Somerset this week: 3 November
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Somerset this week: 3 November
Stepping up to the storm challenge
The last few days have been anything but easy. The whole county has been battered by Storm Ciarán. But unlike years gone by there is a greater resilience at the heart of the local response.
It is a month shy of a decade since the rains started and forgot to stop, resulting in flooding of biblical proportions across the Somerset Levels.
The confused response exposed over lap between agencies, one thinking it didn’t need to do something because the other was. Whilst the other did nothing for the same reason. It exposed holes in the service, the line where one service finished fell short of the point where another one began.
After that disaster, things changed. Today we have one overall body, The Somerset Rivers Authority, with responsibility for managing the response. We also have rivers that are dredged, flood gates for roads and ultimately in due course, the Bridgwater Tidal Barrier.
That’s not to say that storms have no impact. The railway south of Taunton has been closed for a couple of days. Roads have been blocked with fallen trees and there have been road closures and accidents.
But by way of comparison, after the same storm blasted into Tuscany, flooding was widespread and 6 people have died so far.
The big picture in Somerset, the floods and the response to them, are generally well known. What is less well known and of equal importance, are the growing local groups, led by volunteers who provide information, offer preventative measures and look after residents on their patch.
CARG works wonders
In the case of Chard that comes in the form of the Chard Area Resilience Group (CARG). Describing themselves without irony as an umbrella group, they came together out of a sense of disappointment with the response of local government and other official bodies. Especially in the wake of the devastating floods in the town in 2021.
Their aim was to plug the gaps at a local level between the various bodies responsible when catastrophes like storms of floods struck the town and surrounding parishes. They liaise with Police and other emergency services and try to be helpful and supportive to the community.
Chard is prone to flooding. Not the regular river-bursts-its-banks sort of flooding, but run off from fields, blocked drains and inadequate drainage in general, sort of flooding.
And the past couple of days have been no exception with water running through streets in some areas of the town.
What CARG do is both prepare and respond. In anticipation of the latest storm, the week before CARG volunteers were cleaning up and unblocking, looking at features such as road gullies and streams at key points. Dealing with problems they have located based on their recent experience.
David Bell, one of their volunteers shared with us some of the things they get up to. In the eye of this latest storm, their Incident Wardens and Support Team volunteers were out in force, knocking on doors in St Mary’s Close for instance to warn of rising waters and helping vulnerable residents. Even pushing a car out of the flood waters.
while they are out helping, they are also recording problem areas
But while they are out helping, they are also recording problem areas, flood points, so that they can liaise with others after the event to ensure larger projects can set to work to prevent flooding in vulnerable parts of the town.
The residents seem grateful too. On Wednesday night as water started gushing into St Mary’s Close one resident posted on Facebook: “Well done CARG team, just spoke to residents there. Obviously the problem is a repeat of before, huge amount of water coming off of the fields”
Serena Wootton takes up the story in a different part of town. “In terms of Forton where I live, the work that CARG has done with different agencies, local landowners and the Water Company has really improved things. We are out clearing drains by Forton brook where all my neighbours were flooded and all were out agreeing that works that have happened upstream have dramatically improved the situation here last night and today. The flow is still fast but it is being slowed higher up. So a positive impact already being felt. Although the job is not done with other roads and residents in trouble elsewhere.”
Flood wardens out and about
Over in Martock they too know a lot about flooding.
Andrew Clegg is one of a team of volunteer flood wardens working alongside local flood co-ordinator Gordon Swindells. Leveller readers may recall Andrew has also been involved on monitoring phosphates on the Levels.
He explains how the last couple of days turned out in Martock.
Here too it is also about preparation. Simple things like pointing people in the direction of hydrosnakes (at 2 for £25 at Screwfix) that you can put across your door to stop water seeping in underneath.
He told us: “Martock is at the point on the river Parrett where all the water from the wide catchment is funnelled into a stem which goes straight across the Somerset Levels to the sea between high banks. Martock floods when a lot of water comes from upstream. It also floods, when there is a blockage in the stem of the funnel on the way to the sea.
On Wednesday we were ready for both to happen simultaneously. And they have.
The day started when the normally quiet stream from Yeovil overtopped onto the adjacent road, blocking it. This is not unusual. In fact it is planned. It keeps the water out of peoples houses. So the road east, the main road into the village from the A303, was closed from before dawn. Trouble is it traps people in their homes as they can’t get along the road. Thursday morning, when I put the flood signs up I also gave a lift to our stranded postman!
Later on Thursday, the River Parrett was partly blocked downstream by an exceptionally high springtide, coupled with very low atmospheric pressure which raised the high tide still further. This slows the flow over Stathe Lock and the effect is quickly felt upstream. It caused the Parrett to rise rapidly flooding all the fields west of the village and the two roads that cross them. This happens extremely quickly and takes people by surprise. That morning, the Fire Brigade were called out to help two trapped cars.
As I write (yesterday), I have had no reports of house floods. This is reassuring as it is the first serious test of the award-winning Hills to Levels flood protection scheme which was put in place after the floods of 10 years ago with funding from the Somerset Rivers Authority
This flood is also the first test of three recent new housing developments In the low-lying part of the village. The ditches near them were all recently checked and cleared by the drainage board and householders and, so far, we have had no reports of serious flooding. But the current storm is by no means over.”
Storms like Ciarán are becoming ever more commonplace. Our communities need to be prepared to deal with events like this on a regular basis. The various statutory bodies will do their bit. Flood signs, removing fallen trees and reporting road closures. But local organisations can do so much more with that extra bit of local knowledge.
Flooding update. As of 4pm on 3 November the following roads were closed due to flooding:
A37 Ilchester Road heading to Yeovil from the A303 junction.
A303 Westbound at Ilchester junction. National Highways report that the A303 will remain closed for at least 24 hours, with a diversion in place.
B3081 Charlon Musgrove
Several minor roads including Cutts Road, the Muchelney to Langport road and New Road on the Somerset Levels where closure gates are in operation.
Ticket offices to stay open
Central government and the train companies fell out this week as Secretary of State for Transport, Mark Harper MP rejected proposals to close ticket offices.
The way it was put by Mr Harper, was that he had “asked the train companies to withdraw their proposals”. The train companies pointing out that he had approved the proposals in the first place.
The idea of closing most of them (in Somerset all of them would have been closed under the plans) was put out for consultation during the summer. The response to the consultation was massive and overwhelmingly against the closures. It was reported that over 750,000 people responded to passenger watchdogs Transport Focus and London Travelwatch.
The train company (or the Minister’s depending on your point of view) proposals argued that only 12% of tickets were sold through station ticket offices. So what would be the harm in closing them?
The key point they missed, is that those ticket sales were vital for the elderly and disabled passengers. There were threats of legal challenges on the grounds of discrimination had the closures gone through.
It had the capacity to be a magnificent own goal for a government that is already anything up to 20% behind in the polls (according to which one you read). The U turn was swift.
In Somerset, Bruton and Highbridge stations do not have ticket offices, but Bridgwater, Frome, Castle Cary, Crewkerne, Yeovil Penn Mill, Yeovil Junction, Templecombe and Taunton (opened in 2021 after as part of a multi million pound refurbishment) all do. Even if they are open for limited numbers of hours.
And although we have two train companies and a bus company, all in fact are owned by the same business; First Group.
Local Conservative MPs, especially Messrs Pow (Taunton Deane) and Heappey (Wells) who as government ministers have to toe the party line, largely backed the closure plan.
Even so Ms Pow took all the credit for getting the station refurbishment funding including a flashy new ticket office which only opened in 2021. So it seems strange that in 2023 she’s backing closing it. A policy which would have wasted a lot of public money on her watch.
In Taunton, Gideon Amos, the parliamentary candidate for Wellington & Taunton constituency organised a petition against the closure of the ticket office at Taunton Station. The petition attracted 700 signatures.
Other Libdems joined in. Commenting on the government U turn, Cllr Tom Deakin, Leader of Taunton Town Council, added: “As a town council, we were united in our opposition to these proposals and submitted our own letter of objection.”
Adam Dance the LibDem parliamentary candidate for Yeovil constituency welcomed the decision to reverse the proposals. He told Somerset Confidential: “This is a great u turn for a lot of people in my constituency. Many rail users across Somerset would have found themselves unable to use the trains if ticket offices had been closed. During the consultation period my campaign team and I handed out several hundred leaflets in Crewkerne urging local people to add their support to the bid to keep local ticket offices open. On their behalf I am delighted to note the government's policy reversal. What we need now is a further review to look at the way in which our rail services are financed. I know for instance that Crewkerne station desperately needs more personnel to offer a service which meets the needs of local users”
Crewkerne station desperately needs more personnel
In Bridgwater it was the local Labour Party that had taken up the cause of keeping their local ticket office open. Mayor of Bridgwater Cllr Mick Lerry noted: “The Government were foolish to try and spend an enormous amount of time trying to close ticket offices at Railway Stations. Resources and funding should have been spent on improving reliability for train users, while encouraging more passengers to use rail and public transport. The closure of ticket offices would not encourage more passengers to use the railways or public transport. Bridgwater Railway Station has been without a ticket office, due to poor management and a lack of commitment due to the anticipated closure, which the Government has now dropped due to public pressure and discrimination”.
Meanwhile Brian Smedley, Leader of Bridgwater Town Council added: “This is a great achievement by the people who have fought for this including local trades unions, community groups and our Town Transport Forum. However, the next step is to get everyone to focus on the future direction of railways and public transport in general and that’s one which puts passengers before profit, makes the railways and our busses safe and affordable means of transport.”
Marcus Fysh is an MP who has earned something of a reputation for putting his foot in it, was at it again.
In a local newspaper column, albeit in a newspaper with a circulation of barely 3,500 readers, he wrote “I am deeply concerned that Somerset Council is today going to consider issuing a section 114 notice.” A good opener and a statement which is not entirely accurate.
What the council were doing, was looking at forecasts and discussing their financial position. They did note that depending on circumstances they might have to issue a s114 notice next year. But Mr Fysh has never been one to let the facts get in his way.
He goes on to attack the LibDem administration before noting: “the level of incompetence in this vital public body at the hands of the LibDems is staggering and shocking. I said before that South Somerset District Council was not fit for purpose and should be taken into special measures by the government. This is now sadly a cancer the LibDems have spread to the wider scale….”
Given that the Leader of Somerset Council, Bill Revans is currently battling kidney cancer, and he lost his wide to breast cancer, this was an incredibly off colour remark. A point Mr Revans took to twitter (sorry X) to make.
The MP for Yeovil is either incredibly ignorant of local affairs, or unashamedly offensive. Presumably the latter as he acknowledged seeing Bill Revan’s post on twitter (X) and then doubled down on the remark by repeating it on his own twitter (X) feed.
Still thank heavens he represents a government that has done nothing to trash the economy, hadn’t managed to double the national debt before COVID struck and was not in any way directly responsible for the financial crisis into which most local authorities have now been plunged… oh… oops….
This week Police & Crime Commissioner, Mark Shelford, has been highlighting the dangers posed by the increases in cyber crime across Somerset.
Earlier this week he reported that there are between 800-1000 reports of fraud and cyber crime every month in Avon and Somerset; however, the actual number is likely to be far higher. These types of crime are increasing in volume and complexity.
there are between 800-1000 reports of fraud and cyber crime every month
In the 6 months between January and June this year, there were 3,651 reports of cyber crimes to Action Fraud from Avon and Somerset alone. he said: “These reports paint a distressing picture, showcasing financial losses amounting to an astonishing £34.4 million, with businesses alone bearing a significant £6.3 million burden.”
Mr Shelford warns that we need to report all cyber crime, even if it feels embarrassing. Only by knowing the true extent of it, can government justify funding a response to it that is of the right scale.
He also offered advice on five actions that can be taken to help tackle and prevent this type of crime:
1. Use strong and unique passwords for each online account you hold and implement two-factor authentication wherever possible.
2. Exercise caution about the information shared on social media platforms – this can be used by criminals to dupe people.
3. Businesses should train their teams to identify phishing attempts. Emphasising the use of robust passwords and instilling a sense of vigilance in all digital interactions.
4. Systems and software should regularly be updated and ensure multi-factor authentication is in place.
5. Report all incidents of cyber crime.
If you’re concerned that you have become a victim of a cyber crime, please report it to Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040, or via their website: Action Fraud
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