FEATURE: In discussion with MP James Heappey
PUBLISHED: 09:00 21 February 2017 | UPDATED: 09:14 21 February 2017
Somerset is facing fresh challenges every day, including new housing plans, high demand for NHS services and a host of budget cuts. But there are also a number of positives about living in this ‘beautiful’ part of the world, according to MP James Heappey.
Mercury reporter Sheridan Robins caught up with the Wells MP, whose constituency includes Burnham, Highbridge, Cheddar and Axbridge, to discuss the issues in the county.
The NHS – is it in ‘crisis’?
It is no secret the NHS is under extreme pressure in Somerset and North Somerset.
But Mr Heappey believes the word ‘crisis’ is a dangerous one to use, even though he agrees the pressure hospitals are under is ‘unacceptable.’
He said: “A crisis is something which can’t be prepared for or managed. It is winter and so the NHS gets busier.
“We know the population is ageing and demand is going to grow and grow.
“Non-emergency operations were cancelled in December and January as we know it is going to be busier. Three of the four hospitals in my constituency had more beds this year than they did last year. This shows they have been prepared to be busy.
“Less people have had knee operations around this time so that they can deal with the demand.
“But Weston has the biggest challenge of all, as when you get to 100 per cent occupancy, there really is no margin for error.
“I do think we have to be careful of the language we use. It is difficult and it is unacceptable but it is being managed.
“We need to be realistic and say next year the challenge will be even greater.”
Getting Highbridge Medical Centre back on track
Mr Heappey said he is most concerned about the lack of GPs in Somerset and how it is affecting one surgery which has had its fair share of challenges in recent months – Highbridge Medical Centre.
In February last year the surgery, in Pepperall Road, was placed in special measures by the Care Quality Commission after it was rated inadequate during an inspection.
However, by November NHS organisation Symphony Health Care Services stepped in to spearhead much-needed improvements.
Mr Heappey said: “There is an issue with the amount of GPs and that is really painful.
“Generally, I think the issue (at Highbridge Medical Centre) was one of poor management and having Symphony coming in there to manage it and turn it around has been a huge help. People can now have every confidence in Highbridge Medical Centre.”
What does the planned housing development in Highbridge mean for the town?
Last week, the Mercury reported Sedgemoor District Council has released its local plan, with one of the main developments set for Highbridge.
More than 660 houses are earmarked across two sites in the town. The plans are currently up for consultation and have received a mixed response from residents and town councillors.
Brue Farm, between Highbridge and West Huntspill, could be the site of 400 new homes, while 270 homes could also be built at Isleport Lane, next to junction 22 of the M5.
But Mr Heappey says Highbridge needs to welcome investment in order to ensure it becomes a big commuter town to help residents reach jobs in cities like Bristol and Bath.
He said: “The Brue Farm development is the right development. If people can get jobs and commute from Burnham and Highbridge station, then new people moving in will bring wealth and spend money locally, which is a good thing.
“By having more people here, it gives the chance for more shops and cafés to open.
“We live in this amazing part of the world which is popular to retire in and that is great because we have a lot of people able to join a lot of clubs and societies. To say it is a bad thing is just not true.
“But there is a downside, as the over-65s access healthcare more frequently than under-65s.”
The MP’s concern is that if there is not significant growth then the population will just continue to get older, halting the town’s development.
Funding for schools in Somerset
Mr Heappey has campaigned for fairer funding in Somerset as the Government plans to introduce a national schools funding formula.
The Government hopes to introduce a fairer system where money will be allocated to schools more consistently across the country. Each pupil will attract a funding for their school based on what they need and the money will be handed to the local authorities.
This way of giving funding to schools is currently up for consultation until March but Somerset’s MP is keen to make sure Somerset gets its ‘fair share’.
Mr Heappey added: “The funding formula is a start but it is not to say we are not being challenged here in Somerset.
“I will not stop until schools in Burnham are getting the same as schools in Bristol and so the fight goes on.
“I visit a school or two almost every week and see how lucky we are to have such fantastic schools in our county.”