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July 17, 2024
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MP Pow writes about Somerset Council’s financial crisis

I kicked off as the Environment Minister by bringing in the legislation for our flagship policy to deliver more nature to every development that gets built by integrating what is called biodiversity net gain into planning applications.

This will not only help provide much-needed habitat for our precious wildlife but will also make the places in which we live in Taunton Deane greener and healthier.

I am acutely aware however, that for many of my constituents the most serious issue facing them right now is the cost of living, which is putting real pressure on household budgets, so it is welcome news that the cut in employee National Insurance announced recently is now starting to take effect.

This equates to a tax cut of £450 for the average worker earning £35,000. In practice, this means a typical police officer will receive an annual gain of over £600; a typical junior doctor will pay over £750 less in NI and a hard-working family with two earners on the average income will be £900 better off a year.

The Government will also cut National Insurance for the Self Employed, delivering a total average saving of £340 a year which will come into force later this year. All welcome.

In addition, the Government is boosting the Local Housing Allowance which will mean that 1.6m private renters on Universal Credit or Housing Benefit are £800 better off each year.

With many facing acute pressures on the cost of housing this is also being welcomed by many locally and is much needed.

It has to be remembered that these kinds of measures are only possible thanks to difficult long-term decisions being made by the Government to get inflation falling and to strengthen the economy. Understandably, I have received a lot of correspondence from constituents since the turn of the year concerning the Post Office scandal.

It is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history and ITV must be commended for their coverage of this issue bringing the scandal into sharp focus.

I, like many across the constituency too am appalled by the treatment of the sub-postmasters who were accused of theft based on flawed evidence from the Horizon IT system.

Victims’ accounts of the impact of these prosecutions are particularly harrowing.

Nobody at either the Post Office or Fujitsu has been held directly accountable.

The chair of the public inquiry, Sir Wyn Williams has published his interim report and I’ve been assured that Ministers will respond formally shortly.

I know many in my constituency have called for the removal of honours of Paula Vennells CBE and at the time of writing Ms Vennells has just announced that she will be returning her CBE with immediate effect.

The Government is determined to make compensation claims as soon as possible, and certainly by the current deadline of August this year.

I was on the front bench in the Chamber of the House of Commons this week to hear Minister Hollinrake give assurances that his priority is setting right the wrongs and whilst in many cases it is almost impossible to make up for the harms, we must do all that is possible and must without doubt learn lessons to ensure this kind of injustice never happens again.

I turn now to the issue of Somerset Council’s finances, another subject I have been contacted about by many of my constituents recently. In November last year, the council declared a financial emergency.

Since then, I have had several meetings with Ministers in Westminster to make them acutely aware of the situation as well as meeting the Somerset Council leadership team.

The council have outlined a range of options to meet the estimated £100m funding gap, which will be considered at their next council meeting on January 15.

Options put forward include using reserves and surpluses from local taxes as well as stopping funding to discretionary services like CCTV.

The council are also asking Government for special permission to raise council tax by 10 per cent.

This would have an obvious impact on many already facing serious cost of living pressures.

Questions do need to be asked about those now running our council and why they had not begun to address the issues sooner given the council was handed on in good shape from the previous Conservative administration.

However, my concern is for my constituents, their pressures, and the need to provide the services we all need, and I am engaging both locally and in Westminster to this effect.

I have a meeting scheduled shortly with the Local Government Minister Simon Hoare to discuss the situation in detail and to stress that we need a fully functioning council and that we must avoid a section 114 notice being issued. I will report back following my meeting.

Written by Taunton Deane MP Rebecca Pow

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