By Harry Mottram: On February 20th, 2024, Somerset County Council finally agreed on its budget for the coming year with large cuts to services in order to balance the books and fill a reported ‘black hole’ of around £100 million pounds in its accounts.

For Axbridge there are a number of consequences with one of the most publicised being the potential closure of Cheddar’s recycling centre. It’s one of five recycling centres (formerly known in my language as rubbish dumps or tips) that could be closed to save money. However, all the reports coming from County Hall are that a final decision hasn’t been made as the council negotiates with the operators. For instance, that could been the centre remains open on fewer days of the week but its future is in doubt. If it does happen expect to see more fly tipping with old mattresses and fridges decorating the road sides and droves.

Other cuts that may affect the town and district are trimming Somerset Highways’ budget meaning fewer repairs on roads along with less verge cutting and maintenance. And one which may hit motorists at Sainsbury’s in Cheddar – a hike in the car park fee. It’s currently 80p for an hour although Sainsbury’s repay it if you spend enough – if you remember to present your ticket of course – something I routinely fail to do. School crossing patrols will be cut as one saving – which goes against all common sense – there’s a freeze on playground spending and a range of cuts ranging from closing district offices, making staff redundancies and even mothballing the Octagon Theatre in Yeovil. It does make you wonder if some of the cuts could come in the way of er… downsizing salaries – the County’s chief executive for instance earns £195,00 with benefits. Some town and parish councils have taken charge of local facilities which will be protected from some of the cuts – Axbridge runs its own carparks for instance – once run by the abolished Sedgemoor District Council. The rest of the £100million gap in funding will come from using reserves, selling off land owned by Somerset, and more to the point a hike in Council Tax.

That hike will see a band D property (normally seen as an average ordinary home) will rise by £82.14 a year to £1,728.18 – while taking into account more expensive properties the average council tax bill in Somerset for 2024/25 will be £2,267.03 a year – a rise of £150.94 , or 7.13 per cent, compared to the 2023/24 financial year.

The blame game was at the centre of the debate with the Conservatives blaming the LibDem controlled council and the LibDems blaming the Conservatives for cutting spending to local Governments by anything from around 5% to a far higher percentage while the population has increased, and inflation eats away at costs. Add to that interest rates, an aging population and increased demands on social care and education provision and few will disagree that local authorities are underfunded. To blame one or other parties – the Conservatives were in power in Somerset before the LibDems won in 2022 – is a pointless exercise in political point scoring. All parties have to confront the uncomfortable realities of 21st century Britain. Providing social care and long term care for the elderly will increase and become more expensive as the population lives longer and expects a level of support which generations in the past did not have. In 2022 the LibDems took 61 seats in Somerset, with the Tories down to 36, Greens on 5, Labour on 3 and 3 Independents.

One of the issues raised in the debate was that of streamlining Somerset into one County Council with its HQ in county hall in Taunton and the axing of Sedgemoor and other district councils in the name of saving money and efficiency. Sadly the predicted savings of up to £47 million pounds didn’t materialise with a figure closer to £15 million.

The budget (in round figures) needed to save £100 million. Reserves used will be around £37 million, a further cash could be realised in selling assets like old offices and land, closing the recycling centres would raise nearly one million with other closures of community assets of about £35 million in savings meaning the magic £100 million is just about reached with luck. The Government chipped in £5 million this year but clearly more is needed.

Writing on the Somerset Live website Local Democracy Reporter Daniel Mumby noted: “The vast majority of local authorities across the UK are experiencing huge financial difficulties caused by a number of factors. Brexit and pressures in the job market have made it hard to recruit social workers, carers and other vital staff, forcing the council to pay extra to secure agency staff. The war in Ukraine and the ensuing rises in inflation has pushed up the cost of construction projects, along with the cost of heating and keeping the lights on at the various council premises. The coronavirus pandemic has cast a long shadow, with rising numbers of children presenting with complex needs and requiring additional support after missing significant time at mainstream school.”

The cuts passed by the council will only keep things ticking over for another financial year – there will still be a £100 million pound shortfall in 12 months’ time. Do they cut further, sell more property, close Cheddar Library and Highbridge Recycle Centre? Clearly there has to be a solution – and nobody is going to come up with one this side of the expected General Election. The obvious solution is for the Government to give local authorities more powers to raise cash, to use more of their reserves and to increase council tax – along with a hefty increase in money from Whitehall.

My theory is that there will be extra funding – with strings attached – as the alternative is what has happened in Birmingham, Hackney, Thurrock, Woking and Northamptonshire along with a growing number of councils – and that is to issue a Section 114 notice, effectively declaring bankruptcy with all the consequences of community assets sold off or closed, massive increases in council tax and mass redundancies. And nobody wants that.

Axbridge News is edited by Harry Mottram and is published for the interest of himself and fellow residents.

Harry is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc