Leaders plan for SCC

Last week was all about bedding in new District Coucil’s around Somerset. There was no election for councillors at Somerset County Council (SCC), but Leader David Fothergill has plenty to say.  SCC has had a difficult couple of years. Teetering on the edge of a financial crisis, the administration has pulled through and is looking forward to a new financial year. We’ll have plenty of chance to examine and challenge the plans over the coming year. For now what follows is the Leader’s plan, set out at the SCC meeting on 15th May in his own words:

Austerity is over – that’s what Government said, although there is precious little sign of Whitehall relaxing the purse strings for counties like ours. Recent decisions such as the shockingly small amount of money released to the South West to invest in our rural towns just reinforces what a tough job we have to get our voice heard in Westminster.

The good news – no, let me rephrase – the great news – is that here in Somerset we haven’t waited around for a government hand-out. We haven’t sat back and watched our finances drain away to nothing. We have taken active steps, taken difficult decisions, and we are now able to say that we have come through the hard times, through the financial challenges, and we are building the foundations for a strong and healthy financial position.

I’m delighted to be able to say those words.

We are now in a hugely improved and stronger financial position.

We are rebuilding our balances, our “rainy day savings account” so that this year it will reach £19m – higher than generally accepted recommended levels. We have a three-year spending plan in place that will see us spend almost £800m a year in Somerset. We have started to set aside the funds we need to transform the way the council operates, moving from one that reacts to issues and reacts to demand, to one that works to prevent issues in the first place and reduces demand.

We have robust spending plans in place for 2020 and 2021. I’m delighted to put on the record that I do NOT forecast bringing forward any new cuts to frontline services. I’m not going to guarantee this won’t change, not least as Government still hasn’t worked out how it is going to finance local authorities and huge spending areas like adults social care into the future.

But as I stand here today, I am able to say this Administration does not intend to bring forward new plans to reduce frontline services in the coming years.

That is a remarkable turnaround and has been achieved through hard work from our staff and officers, and the ability across the whole council, to recognise the need to work together and take the tough decisions.

I’m not going to stand here and say that austerity is over in Somerset. It isn’t. We HAVE to keep a tight grip on our finances and will constantly be looking to be more efficient, to reduce back office costs and live within our budgets. We are NOT funded to the level we should be and we will continue to lobby and to fight for fair funding for our council. Whilst we welcome the sometimes unexpected grants for roads and potholes, we do not get anything like enough funding to build the schools that we need. We have in place nationally recognised programmes to support our growing elderly population to remain independent for as long as possible, but the numbers game alone will show that there is only so much we can do before we reach a tipping point. Government HAS to step in and sort out how it will fund social care into the future.

But for now, for today, I am able to say we are rebuilding our financial foundations. We are far more robust, we are far healthier financially we are looking to invest in our county – that is a HUGE step forward.

What does turning the council around mean in real terms? It means investing in the right areas.

In February, with support from the opposition parties, we set aside a £1m Prevention Pot to fund new ways of working. I can announce a number of schemes have come forward for consideration. These include helping the voluntary and community sector improve their skills to win financial bids for funding such as the Big Lottery and Government schemes. The hope is this will help them lever in significant extra funding for Somerset. Another scheme on the list would see us help and support mothers at risk of repeatedly having babies taken into care – a hugely important area and one I personally would love to see approved. And a third scheme aims to roll out a programme that would encourage more recycling All these proposals are progressing and I hope all will be supported.

There is a second proposal for the prevention fund I can announce today. I have long believed that local councillors understand their local communities better than anyone. I also believe that sometimes a little bit of spending can go a long way in helping those communities. So I’m delighted to support a proposal that around £110,000 is set aside for all county councillors to have £2,000 to spend in their communities. Bids for this spending will need to be submitted this Autumn, and I hope all councillors will welcome and support this proposal. I’m also delighted to propose that we will invest more than £1m EXTRA to fast track Small Improvement Schemes put forward by council members. I know how important these small but important schemes, like pedestrian crossings and… are to us all and to our communities. They make a real difference.

Let me turn now formally to my Annual report which I will keep to just a very few points.

First our children’s services. We continue on the journey towards an Ofsted “good” rating with the most recent inspection praising our staff and managers. It remains so important to us all that this progress is steady and sustained. I’m delighted that we are improving.

Our adults services. Councillors will know that we are in the national spotlight – partly due to our innovative ways of working that have grabbed attention and are used as examples of good practice in the industry – but also due to the impending Panorama documentaries being broadcast later this month and into June. I very much look forward to the special screening we are arranging at the Taunton Brewhouse Theatre next week. Again an area we are improving lives.

Our infrastructure work including Junction 25 improvements, the £18m Colley Lane road in Bridgwater, continuing improvements in Yeovil, there is so much happening that is positive across our county, where we are investing millions to improve lives.

Building new schools – I’d like to highlight the 13 projects completed last financial year, a further 12 projects commissioned or started – and at an estimated investment of £65m. Most recently, we took the decision to build the £18m special school at Bower Lane, Bridgwater.

Around the county this continues – children from Selworthy School have laid the first bricks for their new Hazelbrook campus. Children have moved into their new £4m school extension in Wincanton; the new 420 pupil school at Nerrols will open later this year. A fantastic new £7m primary school now opened in Yeovil complete with nursery.

I’d like to share a very recent letter from Government about our schools building programme.

One paragraph jumps out. “We have identified Somerset County Council as one of the most efficient local authorities in delivering new schools…

And a further line: “I also want to thank you and your colleagues’ help in sharing information about the management of your schools programme. We are using the insight and examples gathered from this exercise to develop guidance for ALL local authorities on cost effective development of new school places.”

What a great pat on the back for all our teams in this area and something we should all be proud of.

And of course, good luck to all students currently taking exams… a tough time for them, their teachers and let’s not forget their parents!

Our workforce expanded at the very end of the year with the arrival of public health nursing and health visitors from Somerset Partnership. I welcome their transfer and look forward to meeting many of them over the coming months.

At the same time I’d like to thank all those community volunteers who have stepped forward to support our libraries programme. This has seen funding for community libraries guaranteed for seven years and for me has been one of our most successful partnerships. My thanks for all those who have stepped forward to contribute and to improve lives in their own communities.

My final point is all about working together. This Council signed up to a single-use plastics agenda and then a further climate change emergency declaration over the past 12 months. I’m pleased that we are working with our district council colleagues as well as other partners to try to bring forward proposals that can make a real contribution to these important environmental issues. I’m delighted that these proposals are cross-party and hope everyone feels they can contribute.

I can announce that as of today, we are reviewing ALL SCC vehicle purchases to ensure spending decisions take into account our recent Climate Change Emergency Declaration. The same for our new buildings like schools and other key areas.

And in a spirit of cooperation and collaboration, I’d like to refer to our County Vision. Last year, with a deal of cross-party support, we adopted a new County Vision – a succinct and easy to understand approach to what we as a council want to deliver. The idea was that at the right time we would look to expand that Vision to encompass ALL of Somerset. I’d now like to kick off that piece of work and in the coming months bring that expanded Vision back to Council.

The recent district council elections have brought significant change, new councillors and new administrations. I congratulate all those who stood for election and of course all those who won seats. My message to all councillors across Somerset is this: We can achieve a lot working for ourselves. We can achieve so much more working together. I hope all councillors will be supportive of this approach.

This time last year I launched a conversation about whether there was an appetite for some form of Unitary Council status across our county. I have to say it didn’t land that well and it didn’t get that far! I am still convinced this is the right way to go. I have made it very clear that my personal preference is for a single Unitary Council for Somerset. This is still my view and I will look to meet new and existing council leaders over the coming days and weeks to see if this can progress. Research commissioned by all Somerset’s councils suggests the potential savings are not in the millions of pounds, they are in the tens of millions of pounds. I feel we owe it to the residents of Somerset to act on their behalf and move towards a Unitary approach of some form.

So in conclusion:

Financially far more robust with firm foundations in place:

Rebuilding Reserves such that we can invest in our communities:

Investing in digital services for our customers, investing in prevention:

Children’s services continuing to improve:

Adults services making national headlines for the right reasons:

More and better schools being built:

Road improvements planned and delivered:

Great community spirit shown across Somerset:

An emerging environmentally aware agenda coming forward:

Our Council Vision states that we should be ambitious, confident and improving – we are delivering that Vision.

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