Somerset County Council Mid Term Financial Plan (MTFP):
Proposed cuts to ecological and natural environment services
1st February 2013
On Tuesday 22nd January Somerset County Council (SCC) released its Mid Term Financial Plan (MTFP) which contains proposals for nearly £18 million of savings across the next 3 years. Cost savings are being sought from the majority of County Council services, and will come through a combination of non-staff budget cuts, staff redundancies, and efficiencies through restructuring, contract consolidation and partnership arrangements.
Services relating to ecological advice, biodiversity and the wider environment are all affected by the proposals. The savings are frontloaded into the 13/14 financial year (circa £16.4 million), with around £184,000 (about 1.2%) coming from ecology and natural environment-related post deletions in the “Environmental Resources”, “Countryside and Coast” and “Strategic Planning“ service areas.
There are discrepancies between information given to staff and information in the MTFP, but it appears that the MTFP proposals include the deletion of the following posts over the three year period:
- Countryside Manager(1 post) Phil Stone;
- Project Team Workers and Supervisor?(3)
- Project / Canal team ‘
- Ecologist?(1) Larry Burrows or Tony Serjeant;
- Biodiversity Project Officer?(1) Joy Williams;
- Coast and Catchment/Levels and Moors?Officer?(1) Rebecca Seaman.
The shape of the Countryside Services is changed significantly by the removal of the above posts plus a reorganisation with remaining staff going to Highways, Commissioning & ‘Operations’. Of the remaining staff undertaking principally reactive countryside-related work in Somerset there would be the?following:
- Ecologist Larry Burrows or Tony Serjeant;
- Arboriculturalist?Steve Scriven;
- Coast and Catchment/Levels and Moors?Project Officer Steve Dury (although position unclear after end of WAVE funding)
- Countryside Project Officer Trevor Wall . (0.2FTE)
The total SCC budget for ecology, nature conservation and countryside in 12/13 is budgeted at: £210,970 for staff; £145,700 for projects and contractors (of which £82,700 is for highway tree works). For the same year, income generated for SCC through these staff to cover staff costs is £20,000, and income secured for environmental investment across the county is £635,000. No service review or consultation process with partners/stakeholders has been completed prior to announcing these cuts, to establish what the true costs/benefits are likely to be.
SCC is essentially withdrawing all proactive resources for the natural environment, with implications for the state of Somerset’s environment, partnership activities, community engagement, and more. The implications of these cuts are wide but will be of particular concern to those organisations and individuals who rely on SCC as a stable partner in conservation and countryside work. The main issues that spring to mind are:
- Precedent: From information available, it looks as if SCC will be the first upper tier authority in the South West to undertake such severe reductions in ecological and countryside services, potentially setting a precedent to other authorities seeking to make savings. The request to other authorities within the county to fund ecology services at County Council may be at the cost of district authority services.
- Statutory compliance: SCC’s statutory duties towards biodiversity and the natural environment, particularly in relation to spatial planning and review of permissions across Natura 2000 sites, may not be discharged, with attendant risk of environmental impacts arising.
- Decision making: With no-one to champion the natural environment internally, it is likely that it will slip further down the agenda, investment opportunities will be missed, and poor consideration will be given to environmental issues.
- Loss of enabler: SCC staff working in partnership with other organisations have brought expertise, access to skills, and resources which have been vital in securing European funds to deliver large-scale environmental conservation projects. These projects have brought considerable investment and income generation to the county. Examples include SL&M where one Project Manager has been involved in generating around £7million of direct and indirect income for the area over the last 5 years.
If you as an individual or your organisation have concerns about these cuts, there are things you can do:
- Raise this issue with your managers – discuss the implications these cuts have for your organisation, your work, and consider submitting a representation to the Leader of the County Council and his Cabinet. Even better, see if you can meet with these individuals and make your case in person. Their contact details can be found here: http://www1.somerset.gov.uk/council/boards.asp?boardnum=3
- As an individual, write to your County Councillors – some Councillors have been in touch with SWT voicing concerns about the plan and the way the information in it has been presented. The more they hear from their electorate about the subject, the better.
- Write to your MP – this issue harks to a wider problem about the way the natural environment is being portrayed by the Government. Can you help get across to our politicians the message that a healthy environment is crucial for us, our well-being, our future?