Buck stops at councils for poor rural broadband

“A council-run broadband group has been branded “incompetent” for repeatedly terminating contracts and failing to deliver broadband after a decade.

Last month, Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) began its fourth procurement for a new supplier.

Graham Long, chairman of campaign group Fast Broadband for Rural Devon & Somerset, said the problems needed to be “lanced” and suggested bringing in new operators.

Council-run CDS declined to comment.

Campaigners have highlighted the lack of certainty around the roll-out due to funding arrangements with central government.
About £20m is needed to complete the work but this money was not set out in September’s Spending Review.

The review normally covers three years but this year only covered one.

‘Track record’

Farmer, Steve Horner, from Yarcombe, struggles with a slow internet connection.

“The only way they can recover is by replacing the current team in Exeter… they have to be replaced with competent people who have a track record.”

Mr Long said: “This is a boil that needs to be lanced and my suggestion of bringing in other operators is a way to lance it.

“My conclusion is CDS is currently gambling on that problem being solved by November next year when they expect to sign contracts, and whatever government we have at that time guaranteeing that money would be provided.”

The project is also subject to EU state aid rules and under the terms of approval the work needs to be completed by 2020.
CDS, which is run by Somerset and Devon county councils, has terminated three large contracts so far, twice with BT, and last year with Gigaclear.

People in affected areas believe any supplier would face the same problems as Gigaclear of laying cables underground.
“Some of the roads didn’t have proper foundations so they couldn’t use narrow trenches so had to do a lot more work,” Mr Long said.

Gigaclear connected about 3,000 properties before its contract was terminated.”


Somerset MP says Taunton is like a war-torn Syrian city!

Does a constituency REALLY get the MP it deserves? Well ….

“One is an English county town with an eighth-century castle, pleasant high street and national park right on its doorstep. The other is a Syrian city left in almost complete ruins after eight years of brutal civil war.

But these distinctions appear to have failed to register with the MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, who chose to liken Taunton to Aleppo during a House of Commons debate on Thursday.

Ian Liddell-Grainger, whose own constituency neighbours the town, was attempting to draw attention to its boarded-up shops during a discussion about the high street.

The Tory said: “Exeter city has just brought out an excellent report looking 20 years ahead for the security and the growth of their city centre. Across the border, my county town Taunton is more like Aleppo than anything else.”

It is understood Mr Liddell-Grainger has never visited Syria’s second city but a quick perusal of pictures could have shown him it bears very little resemblance to the ancient Somerset town. …”


“Housing developer backtracks on promised Yeovil road improvements despite signing contract to honour work”

Remember what Owl said only yesterday after the news that Persimmon and Crown Estates demanded 200 extra houses (from 650 to 850) in Axminster to be able to afford to build a new road?

“A housing developer is trying to get out of making improvements to Yeovil’s roads, claiming they are no longer required.

Barratt Homes has been constructing the Wyndham Park development on Lyde Road at the north-eastern edge of the town, for which outline planning permission was granted in 2008.

As part of a legal agreement with Somerset County Council and South Somerset District Council, the developer promised to make improvements to the junction of Lyde Road and Mudford Road, as well as the junction of Combe Street Lane, Mudford Road and Stone Lane.

However the developer, that recorded a pre-tax profit of £835.5 million in 2018, has now applied for these conditions to be removed, claiming these junctions are “under capacity” and therefore the improvements will no longer be necessary.

Planning manager Andrew Cattermole wrote to the district council on December 12, laying out the company’s reasons for not undertaking the work.

He said: “The implementation of these elements has not been completed to date and it is considered, having discussed this with Somerset County Council, that neither of these works are required.

“The existing junctions are under capacity, meet the required safety performance and no junction improvements are required.”

The Lyde Road/ Mudford Road improvements were due to be undertaken before the 400th home on the Wyndham Park site had been occupied.

The Combe Street Lane project, meanwhile, was required to be completed before the 500th dwelling was finished and occupied.

A traffic assessment carried out for Barratt Homes concluded that “the additional demand created during the completion of development can be accommodated on the existing high way network”.

A spokesman for Somerset County Council said: “We have discussed this matter informally with Barratt Homes and advised that we would not object to modifying the S106 conditions and removing the junctions if they provided sufficient evidence that they were no longer required.

“Now the application has been submitted, we will review the evidence and provide a formal response.

“This will then be considered by South Somerset District Council as the local planning authority, which will make a final decision.”

A spokesman for the district council added: “This application was received on December 13 and we are awaiting the key views of Somerset County Council as the highways authority on this matter.

“It would be inappropriate to make further comment until these views have been received and our officers have completed their reports.”

The district council is expected to make a decision on this matter by February 7.”


“Lack of government lawyers [due to Brexit work] delaying preparations for council merger”

“A lack of government lawyers as a result of Brexit is to blame for delays in producing the necessary orders for a merger of two local authorities in the South West of England, it has been claimed.

The County Gazette has reported that three orders from central government are needed to transfer all the necessary legal powers to the authority that will take over from Taunton Deane Borough Council and West Somerset District Council.

An apppendix to a paper presented at a meeting of Taunton Deane’s scrutiny committee last week said: “Still waiting on MHCLG [the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government] finalising – Brexit impacting on MHCLG’s ability to access lawyers in a timely fashion.

“As long as final version is very similar to draft sould not cause too great an issue. The uncertainty is the concern however.”

The appendix said a general order had been due to be published on 24 July this year.

The merger of Taunton Deane and West Somerset was backed in March by the then Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid.”

Source: Local Government Lawyer

Stuff that “growth” – Devon, Dorset and Somerset best places to retire to!

Top 10 best places for retirement

Prudential analysed data in 55 counties in England and Wales to come up with its retirement ranking for 2016 (research lag).

West Sussex
East Sussex
Isle of Wight

…”if you were looking to move to an area which has the highest number of similarly-aged denizens, Dorset is the place, with some 28% of the 422,000 people living in the county are aged over 65. …”

https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/09/revealed-the-best-places-to-retire-in-england-and-wales/ – Which

Greater South West Local Enterprise Partnership – partnership!

Another GREAT to add to GREATER EXETER – the GREAT South West Partnership!

For this one, Dorset now holds the purse strings (thanks to Oliver Letwin?) but developer Steve Hindley still holds on to the Chairmanship. Somerset County Council seems to have lost its financial control role – hardly surprising now it’s in a financial crisis.

And all still unelected, unaccountable and non-transparent.

Rather confusingly, in one part of the press release there is a reference to high productivity in this new LEP region but then it goes on to say: “When productivity in the South West matches current levels in the South East, the region will add more than £18 billion a year to the UK economy.” Do they really expect it to overtake the south-east? They could just as well have said “when productivity in the region the region overtakes China it will add £18 trillion to the UK economy”!

“Press release from Heart of the South West, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly, and Dorset Local Enterprise Partnerships:

A campaign to highlight the South West’s economic potential and make the case for Government investment on a par with other UK regions has been launched at Westminster.

An alliance of business leaders, local authorities and higher education chiefs formally launched its Great South West vision that aims to put the South West on the UK economic map, to Parliament.

The delegation of the Heart of the South West, Dorset and Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly LEPs (Local Enterprise Partnerships) were in London to promote the South West’s economic development ambitions.

They are calling on the government to give their vision for growth the same high-profile backing as other initiatives like the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine.

Great South West Partnership Chair & Chair of the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership, Steve Hindley CBE DL said: “The Great South West already has an economy twice the size of Greater Manchester’s and the West Midlands’. We have the largest building project in Europe underway at Hinkley Point C, as well as unrivalled natural assets that attract more visitors than anywhere outside London.

“This partnership stands out from the other UK public-led economic partnerships, as ours heavily backed by the business and university sector, and by working together we have the benefit of scale that gives us the chance to really show what we can do, given the right backing from Government.

“We’re now on the verge transformational growth in productivity, and we’re looking forward to realising our full potential and increasing our contribution to the UK economy on the back of increasing the prosperity of our local communities and businesses.”

Mark Duddridge, Chair of the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly LEP, said: “The government’s recent review of LEPs acknowledged their vital role in developing ambitious strategies for growth and driving investment and job creation.

“The Great South West is about cross-LEP collaboration on a shared agenda, such as transport and infrastructure that can deliver real growth in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly as well as the wider South West.”

Dorset LEP Chair, Jim Stewart, said: “The South West economy is nationally significant and is larger than any combined authority – double the size of both Greater Manchester and West Midlands.

“Yet we are not receiving the same financial investment from the government as these regions.

“Our Great South West alliance of regional business leaders, academic heads and local authorities is determined to win backing for our plans that will put the region on the economic map.”

In July a government review of LEPs said the partnerships played a crucial role in ‘supercharging’ economic growth and the delivery of its Industrial Strategy.

Representatives from the three LEPs met with South West’s MPs at a meeting in Westminster to launch Great South West.

The MPs received a presentation, which set out the economic significance of the region.

In addition to having double the size economy of Greater Manchester and West Midlands, Great South West also contributes more to UK Gross Value Added than both Thames Gateway and Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor.

It also has a bigger productivity than both the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine but lags behind the English average.

When productivity in the South West matches current levels in the South East, the region will add more than £18 billion a year to the UK economy.

In addition, the South West is home to the single largest infrastructure project in Europe – the new Hinkley Point nuclear power plant in Somerset, which will generate billions of pounds worth of new business opportunities.

Tourism is a huge industry, with the region attracting more visitors than anywhere outside London.

And the region is also home to the largest aerospace sector in the UK, with pioneering automotive, nuclear and marine renewables and microelectronics industries. It also has a growing creative and digital sector.

Dorset West MP Sir Oliver Letwin worked with the LEPs on arranging the meeting with members of Parliament. He said: “This meeting provided a great opportunity for south west MPs to be properly briefed about this exciting proposition, which could grow to deliver a significant step-change in productivity for the south west.

“It is highly encouraging to see the diversity and number of stakeholders, even at this early stage – with Local Enterprise Partnerships, local authorities, universities, the CBI, Chambers of Commerce and many others all involved in the Great South West project.

“I hope that this project can continue to move forward with ever increasing momentum, and to help further realise the extraordinary economic potential of the South West.”

The Great South West partnership faces a number of challenges, including transport and connectivity, large dispersed populations and some of the country’s most deprived areas. This results in low productivity.

To tackle these challenges Great South West is calling the government to support it to improve transport connectivity and strategic routes, drive productivity in trade and build supply chains and increase economic connectivity in the rural sector.

A letter has been sent to James Brokenshire MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, to seek formal government support and investment for Great South West.”


Somerset is ‘more developed’ than ‘transitional’ Devon

The Government is offering various grants from the European Union (probably amongst our last ones) channeled through Local Enterprise Councils.

Here in the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership area ALL three types of grants are offering less money to the “more developed areas of Somerset” and more to the (presumably less developed areas of) ‘Transition’ areas of Devon.

So should Devon be putting less into the LEP than more well-off Somerset? Or is ut just that Hinkley C is sucking up all the dosh now?


The session will particularly focus on the following live ESF calls for project proposals in the Heart of the South West:

Young Opportunities (OC16S18P1151) –
A £1.98 million (£0.98 million for the ‘More Developed’ area of Somerset and £1 million for the ‘Transition’ area of Devon, Plymouth and Torbay) ESF call for projects to support young people to access good quality careers and employment thereby avoiding Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) status in Heart of the South West LEP area.

Skills in Employment (OC16S18P1152) –
A £7 million (c. £2.33 million for the ‘More Developed’ area of Somerset and c. £4.67 million for the ‘transition’ area of Devon, Plymouth and Torbay) ESF call for projects offering employed individuals the opportunity to progress their skills, with a particular focus on intermediate / technical and higher-level skills (e.g. NVQ Level 3 and 4), as well as high demand skills at lower levels which enable growth (e.g. NVQ Level 2 qualifications within transformational / opportunity sectors).

Shaping Future Skills Provision (OC16S18P1153) –
A £1.15 million (£0.15 million for the ‘More Developed’ area of Somerset and £1 million for the ‘Transition’ area of Devon, Plymouth and Torbay) ESF call for projects to enhance the labour market relevance of skills provision in Heart of the South West LEP area

[Somerset] “Tory council at risk of bankruptcy calls for funding system fix”

Owl says: “Hissing” in the wind! Our unelected and unaccountable Local Enterprise Partnership now controls the vast amount of money in both counties!

“A Tory-controlled local authority has called on ministers to fix a “broken” system of council funding after it emerged its deteriorating finances mean it is at serious risk of going bust.

Somerset county council has been told that large overspends on children’s social services, coupled with reduced government funding and the erosion of its reserves, have left its finances “in a very challenging position”.

A formal peer review says any failure to meet its ambitious financial savings targets for the current year would leave the council at risk of being unable to set a balanced budget within months – in effect leaving it at risk of insolvency.

The county, which has already announced unpopular plans to close two-thirds of its Sure Start children’s centres, more than half of its libraries and make big reductions to its learning disability services, must now find further cuts.

There has been heightened concern over the sustainability of local authority finances since Northamptonshire county council declared effective bankruptcy in February. It was subsequently taken over by government commissioners.

A spokesperson for Somerset county council said: “There are clearly pressures on our budgets, as there is on local authority budgets up and down the country as government funding falls and demand grows.

“The recent peer review report found many positives and areas of success. It also concluded that we understand the financial challenges we face and that we can meet them.

“We believe the system by which local government is funded is broken and call on the government to address this as a priority as part of its fair funding review [of local government finance].”

Somerset says it is confident that it will not follow Northamptonshire into insolvency. Despite serious challenges – including a target of £17m in cuts for children’s social care this year – it says it is committed to meeting savings targets.

But the review makes it clear that the county has struggled to deliver planned savings for two years, and has been reliant on reserves to patch up its budgets. “For the last two years only 65% of agreed savings have been delivered and whilst there may be specific reasons for this, this level of delivery is simply unsustainable in the future.”

Somerset, which has an annual budget of around £316m, has made around £130m of savings since 2010. It believes the forthcoming green paper into social care funding and the fair funding review hold the key to its survival.

The National Audit Office warned this year that several councils were using up “rainy day” reserves to prop up services. It estimated up to 15 councils are at risk of going bust when their reserves are exhausted.

Jane Lock, the leader of Somerset’s opposition Liberal Democrat group, blamed the council’s predicament on its decision to freeze council tax for six years after 2010, despite swingeing national cuts in funding, and at a time when austerity measures were increasing demand on services.

She said: “The reason Somerset has got to here is quite simply the political ideology that they would refuse to put up council tax. That’s left a £26m hole in the budget.”

Simon Edwards, the director of the County Councils Network, said: “County authorities face a toxic cocktail of having rising demand for services, being the lowest funded upper-tier councils, and the impact of having the sharpest reductions in government funding by the end of the decade.”

He added: “With demand continuing to rise amid funding reductions, the reality is that councils of all sizes and colours will face similar situations in the future, unless a sustainable solution is found by government.”


“Crumbling Britain: how austerity is hollowing out the heart of Tory Somerset”

The article takes the town of Dulverton and charts its decline due to council austerity cuts. Just change Dulverton to any rural area in Devon and you have the same story.

“Richard Eales pulls off his walking shoes and sits back on the sofa in his caravan, where he lives with his wife and their four-year-old son. Wisps of dog hair stick to his khaki polo shirt, which bears the badge: “Exmoor National Park Ranger”. His three dogs, Jet, Star and Sky, settle at his feet.

The 40-year-old father has been living for 17 years on the edge of Dulverton, a remote rural town in west Somerset known as the “gateway to Exmoor”. From managing the native pony herds and deer to grappling with farmers and landowners, Eales says: “It’s not a job; it’s a way of life. You’re always on duty.”Even when opening a tab at the pub, he’s logged as “National Park – Richard”. As he travels around Dulverton’s narrow streets in his mud-splattered Land Rover, the tall and gregarious figure seems to know everyone.

His first child Thomas attended Little Owls, the local nursery, from the “the age of nought”. The nursery opens 8am-6pm Monday to Friday, 49 weeks a year, for children up until the age of four.

But the family might not be here much longer.”Little Owls nursery is facing spending cuts, and Richard’s wife, Rebecca, who works as a dental hygienist, is three months’ pregnant. The nearest alternative nursery would add almost two hours to their daily drive, which would, in effect, stop them working.

Yet Eales and other parents isolated deep in this wooded valley have been told that Little Owls’ hours are likely to be reduced after the next academic year to 9am-3.30pm Monday to Thursday, term-time only, with no provision for under-twos. “We couldn’t afford to live if Bex [my wife] wasn’t working,” Eales says.

The current nursery provision is only continuing until July 2019. It applies for emergency money to keep the hours that it does, which is not deemed sustainable. A Somerset county council spokesperson tells me the nursery “applied for and recently received a grant from the Sustainability Fund and can apply again”​ but that “these grants are to help providers while they look for ways of being sustainable in the long term and we are currently helping the nursery do that”.​

“I look at other families and I can see why they’re claiming [benefits],” Eales sighs. “We’d be far better off money-wise if we moved further away. You stick it for as long as you can, but you get these hurdles chucked in front of you that keep getting bigger.”

Dulverton’s state provision has been rolled back. Its Sure Start children’s centre was “de-designated” (transferred to the local school and stripped of many services) in 2014 – a precursor to this year’s decision to close two-thirds of Sure Start buildings in Somerset.

Recent government figures reveal that more than 500 Sure Start centres – established by the last Labour government in 1998 to provide early years support – have closed throughout the country since 2010, when the Conservatives took office.

The Council insists children’s services will still be available – just no longer run in “expensive and sometimes difficult to reach buildings”, which will instead be taken over by nurseries, schools and others. But that was not the result in Dulverton, which made this change four years ago.

Once a hub of parent clubs and support sessions, Dulverton children’s centre services have been “really reduced”, according to Becky Fry, who has a four-year-old son and one-year-old daughter. She relied on the weekly baby group, health visitors and reading time with her first child. “I don’t know what I would have done without it… I’ve struggled with my second one.” She works for a charity more than a 45-minute drive away from where she lives.

Dulverton’s library, a former green-fronted old ironmongers on the main square, is also under threat – nearly half of Somerset’s libraries face closure as the council consults on making them community- or volunteer-supported instead of council-run, or replacing them with mobile libraries. In the consultation, Dulverton library has a “no change” option, but locals are gloomy about its fate.

The town even lost its only bank two years ago; now a mobile bank stops by every Tuesday for 45 minutes in the late morning.

“By taking all that away, you’re not encouraging any young, working families to live and stay in the area. You’re literally just pushing them out,” says Richard Eales, the park ranger.

The woodland idyll masks widespread deprivation. West Somerset has the worst social mobility in England, performing particularly poorly on services for early years and working-age people. Job opportunities are scarce and public transport poor – the word “bus” provokes bitter laughter from people I meet.

Wages are low but retirees moving in, and holidaymakers with second homes for shooting and fishing on Exmoor, inflate property prices. West Somerset has Britain’s highest percentage of people aged 65 and over, and its population is dwindling.

“We’re not a theme park or just a place for people to retire to,” says the Somerset county councillor for Dulverton, Conservative Frances Nicholson. “Working families should be supported because they will move out.”

Rural deprivation is so great that the government has made west Somerset an “opportunities area”: an area to focus funds on improving outcomes for children.

For residents like Eales, however, it’s already too late. “It almost feels like [living here] you are being pushed beyond the realms of our reach,” he says. “It’s austerity, isn’t it?”

Somerset is solid Tory territory. With the exception of Bath, all its constituencies are held by Conservative MPs – the best-known being Jacob Rees-Mogg (whose six children are unlikely to bear the brunt of Sure Start cuts).

Yet, because of the “Corbyn effect”, west Somerset’s local Labour Party membership has more than tripled in the last two years. “No Labour politicians ever come to this area,” leader Kathrine See tells me. “We’ve got to tackle these communities; we can’t just ignore them. For one, it’s not responsible because that’s not part of the [Labour slogan] ‘For the many’, and two, we need their votes… It’s a poor area for the majority.”

Local Tories also feel neglected by their Westminster counterparts. “I’m just wondering where our society’s going, and what can be done? And are our policymakers really in touch with the grassroots?” asks the chairman of West Somerset Council, Bruce Heywood, who has represented Dulverton since 2011, when I meet him for a coffee outside the grey stone-walled Tantivy Café. To avoid bankruptcy his council is merging with neighbouring Taunton Deane. “It is a chipping away of what has been established over years that causes problems in our environment… when they turn the tap off funding.”

The former mayor of Dulverton and fellow district councillor Nick Thwaites warns that the “slow creep” of austerity – “when the pillars the town depends on are removed one by one” – is difficult to reverse. This is why, he says, “you have to fight each removal as if it is much bigger than it first appears”.