THE Conservatives should be punished at the local elections in Somerset after “taking rural communities for granted”, the leader of the Liberal Democrats has stated.

Somerset voters will go to the polls today (May 5) to elect 110 councillors to the new unitary Somerset Council, which will officially replace the existing five councils in April 2023.

With less than 48 hours left in the campaign, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey MP has accused the Conservatives of ignoring the cost of living crisis in rural areas, including the price of heating oil.

He has also urged those intending to vote Labour or Green to get behind his party to ensure the Conservatives (who have governed Somerset County Council since 2009) can be unseated.

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service on Tuesday morning (May 3), Mr Davey said his party could expect to make significant gains in light of their record running three of the existing district councils in Somerset – namely Mendip, Somerset West & Taunton and South Somerset.

He said: “We want to see how many seats we can gain off the Conservatives. This is a new unitary – the Conservatives didn’t listen to people who wanted two unitaries, and they went with a single one.

“We have a very strong track record – we run three of the district councils and have a really good reputation for listening to local people and being local champions.

“On the back of that really strong record, with a national backdrop where people feel the Conservatives have been taking them for granted – particularly on the rural cost of living – I believe we can make real progress.

“I’ve visited Taunton, I’ve visited Yeovil during these elections, and there is a sense on the doorstep across Somerset of life-long Conservative voters being pretty angry with the Conservatives.”

The election is being run on the basis of the existing county council division boundaries, with the number of councillors being doubled from 55 to 110 – meaning any party will need to win 56 seats to govern alone.

Despite his general optimism, Mr Davey said it would be a tall order for his party to win outright control of the new unitary.

He said: “It will be very tough to do that, because it’s such a big unitary – it’s absolutely massive. That would be an astonishing result if we did – who knows?

“We are certainly trying our best to win seats across the county – we’re putting in a showing everywhere, and we’re finding that the cost of living emergency is the biggest issue.

“Heating oil has been forgotten in the big debate about energy costs, but it can be really massive for people in rural areas.

“We’ve been urging the government to put a price cap on heating oil and LPG, like there is a price cap on electricity and gas – but they’ve refused so far.

“It’s just another example of the Conservatives taking rural communities for granted, and not understanding and not listening to their needs.”

Around one in eight (12 per cent) of households in South Somerset currently use heating oil to heat their homes.

While some divisions will see two-way battles between the Tories and Lib Dems (such as Blackmoor Vale, Brent, Brympton and Mendip West), the Labour Party and the Green Party can expect to pick up seats elsewhere in the county.

Mr Davey said that voting for his party was the only sensible way of ensuring the Tories would not govern Somerset for another five years (with the next elections not scheduled to take place until May 2027).

He said: “Across the country we’re finding people coming to the Liberal Democrats far more than the other parties.

“In the Chesham and Amersham by-election in true blue Buckinghamshire, people said the Labour Party would do well, the Greens would do well – they didn’t, we won.

“In North Shropshire, they had a very vibrant Labour Party and Green Party in places like Oswestry, but we actually won the seat and the anti-Tory vote came behind us.

“In Somerset, we find increasingly that people see the county as a two-horse race between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives – and realise that if they want to have a party that can win the council, they need to vote Lib Dem.

“They want to get behind a party that can beat the Conservatives and have the chance – albeit quite a tough one – of taking control of Somerset.

“I think people who are thinking of voting Green or Labour will move away and back us as the ones who can beat the Conservatives and win Somerset.”

Polling stations will be open across Somerset today (May 5) between 7am and 10pm.