Saturday, November 29, 2008


In October the Government invited Councils to 'opt in' to the Sustainable Communities Act. This piece of private member legislation offers a new means of requiring Government to respond to grass roots needs, and should be a very effective additional way of identifying and initiating action on local concerns.

I proposed a motion to South Somerset District Council in a similar vein to that offered as a template by LocalWorks - - Steve Shaw generously gave his time to inform the Council about the massive backing and keen interest in the Act.

The motion, which was carried unanimously was -

That South Somerset District Council:

Having been recognised nationally as a Beacon for Community Engagement and Local Involvement

(i) believes that local authorities and their communities know best on the solutions to local problems and so should determine how to promote thriving communities; and so

(ii) supports the bottom up process in the Sustainable Communities Act designed to allow local authorities and their communities to drive the help that central government gives in reversing community decline and promoting thriving, sustainable communities;

(iii) notes that the Act became law in October 2007 with full cross party support and that this was a result of 5 year campaign run by a coalition of over 90 national citizens organisations called Local Works;

(iv) notes that the Act gives local authorities the power to
• make proposals to government on the action government must take to reverse
community decline and promote sustainable communities, and

• argue for a transfer of public money and function from central to local control;

(v) notes that the Act defines the sustainability of local communities broadly, that definition having the 4 aspects of

• the improvement of the local economy,

• protection of the environment,

• promotion of social inclusion, and

• participation in civic and political activity;

(vi) notes that the Local Works campaign give a number of reasons for why a local authority should choose to use the Act, those reasons being

1. Assistance from government - Community decline is happening everywhere and local authorities are not able to prevent it on their own. They need government help. This Act gives government a legal duty 'to assist local authorities in promoting the sustainability of local communities'. So by ‘opting in’ local authorities are, in fact, signing up to receive that 'assistance'.

2. Power to determine that assistance - The Act also gives local authorities (and their representative body, the Local Government Association) real power to determine the nature of the assistance that they receive from government, as explained more fully in our campaign broadsheet on implementing the Act (contact us for free copies).

3. Strength in numbers - By opting in, local authorities can act in unison to put in proposals to government supported by their colleagues elsewhere. Joint suggestions by many authorities will make it even harder for the government to refuse to act on suggestions made by local authorities.

4. Transferring functions and monies from central to local control - The Act also enables local authorities - and thus local authorities acting together - to request the transfer of functions from government or government agencies to themselves. Because decisions on these requests must be made by the LGA and the Secretary of State trying to reach agreement (i.e. in co-operation), this can be used to regain from central government control of many powers and spending that affect local areas.

5. Access to Central Spending Accounts Information - The requirement in the Act for the government to ‘open the books’ will mean that local authorities will know just how much extra money they can access if they push for a transfer of functions.

6. Democratic citizen involvement - All politicians (and many local authority officers) talk a lot about lack of public involvement in democracy. The recent Power report showed that the more people think that their involvement matters, the more they are likely to get involved. The very 'hassle' required by this Act (reaching agreement with – not consulting – citizens’ panels) empowers citizens. South Somerset District Council welcomes new ways to engage with, and empower, all communities.

(vii) further notes that the new burdens procedure means that central government shall provide financial assistance to local authorities that do choose to use the Act;

(viii) resolves, when invited to by central government, to use the Act by preparing and submitting proposals on how central government can help through a mechanism to be created using the best elements of South Somerset District Council’s award winning community engagement, and enhanced as necessary to ensure the fullest community involvement consistent with the Act.

(ix) further resolves to

• to inform all of our local communities of this decision;

• to inform all Local Strategic Partnership partners of the decision

• to widely publicise the Sustainable Communities Act and SSDC’s involvement

• to write to local MPs, informing them of this decision; and

• to write to Local Works (at Local Works, c/o Unlock Democracy, 6 Cynthia St,
London N1 9JF) informing them of their resolution to use the Act.

(x) requests the Chief Executive to put the appropriate mechanisms in place as soon as possible.

Friday, August 29, 2008


This is the text of a letter I sent recently as Health Champion for South Somerset District - so far 3 major local newspapers have run the letter, 2 are doing extra features. Please let us know what you think.

Dear Editor


Just over a year ago the smoking ban came into force to protect workers and the public from the effects of second-hand smoke. The ban included most work vehicles as well, and has been described as the biggest advance for public health in a generation. Although smoking has declined it is still by far the biggest cause of premature death. Half of all lifelong smokers are killed by tobacco, and half of those die 20-25 years early. Only 3 out of 10 heavy smokers will survive past retirement age.

The Government is now consulting on the next steps in tackling smoking, and as Health Champion for South Somerset, I particularly want to focus on protecting our children from smoking.

Children are far more vulnerable to the effects of smoke than adults, as their lungs are small and not yet fully formed.
• Thousands of children a year in the UK are admitted to hospital due to the
effects of second-hand smoke.
• Children of smokers are 72 times more likely to suffer serious chest infections than the children of non-smokers.
• Most cot deaths are now due to second hand smoke.
• Children who live with smokers are far more likely to become smokers themselves.

So I want to know if your readers agree with me that we need to do more to protect children from smoking.

Research evidence has shown that the smoke from just one cigarette results in a toxic atmosphere inside the car. Levels of minute particles are many times higher than recognised safety limits after just a few minutes. This is the case even with the driver’s window open a few inches.

In the home, the problem is that invisible toxic gases in cigarette smoke go right through the house. Confining smoking to one room, or smoking by an open window, doesn’t really help much. The only sure way to protect children from cigarette smoke is not to smoke inside the house.

No one is suggesting that the smoking ban should be extended to people’s homes, but some countries have made it illegal to smoke in cars when children are present. Should we?

Should the government be running smokefree homes campaigns to help more people make their homes smokefree, to protect children?

Should shops require a licence to sell tobacco, and if so, should they lose it if they sell to children?

We’d like to know what the people of South Somerset think about these issues. Your readers can tell us by email:

Your readers might also like to respond to the consultation themselves by September 8th via

South Petherton Local Action Group

South Petherton is blessed with a very active, successful and inspirational group of young people who over the years have developed the Youth Club and Youth Parish Council into nationally recognised beacons of excellence. Their success continues with Hannah Strugnell being named as Young Volunteer of the Year at the recent ‘Oscars’ in Yeovil and the Youth Parish Council responding to a request from DEFRA to prepare a report……… Despite these really successful efforts, it was probably never going to be possible to involve and engage absolutely every young person all of the time, and the village continues to experience Anti-Social Behaviour and many individual residents suffer from unpleasant and worrying incidents that often they feel the police have not done enough about.

About a year ago I was asked to chair the Local Action Group (LAG) - formed under the auspices of the Area North Community Safety Action Panel. Lots of jargon, but the basic premise is that local issues, particularly with Anti-Social Behaviour, need a mix of very local direct involvement but cannot be totally effective without support from the various experts and agencies such as Police, District Council, County Council and any one else with relevant skills.

We meet on about a monthly cycle in the Blake Hall committee room. I am very grateful to all the many local people and particularly young people who are actively involved and also to the external support we have from the police, Community safety Partnership, District Young People’s Officer, County Youth Service and my fellow Councillors.

Our first meetings were a bit tense – there is a reasonable concern that talking shops can be set up that tick boxes but don’t actually DO anything other than make themselves feel good. Local residents, particularly in St James Street, Prigg Lane and Roundwell Street were looking for action not words. Malcolm Lake has been a strong champion for the local residents and I am delighted that he has shown leadership in meeting with the young people and taking an active part in some of the activities we have been able to develop. Its not easy, but getting to know the young people in the car park, and them you is a big step towards mutual respect.

(I remember Richard Palmer when he was the Parish Council liaison with the Youth Club going to his first meeting and recounting that the next day he walked through the card park and was surprised to hear a number of the previously anonymous and ‘hooded’ group of young people calling out ‘Hi Richard’ – a major improvement!!)

So – what to do?

With the organisational skills of Sharon Blake as our foundation the LAG identified that we needed to do several things, quickly.

- Reduce the level of anti-social behaviour,
- increase the comfort local residents had with the response from police and other agencies,
- develop activities that all young people could engage with,
- and create sustainable solutions to somewhere for all young people to ‘hang out’ while protecting those areas that were not appropriate.

With small amounts of grant funding from the Community Safety Action Panel initially, then from County, District and Police funding augmented by some local parish funds, we have addressed each of the issues to a significant degree and there has been a general improvement in all cases. Not perfect, and not a one off exercise, we will have to persevere but its been a very good start.

What have we done?

The Time Out Together community bus was set up in Yeovil to address similar issues there. Using the old District Council double decker bus (must be 50 years old now) this voluntary group brought the bus to the St James St car park for an evening a number of weeks over Christmas and well in to the New Year. Activities such as computing, coffee shop and general chat were supported by both volunteers from the Time Out Together group but also local residents – Jenny Derbyshire has been magnificent. Time Out Together also won an ‘Oscar’ and Dana and her team have shown us that you can engage all of the young people some of the time – and it was a great ice-breaker. We have booked the bus for later in the year during the cold winter evenings!

The David Hall, often seeming to be the target of some behaviour, have been very supportive and I would like to thank their committee for providing time for a number of taster activities put on by the Yeovil Foyer Outreach group, lead by Lisa Warr. Together with the District Young People’s Officer the Foyer began a series of sessions to identify what activities young people would want to get involved with – a number of things have come out of this – street soccer, DJ skills and others that are being pursued and will (with the support of volunteers) be a continuing part of village life.

The entrance to the Library used to be a haven for young people when it rained – but its not the perfect place, no light, no seats and a not really the right location. The photograph shows the new Youth Shelter, installed a few weeks ago and already being well used. The recreation ground was clearly seen as a better place for young people to congregate in the summer evenings, and the games area is great but without lighting and without a shelter that was lit the dark nights meant young people went back to the village centre after dark…..

Now the shelter with its solar panels providing gentle light until well into the evening and the new lights for the multi use games area (installed with much help from the police, Russell Knight and Keith Vincent – and 15 young people digging trenches on the first night) will offer a safe, accessible place for all young people to congregate.

The Youth Club continues to operate twonighst each week with a further evening session panned tostart in September. The parish Coucnuikl has now arranged for Peter May and his team from Active Learning Skills to arrange additional activities na Friday evening to complement the work of the County Youth Service. SCC have just appointed a new Senior Youth Worker who will be able concentrate much more on South Petherton and we look forward to him arriving next month.

All of this (and there is more) are on the positive side, but we cannot shrink from taking affirmative action when things still don not go right. The level of police intervention and action has increased significantly, the level of incidents has reduced but the severity of penalty has increased.

Neighbourhood Watch Schemes have been established in the central part of the village and along with the existing schemes are well supported by our Police Community Support Officers, Michelle Haimes and Peter Brember and by Jon Watson, Police Community Beat Manager . Jon has run 2 extremely successful exercises since he joined our area. The first was a meeting of all young people in the rec with over 30 attendees where the issues were openly discussed and actions agreed, the second a PACT (Police and Community Together’ session at the annual parish meeting, where the 3 key issues of concern were

1. Anti Social Behaviour
2. Parking
3. Speeding

The balance between plenty to do, an open attitude between young and older residents, and strong action by police in response to recorded incidents is the key to lower levels of concern and even greater comfort in this best of all villages. There has been a higher level of parking enforcement, and with enough volunteers Community Speedwatch could restart and will be supported actively by the police as it is in other parishes.

And that’s the big message from the Local Action Group’s first year. There is a real opportunity to make a difference if everyone gets together with a positive attitude and gets on with doing something. We have made a good start, its not a finished project but so far its making a real improvement that we will strive to continue to deliver.

(submitted for inclusion in the TA13 local magazine)