-cost energy source, which is on-shore wind power. that is contributing to a situation which we now face, and that urgently needs to change.” The motion was passed by a substantial margin, though all the Conservatives present in the chamber abstained – and two members of the party left the chamber before the vote took place.

Councillor Roger Habgood, who leads the Conservative group on the council, said after the debate that he and his party were in support of action to address the cost of living but believed the motion was the wrong way to go about this. He said: “Unfortunately the cost of living motion to full council was deliberately set out taking an overtly politicised position by the local Lib Dems.

“The cost of living increases in our economy are of course concerning to us all, and if Mr Booth and the Lib Dem leader had taken a few minutes to construct the motion collaboratively, it could have received unanimous support. Sadly that approach and option was not chosen and an opportunity has been lost.

“Continuously blurring the lines of responsibility between the district, county and unitary councils and the national government is unhelpful. Our councillors are best placed to focus our attention on reducing costs and improving services under our direct control, rather than being distracted by matters outside of their control.

“Of course we should engage with Westminster. We have two MPs who represent us – after all that is how the latest cost of living payments for eight million families coming into effect from July 14 was formulated.

“My colleagues and I continue to focus on what we can do for residents as local councillors in these challenging times.”