Finding time to pause and reflect seems to be a rare luxury these days. We lead busy lives, and have many distractions and demands. But on Armistice Day, and at the service of Remembrance, we still find time to come together as a nation to observe two-minutes' silence, to commemorate those who lost their lives in conflict.
I had the honour of laying a poppy wreath on behalf of Mendip District Council at Meare, and I thank the community for their welcome. The roll call of 31 men lost during WW1 was read out by the Chair of Meare Parish Council. It was moving, shocking and sad, especially when you realise there were just 1,300 residents (including children) in the village at the time. The loss must have been keenly felt.
Thanks also go to the many residents and businesses for their efforts and expertise in creating reusable woollen poppies and natural wreaths for the Council. I know that it made laying them at services across the district even more special for Members.
Before COVID-19 became a global preoccupation, the climate and ecological emergency was probably our biggest threat, and concern. Post-pandemic, it’s in sharp focus again, as the COP26 summit has demonstrated during the past fortnight.
At Mendip, your Council agreed its priorities early in 2020, just before the first lockdown. We had three distinct ambitions: to make Mendip a fairer place; to deliver on our climate and ecological commitment; and to enhance our towns and rural communities.
These priorities remain, and are more vital than ever. We cannot ignore the urgent needs of the environment, yet we must find ways to help our economy recover. There’s a tricky balance to be struck.
I make no apologies for an overtly political column this week. But I do need to put on record what is happening with local government in Somerset.
As a reminder, the transition from five councils in Somerset to one, was not of your District Council’s making.
When the COVID legislation was lifted on May 5th this year, the four District Councils commissioned a people’s poll, to ensure communities had a voice. Some 65% of Somerset residents, and more than 70% of Mendip residents, rejected the idea of a single unitary authority for Somerset. A decision to go with One Somerset was made by government in July, flying in the face of the wishes of our residents.
We seem to be facing the winter months with much uncertainty when it comes to covid and the ramifications of Brexit.
One thing seems to be inevitable, however – we will be facing a winter with rising fuel costs.
This is a major problem for our communities, especially as they are still counting the costs of the pandemic. Lots of households have seen a reduction in income – regretfully with the £20 loss in universal credit, eviction from rented properties and significant rises in rental costs to make homes unaffordable. All this coupled with uncertainty in the job market and the end of the furlough scheme.
The challenges are all too real – and for many the challenges are getting worse. As ever, it is the most vulnerable people in our communities who are hit the hardest. Low-income households will have to make the impossible decisions between eating and heating, as gas and electricity prices go literally through the roof.
As we emerge – hopefully – from Covid, there are long standing issues which are putting pressure on people, and on local services.
I know my inbox is always full of people contacting me with different questions on topics such as benefits, council tax and education, as well as issues with planning, enforcement, and environmental health issues.
Issues with rubbish collections are thankfully starting to improve as Somerset Waste Partnership are actively recruiting new staff. I know many people were relieved to see the re-start to the garden waste collections.
We are making progress when it comes to addressing the climate emergency.
Barack Obama famously said, “You get the politicians you deserve,” and whilst there is a lot of truth in that statement, I would add onto the end – “but let’s be kind.”
The reason I say this is that recently there have been some stories in the local media relating to Mendip councillors who were temporarily in arrears with their council tax payments. I know that in the grand scheme of things this is not a big story to most of us. But alas, there are always those who like to cause trouble and upset, especially to those in the public eye.
We live in a most beautiful part of the world – you have heard me say that many times! Little wonder people want to visit Mendip. We have so much to shout about. The rich, unique, natural landscapes of the Mendip Hills and all they have to offer, is just one example. A delight for walkers, cavers and climbers. Our main towns too of course, offer diverse attractions.
While staycations will have brought extra footfall to the southwest region, there is no hiding from the fact that tourism has been one of the hardest hit sectors during the COVID pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.
If we are serious about recovery in our area, if we want to build back better, we must deliver financial support packages and offer practical help to our crucial visitor economy.
When it comes to how local governments work for their residents in Somerset in the coming years, there are changes afoot. The four district councils and the county council will be abolished, and a new unitary authority will be set up to cover the whole of the county in April 2023.
There’s a lot to do, but Mendip staff and councillors, alongside our colleagues across Somerset, will be working hard to ensure services are delivered seamlessly to our residents and communities, during the transition.
The Covid pandemic brought residents and local organisations closer. People reached out, and pulled together. Something seemed to switch. No longer was there a focus on ‘individuals’. It was all about ‘community’. I witnessed that first-hand.
Parish Councils, and those who serve on them, certainly played their part during his recent national crisis. They were front and centre – protecting their people and the places where they lived. They were perfectly placed to do so, being at the heart of our communities.