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Somerset businesses given update by economic leaders

Somerset Chamber of Commerce brought local businesses and economic leaders from Somerset Council together to discuss its work with the business community and the challenges facing the authority.

Inevitably, the council’s current “financial emergency” and budget blackhole dominated many of the questions from Chamber members who raised concerns about the cost of creating the unitary authority and one money-saving proposal which could see the county’s CCTV centre closed.

Others said some of the grants currently offered through the council were small and did not go very far when it came to supporting businesses and feared they would be cut even further in the upcoming budget.

Paul Hickson, Somerset Council’s Service Director for Economy, Employment and Planning, said Somerset was not alone in trying to balance its budget: “These are challenging financial times for the council but this isn’t unique to Somerset.

“We have declared what we call a financial emergency because of the gap we have in our budget next year.

“At one stage we were looking at a gap of £100 million but we have pared that back so the gap is less challenging than it was but nevertheless councillors are going to face some difficult decisions when they finally set the budget in February.”

He said the council had a number of options it was considering, including using reserves to buy time, raising fees, reducing or stopping non-statutory services and reducing the size of the local authority itself.

He said the council would be looking to work even more closely with businesses and business organisations, such as the chamber of commerce, in the coming year, especially as the Government would be ceasing funding for local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) at the end of March.

“The responsibilities of LEPs will be transferred to local authorities and it will require us to continue to work with our business partners, such as the chamber of commerce, as the Government is keen to see a business voice informing local authorities as to what the business priorities should when we develop an economic strategy,” Mr Hickson said.

James Gilgrist, Somerset Council’s Head of Economic Prosperity, said the authority had supported businesses through a number of initiatives, including business-specific green grants, a mentoring scheme, managed workspaces, innovation centres and enterprise centres.

This included a newly extended one-stop-shop for businesses to turn to for advice on anything council-related: “The Somerset Business Hub was previously operated by Mendip but as part of our merger into a unitary authority we have extended it to cover the wider area.

“It gives businesses a central point of contact for information about the council, from licensing and planning to food and health and safety, the hub is there to help,” he said.

Emma Rawlings, Somerset Chamber of Commerce’s Chief Executive, thanked the senior officers for speaking to Chamber members and encouraged businesses to have their say in the authority’s budget consultation.

She added: “Somerset Chamber is here to support the local business community so we were pleased to be able to bring together companies and senior council leaders to talk about the opportunities and help available to them and to find out more about the serious financial pressures facing the authority.”

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