There are two proposals to reorganise local government in Somerset by combining county and district councils. The county council favours one single authority covering the whole of Somerset. All four district authorities have confirmed they favour two unitary authorites, one for the West (covering Sedgemoor and Somerset West and Taunton) and one for the East (covering Mendip and South Somerset).
This has been prompted by Somerset County Council calling for a new unitary authority and then the Government announcing that a white paper on devolution and local recovery will be published this autumn. Council meetings with a Minister have suggested Somerset will be in the first wave of new unitary authorities to be created, with public consultation this autumn and a decision early in the new year (see update on timing at end below).
Personally, I favour unitary authorities, as they have the potential to be more efficient and allow the joint planning and delivery of services currently split across the two tiers, such as highways and planning and car parks, on-street parking and transport.
However, I think the timing is terrible, given the on-going need to address the COVID pandemic and climate change, as well as due to Somerset West and Taunton having only just been reorganised.
I would also prefer unitary authorities on current district boundaries, with collaboration on services requiring management and delivery at a larger scale, possibly along the successful lines of Somerset Waste Partnership. The Government has indicated the size of four unitary councils for Somerset would be too small and so the maximum number possible would be two.
As a single Somerset authority, covering a large rural area from Simonsbath to Frome and Brean to Chard, would be too big and remote, I favour the Stronger Somerset case for two new unitary councils in Somerset (East and West).
Council Voting on Unitary Proposals
County and District Councillors have voted on the two business cases for One Somerset and Stronger Somerset, with the results shown in the table above. County Conservatives mostly favour a single unitary, while most political groups largely favour two unitaries, including many district Conservatives. The debate at Somerset West & Taunton Council can be viewed online (my contribution comes 30:55 in to the recording, following Cllr Mark Blaker).
PRESS STATEMENT FROM SOMERSET GREENS
Somerset needs more local democracy, not less
Now is not the time for forced changes to Local Government in Somerset. The Green Party recognises that the financial ‘burning platform’ was lit by incompetent Conservative management of Somerset County Council (SCC), fanned by escalating central Government underfunding since 2010. However, forecast savings from Unitarisation are modest, would take years to deliver, and experience elsewhere teaches us that these may of course never materialise. Local democracy and resilience are good reasons to re-organise Local Government. Financial deficits are not.
There are bigger burning platforms. Somerset County Council and all four Districts declared a Climate Emergency between February and May 2019. If we believe we are facing an Emergency – and we do! – then this Emergency should drive the Local Government that we design to help face it. Resilience should be at its heart. The Climate Emergency was not cured by Coronavirus; yet it paused Somerset Councils’ work to address it. Whereas, behind the scenes, work on the “One Somerset” proposal continued…
Martin Dimery, Green Party Somerset County Councillor for Frome East, says:
“Having voted against ‘One Somerset’, I am pleased that the district councils have all agreed on the alternative East and West Somerset model. Although many have justifiable reservations about making any changes, this is the only constructive way forward. Opting for the status quo would have effectively meant the ‘One Somerset’ model being accepted unchallenged. We owe it to people across Somerset to ensure that their councillors and councils are fully accountable, and that services are easily accessed. The Single Unitary model risks a democratic deficit that would greatly disadvantage those outside of the Taunton bubble.”
Dave Mansell, Green Party Somerset West and Taunton Councillor for Wiveliscombe and District, says:
“The timing of the County Council’s bid to establish a single unitary authority in Somerset is terrible. Addressing consequences of the current pandemic and climate change are far more important. The timing is doubly bad for residents of Somerset West and Taunton, as we have only just been through the merger of Taunton Deane and West Somerset. Now it appears we will have to suffer further disruption to service provision and planning from unitary reorganisation. Creating a single Somerset-wide unitary will not stop the funding problems for social care, and will create a remote authority ill-suited to serving our communities. The two East and West unitaries proposed by ‘Stronger Somerset’ is a better alternative.”
Ewan Jones, Chair of Bruton Town Council, says:
“Both the ‘One Somerset’ and ‘Stronger Somerset’ Business Cases claim to have adopted the seven Recommendations on the Role of Town and Parish Councils from Somerset Association of Local Councils (SALC) and the Somerset Branch of the Society of Local Council Clerks (SLCC): objectives such as local ownership and devolution, localisation of services, local democratic governance, and local presence.
Yet, experience in Wiltshire and Dorset has been that initial warm words have not been followed by real delivery of ‘devolution’. Much collective and co-operative hard work would be required, in a genuine spirit of trust and partnership, if these positive ambitions are to be realised. To build resilience from the heart of our local democracy, and guard against cultural centralisation, I would personally recommend that:
- Town & Parish community ‘hubs’ (in whatever form) are hosted by SALC, not hidden within whichever central Council Hall(s) is/are chosen;
- Towns & Parishes are trusted with voting powers on any local community hubs;
- Long-term funding of this support is agreed from the start.”
UPDATE (30/9/20): The Government Minister, Simon Clarke, who had said that local government reorganistion was imminent has resigned, which was followed by press reports that the devolution white paper had been delayed.
UPDATE (10/10/20): Reorganisation still looks to be on after the Government issues invitations to Somerset councils to submit locally-led proposals for unitary local government in the county.
UPDATE (22/2/21): Unitary reorganisation is regretably on, with online consulation on the two proposals at: consult.communities.gov.uk/governance-reform-and-democracy/somerset/