Friday, July 20, 2007

Community Strategy leads Rural Continuity

South Somerset is made up of a diverse mix of town, village and rural localities.

If you want to live in an idyllic village with fields, animals and 'air' you can, but where you have to work to support that lifestyle, or how to get from home to the shops, cinema or even the pub without access to transport can be an insurmountable problem.

There is a major problem about balance - Where do you start?

More employment, building factories and encouraging office development creates new jobs, but if this comes first then staff will have to travel from where they live now.

More transport, to allow the staff to travel to work generates extra traffic and leaves people living where they do now - so the need to build houses for the workers in the jobs you have created isn't there any more.

If you do build houses first then people will have to travel away from home until there is work locally.

What should a rural community do?

The first thing is NOT to do is to drive young people looking for their first home away from the village - so we need affordable homes in rural villages. This aim is totally incompatible with government's drive for low cost housing on brown field land while preserving 'the green belt'.

We need to bring parcels of land in to use in all our rural communities both for local people to stay local and to relieve the pressure on rapidly growing towns swelling uncomfortably under the weight of focussed development. To make this work there must be efficient mass transport (either bus or rail) to link small rural locations to centres of economic activity for either work or play day and night.

Agricultural land at £3,000 an acre suddenly becomes development land at 100 times the price if you add 'hope value' to a potential site.

Paying such a high price for land makes houses too expensive.......unless we find a way to release land in communities for development at a price that makes the housing affordable. If we can do that then some of the money saved can be used to create improved transport infrastructure and go towards supporting both shops and offices / workplaces to locate in secondary settlements that offer a higher quality of environment than big towns while still offering all the facilities.

The Sustainable Community Strategy being developed by South Somerset Together is attempting to collect and rationalise the conflicting demands on retaining viable rural communities.

Read the initial issues document and give your opinions about the development of the strategy by accessing

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

One size fits all?

The Unitary debate is reaching a key stage across the country.

Responses to the Department of Communities and Local Government consultation on their selected bids is due by June 22nd.

In Somerset we are still debating whether the right option was selected (it wasn't) but at the same time I hope we are getting closer to some shared understanding on what would have been a more generally acceptable proposition if DCLG had provided the time, process and will to enter into bottom-up consultation as well as create a top-down straightjacket.

I chair the Local Strategic Partnership (South Somerset Together) and we had our Annual General Meeting last week. As well as launching the consultation on a complete revision of our Sustainable Community Strategy we discussed amongst ourselves as the LSP and with representatives from a wide range of our parishes, towns and partner organisations what characteristics would make any future local authority in South Somerset either markedly better - or markedly worse.

The gravest concerns were the possibility of a significant reduction in democratic representation (down to 116 Councillors for 500,000 people) and the possibility of losing the internationally recognised Community Development and Engagement by officers of the South Somerset District Council which is so strongly supported through active Area Committees made up from all members of all parties. County Council representatives at the meeting made a robust response to both these points, and clearly the County opinion is that these concerns should be allayed by the way in which the new authority will actually do its job - time will possibly tell, but the confidence our audience felt was not helped by the clear message that the promises of 'not more than 2% council tax rises for 5 years' and others could not be mandated on the new authority!

There was hope expressed that any new authority would simplify decision making, reduce central and overhead costs and fit better with the other partner agencies. At our District level there was major concern that a County wide approach to these aspects would result in remoteness of decision making, more direction from Government through a single body, and a reduction in the level of personal heavy commitment from District Councillors in education, community safety, health and well being.

The Local Strategic Partnership is a consultee in the Unitary process. It is odd (to say the least) that a non-statutory body such as the LSP gets to make a formal response when the more formal public bodies such as town councils and parish councils do not have a specific route to get their responses heard and weighed. I hope our exercise will repair that deficit to some extent - but it is not enough.

We will be writing to the DCLG in time for their deadline. I hope that the referendum has been reported by then because it will help us address one of the five categories that DCLG have proposed our response should cover:

- that the proposal should be supported by a broad cross ection of partners and stakeholders.......

(In Prime Minister's QuestionTime today (June 13th 2007) the Prime Minister expressed complete confidence that DCLG would take seriously the views of the 6 MPs in North Yorkshire about lack of cross-sectional support. Let us hope he does for Somerset as well - perhaps our MPs could get together and make a similar strong statement)

The other categories from DCLG are

- affordable (value for money and can be met from councils' "existing resource envelope")
- provide strong effective and accountable strategic leadership
- deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment
- deliver value for money and equity on public services

The LSP will be making a submission that we will make publicly available. Any individual or body NOT on the list of consultees can of course write direct to DCLG (accessing the website is a good start and look at consultations).

Whatever you choose to do - if you have an opinion make sure it is heard.