May’s County Council elections will land just over half-way through a widely-reviled Coalition government. After two years of slash-and-burn austerity, the Tories and Lib Dems are peaking in unpopularity, and, with destructive cut-backs from Tory-held County Hall hitting Somerset’s most vulnerable, Labour is gearing up for its most ambitious election campaign in a decade.
Somerset is all too often misconstrued as a uniformly Tory green and pleasant land. But time doesn’t stand still. In Conservative-held North Petherton ward, for example, recent social and economic change plus an appropriately young and dynamic Labour candidate mean there’s a real chance of the Blue seat going Red come election day, particularly as the seat now extends to the major new housing developments of Wilstock/Stockmoor which adjoin Bridgwater .
‘Bringing much needed youth to local politics’
Labour’s Oliver Barratt brings some much-needed youth to local politics. Oliver is 23, Bridgwater-born, and was educated at Haygrove, then Bridgwater College, going on to study law at university in Bristol. Despite his age, he knows the day-to-day economic realities of life in austerity-era Somerset, working as full-time manager of Proper Job, a DIY and hardware store on Eastover, Bridgwater. He also served with the Territorial Army.
Oliver believes that all forms of government, local or national, should be as representative as possible of the populations they serve. “Councils are notoriously dominated by older people, and many retired councillors provide years of dedicated service to the communities that elect them.” Says Ollie “ But it is Somerset’s young people who are worst affected by some of the most pressing issues of the day – lack of work, for one. Queues of of 16, 18 and 21 year-olds leave the education system year-on-year, only to find employment opportunities few and far between, and jobs with prospects even harder to come by.”
“If elected, I would do my utmost to support the young people in this ward, which includes the extensive new Wilstock/Stockmoor Village housing estate as well as North Petherton itself. “
‘a rapidly changing part of Somerset’
But Ollie has his finger on the pulse of issues that affect everyone in the ward. “It’s a rapidly changing part of Somerset, already beginning to feel theeffects of the now-inevitable Hinkley Point development. While a third nuclear reactor at Hinkley would provide the area with a much-needed economic boost, bringing massive investment and jobs, I’m not alone in expressing concern at the additional strain such a large influx of people will place on local infrastructure.”
“The new Somerset Bridge primary school, serving the Wilstock/Stockmoor Village development, is already oversubscribed. Together, Somerset Bridge and North Petherton school will surely struggle to accommodate the families of the Hinkley workforce. I share the disappointment of the local people that such a large estate has no playing fields or play equipment for young people to use. As a councillor, I would press local authorities to help both schools cope with the added pressure, as well as to ensure that local amenities are adequate to support the increasing population.”
‘Hinkley will bring a substantial increase in traffic’
The ward’s traffic situation is similarly concerning – already, motorway traffic often backs up through North Petherton and blocks the entrance to Stockmoor Village in the summer. “When Hinkley brings a substantial increase in traffic on top on what the area sees, the County Council must do all it can to prevent chaos on the highways.”
In common with all Labour’s County candidates standing in the Bridgwater and West Somerset area, Ollie passionately believes that large planning decisions need to be made in conjunction with the people they will affect the most. “New developments are hitting the North Petherton ward thick in fast in the wake of Hinkley, including large hotel and office complexes and, at Junction 24, a loading depot and park-and-ride scheme for Hinkley workers.”
‘Schemes must have consent of local people’
“I am adamant that schemes like these must not be given the go ahead without the consent of local people. Somerset’s Tories have an abysmal track record when it comes to public consultation, and have consistently prioritised the needs of big corporations and major developers over those of the ordinary people and local businesses.”
But detachment from the wants and needs of ordinary people is something many have come to expect from the current generation of Conservatives. “I was disgusted that the Coalition’s Bedroom Tax was originally going to target members of the Armed Services. Public outcry forced the Con-Dems to exempt squaddies and others from the tax. But despite that, the fact they were willing to victimise soldiers, foster carers and the disabled in the first place says everything that needs to be said about Tory disdain for the hard-working and the vulnerable.”
‘some of the most ruthless policies this country has seen’
In Somerset as in Westminster, both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems are tainted by association with some of the most ruthless policies this country has seen since the 1980s. “Far from us all being ‘in this together’, the Coalition has reliably favoured society’s most privileged while trampling over the interests of the majority. From Parliament in Westminster to Taunton’s County Hall, Tories can’t be trusted to prioritise the welfare of the many, not the few.”
“In North Petherton ward, and right across Somerset, Labour offers the only real alternative to an agenda that’s making life harder for millions.”