Work is progressing rapidly to establish the new Somerset Council from 1 April 2023, which merges the county council and four district authorities.
The vision, constitution and budget were agreed at a full meeting of the county council on 22 February, with votes on 1,140 pages of reports. These key documents developed as they progressed through committees and consultation over recent months. There were just a few final tweaks, along with questions and comments, at the meeting on the day.
Although they are not perfect and times are difficult, these key documents should help to give the new council a good start in the circumstances. I voted in favour of all three. The result of the named vote on the budget was 64 for (all the Liberal Democrat, Green and Labour councillors), 1 against and 33 abstentions (most of the Conservatives and Independents).
Two small savings were removed from the budget following adverse scrutiny and consultation comments, as well as subsequent requests from Cllr Gwil Wren and me.
A saving of £22,000 by not filling grit bins each year was removed by the Executive, after I had questioned at Scrutiny Committee, it was criticised during public consultation and Gwil then requested as Place Scrutiny chair.
A saving of £25,000 by not sending neighbour notifications for planning applications was eventually revised. As it remained in the budget papers to full council, I proposed an amendment (seconded by Gwil) to remove the saving. After receiving assurance the notifications would in fact continue, I withdrew the amendment, while ensuring the position was clarified at the council meeting and the wording on stopping neighbour notifications was deleted from the budget papers. Instead, the saving is to be achieved by taking a consistent approach to notifications across the districts, which was suggested by officers. This may reduce the extent of neighbour notifications in some districts, but should ensure adjacent neighbours are still notified. Notifications to parish councils and site notices are also to continue.
Council Plan sets vision and priorities
The vision in the Council Plan for the next four years is to “build a fairer, greener, resilient, more flourishing Somerset that cares for the most vulnerable and listens to you”. Matching the vision, the plan has four priorities for Somerset to be:
- Greener, more sustainable
- Healthy and caring
- Fairer, ambitious
- Flourishing and resilient
Strategic direction is given for each priority and further principles to guide the council include being responsible, having integrity, listening, empowering, evidence-based, open, collaborative and enterprising.
Many of my suggestions and requests were included in the final version of the Council Plan, including a commitment to carbon neutrality.
A business plan will now follow that covers what the council will provide and do in more detail.
Constitution aims to allow involvement by all
The constitution sets out how the council will operate, including committees, public participation and officer delegations.
Decisions will be taken by the full council, executive and other committees, including for planning which will have four area-based committees.
I contributed to a working group that proposed arrangements for five scrutiny and overview committees, which will cover:
- Climate (environment) and place
- Corporate and resources
- Children and families
- Adults and health
Common arrangements proposed for planning applications were among the most contentious. These were amended so that final provisions give more power to the area committees and allow the public more speaking rights than had been originally proposed. However, concerns remain and it has been agreed the new constitution will be reviewed, starting with planning in September.
I requested small improvements that were agreed to arrangements for 18 Local Community Networks (LCNs), which are intended to be a focus for community development, engagement and partnership working, as well as a local voice into the new county-wide council. LCNs will start to meet from June/July and involve division councillors and representatives from parish councils and local organisations, including the police, NHS, and voluntary and business groups. The LCN for our area covers Wellington and Wiveliscombe, including parishes between and alongside both towns.
Budget for service protection
Challenges for the new council include rising prices and staff recruitment, as well as all that is required to merge the county and four district councils from April.
The local government financial settlement for 2023/24 from government was not as bad as feared, but the maximum increase of 5% in Council Tax is being taken by the council to maintain important services.
The net revenue budgets for each services area (click here for lists of what each cover) in 2023/24 will be:
- Adult services: £186.6 million
- Children’s services: £123.1
- Community services: £35.2 million
- Climate, environment and place services: £87.1 million
- Strategy, workforce and localities: £20.2 million
- Resources and corporate services: £20.5 million
- Public health: £1.2 million
- Local government reorganisation: £0.1 million
- Corporate areas and contingency: £72.1 million
- Accountable bodies: £3.7 million
- Special grants to the council (income): (£56.4 million)
- TOTAL: £493.4 million
All the budget papers can be viewed here.
Council Tax and reduction scheme
The average Council Tax in Somerset for a Band D property in 2023/24 will be £2,116, with a range from £1,411 for Band A to £4,232 for Band H. The amount will also vary to reflect the amount of the local town or parish council precept. There is a Council Tax Reduction scheme to help those on low incomes.
Overall, average Council Tax is increasing by £116 (to £2,116) in 2023/24, which is made up from the following precepts:
- Somerset Council: £1,646 (up £78 + 4.99%)
- Police Commissioner: £266 (up £15 + 5.97%)
- Fire Authority: £97 (up £5 + 5.45%)
- Town and Parish Councils and special expenses: £107 (up £18 + 19.77%)
Growth and savings
Growth items in the budget for 2023/24 total £84.9 million, which is mostly to cover forecasts for increases in service use, inflation and new IT costs. Other growth items include:
- Work on the new Local Plan (£790,000)
- Local Nature Recovery Strategy (£95,000)
- Reduction in housing income (£223,000)
- Increase in adult services care costs (£18.7m)
- School funding changes (£173,000)
- Member and scrutiny support (£56,000)
Savings in the budget for 2023/24 total £40.8m, which include increases in fees and charges and the following:
- Reduction in pension costs (£7.1 million)
- Reduction in senior management costs (£2.9 million)
- Reduction in other staff costs (£1 million)
- Reduction in facilities management costs (£294,000)
- Recycle More and recycling savings (£3.5 million)
- Adult services savings (£10.5 million)
- Children’s services savings, including Homes to Inspire partnership (£4.6 million)
- Reduction in Member costs (£564,000)
It is planned to use £19.9 million of earmarked reserves in 2023/24, including £10 million for budget smoothing, which will need to be found as a saving the year after.
The Council expects to maintain general reserves of £30-50 million and estimates these will be £47.5 million in March 2025. Earmarked reserves are estimated to be £65 million, which is thought to be relatively low for a council the size of Somerset and so “very careful management” of these will be required.
The budget has £76 million of new capital schemes over the next three years, with 39% to be funded by borrowing and 61% from government and other grants. The new schemes include: highways maintenance, Glastonbury leisure hub, North Hill (Minehead) stabilisation, traffic signals refurbishment, urgent council building repairs, school building maintenance and replacement, IT replacement and social care homes for children.
District Councils have passed on investments of £289 million in property to generate annual income, which has been mostly funded by borrowing (mix of short and long term). 75% of the property is outside Somerset and mostly consists of retail, industrial and office buildings, as well as a healthcare centre, gym, an NCP car park in Bournemouth and two battery energy storage systems in Taunton and Hampshire.
The new council is retaining current properties, but not making new ‘debt for yield’ investments, which is now strongly discouraged by government. A net return of 0.8% is forecast for 2023/24, which includes 12 out of 48 investments giving a negative return (currently losing money). Regular review is proposed after April, when selling some of the investment properties may be considered.
I did not support the yield investments made by Somerset West and Taunton Council. I regularly questioned these plans and challenged investment decisions being made in confidential closed meetings, which eventually stopped with information on investments then published.
More budget difficulties for future years
Setting a budget next year for 2024/25 is expected to be difficult again and require further savings of £41.5 million or 8%. The situation is expected to be a little easier by 2025/26, but further savings of £4 million are expected to be needed then too.