Change is coming to local government. And during the past few weeks, the people of Somerset have taken the opportunity to vote for their preferred path for change – the District Councils commissioned a poll which enabled this democratic act to happen. We got some grief over it. It cost us the equivalent of a first-class stamp per person. But we were adamant that was a small price to pay to give people a voice.
And speak out they did. The result of the local poll was clear. It was for Stronger Somerset – the plan for two councils, an Eastern Somerset, and a Western Somerset council, to replace Somerset’s existing five county and district councils. Some 65.3% voted for Stronger Somerset, and 34.7% for One Somerset proposal for new single unitary council for whole of Somerset, as proposed by the County Council.
Those of you who were out and about at the weekend would have seen how many people were enjoying Mendip – the blossoming countryside and bustling towns and villages. The weather certainly helped bring people out of their homes to meet friends and family. I’m sure the visitor numbers were very welcome by business owners eager to recoup recent losses and survive these challenging times.
This week we have launched two new funds to support our communities in varying ways. The first is called the Communities Fund and has been launched to directly support voluntary, community, not-for-profit organisations, as well as city, town and parish councils.
These groups can apply for funding – there’s £350,000 available in total – for projects which improve community resilience and wellbeing as we recover from the pandemic. The funding is scalable so groups can apply for anything from £2,000 to £30,000.
The second fund of £50,000, also launched this week. Applications for this fund must demonstrate how they can contribute towards our climate and ecological emergency. Maybe they help reduce emissions or support our wildlife and biodiversity. Again, I can’t wait to see the project ideas for this important fund.
I always feel encouraged by the passion and knowledge of our local communities when it comes to supporting our rich ecosystems. In Westbury where I live, we have a thriving village wildlife group who organise events like village glow worm hunts and are constantly sharing photos and news of the delights of nature – there was much excitement over the weekend with reports of a white-tailed eagle (or sea eagle) being spotted, soaring over the village and Mendip Hills AONB.
You will have seen that it was Mental Health Awareness Week a couple of weeks ago – the theme was ‘nature.’ The Mental Health Foundation, the charity hosting the awareness activities, chose this theme in recognition of how important the natural world is in helping support people’s mental wellbeing. Something I know we have all appreciated in the past months.
Rightly, this topic was put into the limelight for a few days. I believe we should be talking about mental health all year round.
Whilst we are lucky in Mendip to have nature on our doorsteps, this is not something everyone has been able to enjoy. The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on our mental health across the spectrum of anxiety and depression, to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Royal Mail wants to close Axbridge Sorting Office again, just 3 years after its last attempt. The Axbridge Sorting Office is critical to the future of our Post Office: we can collect large parcels and ‘signed for’ items easily 33 hours a week, whereas the Winscombe depot is open only 12 hours a week - and at a time when we should be protecting our environment by reducing car use, postal staff and customers will have to drive many extra miles.
Please help us save Axbridge Sorting Office by signing our petition HERE.
This week, voters across Somerset will get the chance to choose the option for change they would
prefer to see for local councils.
Kicked off during a pandemic at the insistence of the Leader of Somerset County Council, his
reorganisation plan proposes one council, delivering every single service, stretching from Minehead
to Frome. A single council which would take control of powers and services currently delivered
locally, in our own communities.
Following the local, mayoral and Police & Crime commissioner elections last Thursday across the country, there will be a chance for the people of Somerset to make their voices heard in the coming weeks.
In the next few days, you will receive a pack in the post asking for your views on how councils work across our county.
For many people, the differing levels of government can be confusing – what does a parish council do, compared to a district or county council? Who is charge of collecting your rubbish and who funds the schools or roads? In reality, most of these services are delivered by local councils, though it isn’t always easy to work out which one.
When this column goes to print on Thursday, it will be election day for much of the UK. For voters in Mendip, we are choosing a new Police & Crime Commissioner for Avon & Somerset, and many other areas will go about electing local councillors and mayors. Election campaigns, and the moment when you finally put a cross in a box highlight our democratic rights, to have our say and play our part in how we are governed.
I don’t think we should ever take our democracy and right to vote for granted. My grandmother was a suffragette. She joined a movement of people who fought for equal voting rights between men and women, something eventually granted in the UK in 1928 with the Equal Franchise Act. Elsewhere in the world, people are still unable to vote, or face grave risks by simply turning up at a polling station.
Over the past five weeks I’ve been covering our five distinct towns within Mendip. This week, I wanted to focus on our area’s rural communities. Mendip is, after all, a largely rural district, and 4 in 10 of us live in villages, small hamlets and nestled in the countryside off the beaten track.
However, while the advent of home working might increase the influx of newcomers to our villages, rural life isn’t without its challenges.
The final leg of my tour of the Mendip towns brings me to our cathedral city of Wells. With its population of just 12,000 it is often cited as being the smallest city in England, although technically the City of London with fewer than 9,000 residents is smaller in terms of population and geographical size.
The city status was granted thanks to the presence of what has been described as “the most poetic of the English Cathedrals” by Alec Clifton-Taylor OBE, an architectural historian, writer and TV broadcaster. The cathedral which dates back to 900AD, was accidentally built on marshy ground, hence the brilliant architectural device of its famous scissor arches to stop the walls caving in. Its world-famous choirs have been singing in the cathedral for more than 1,000 years. They feature regularly on BBC broadcasts and in concerts around the world.
As I continue with my tour of the towns, this week I am going to talk about a Mendip town which is regularly featured in the national press. It was cited as being one of the best places to live outside of London by The Times a few years back, and named ‘most stylish place to live in the UK’ by glossy magazine Harpers Bazaar!
You’ve guessed it – Frome, the biggest of our five Mendip settlements with a population of over 26,000. In terms of getting to and from, and around Frome, it has some great transport links – including train links to London, and e-bike hire to help cyclists with the hills of Frome! We are really happy to be supporting the further ‘electrification’ of Frome by installing electric vehicle charging points in our Mendip-owned carparks in Frome later on this year.