Posted: 27.07.20 at 12:57 by By Local Democracy Reporter Daniel Mumby
Plans for a new unitary authority in Somerset face a serious test on Wednesday (July 29) at a virtual full council meeting.
Councillors at Somerset County Council will meet virtually to debate the One Somerset proposals, which would see Somerset’s five existing councils abolished and replaced with a new unitary county.
Ahead of the meeting, county council leader David Fothergill gave an interview to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, setting out his reasons for pursuing this bold move now.
Here’s what he had to say in response to some of the biggest questions about the issue:
Why is this happening now?
With Somerset still battling the coronavirus and public health officials desperately trying to prevent a second wave, one may reasonably ask why now is the time to pursue this project.
A freedom of information request has shown that £56,654 has been spent on the One Somerset proposals and associated campaign to date.
Speaking on Thursday (July 21), Mr Fothergill said the push towards unitary was motivated by a need to provide “sustainable, long-term services” over the coming decades – and a model for that was urgently needed.
He said: “Over the next ten years, we’ll have twice as many 85-year-olds and a lot more older people in general.
“We’ve got a lot of troubled families, our economy really is stagnant, and we’ve also got problems meeting our climate change commitments.
“There are a lot of challenges that Somerset faces over the next ten to 15 years – and we need to find those solutions, and we need to find them now.”
Mr Fothergill said the fact that key services like libraries and registration offices had been able to reopen meant this was “a good time to have this conversation”, rather than waiting until the pandemic was over.
Is the government putting Somerset under pressure to do this?
Not directly at the moment – but unitary authorities would seem to be the ‘direction of travel’ in the future for areas like Somerset.
The government has indicated it will publish a white paper this autumn on the future of local government and how that ties in with the coronavirus recovery.
In a speech on July 3, communities minister Simon Clarke MP hinted that the white paper would favour moving more areas towards unitary authorities.
He said: “Our transformative plan will include a clear, ambitious strategy for strengthening our local institution, with many more elected mayors and more unitary councils following in the footsteps of Dorset, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire.”
Mr Fothergill said: “The government white paper will look at local government reorganisation, it will look at local devolution, and really lead the way on economic recovery – so this is all linked to that.”
Is this all about money?
County council deputy leader Mandy Chilcott said on July 20: “While this project is not money-driven, we have to spend every pound that comes into Somerset as best we can.”
While Somerset’s four district councils have made several commercial investments to fund services and had healthy reserve levels before Covid-19, the county council has financially struggled in the last two years as demand on children’s and adult services has grown.
But Mr Fothergill was quick to squash any suggestion that the One Somerset proposals amounted to a raid on the district councils’ coffers to prop up services which the county county currently provides.
He said: “Because of the decisions that were taken a couple of years ago [the £15M cuts], we have achieved our budgets for the last two years. We actually underspent our budget last year, and we’ve built our reserves considerably none to £76M.
“In Somerset we do have financial pressures on the public purse. The public pound, whether it’s spent by a county or a district, there are pressures on us all.”
Mr Fothergill said the districts had been hit badly by the coronavirus crisis because of lost revenue from leisure centres, car parks and licensing fees.
He added: “Ultimately, for me, this is about how we deliver sustainable, long-term services to the public – much more joined-up, much more accessible, much more understandable, and much more without friction between councils.”
How will the new council be more accountable?
One of the common criticism of a unitary authority is that it can be distant, taking democratic decisions further away from the grass roots and being less accountable than a three-tier system.
Mr Fothergill has proposed creating up to 20 Local Community Networks (LCNs), which would make decisions on key local matters, such as planning applications, to prevent over-centralisation in Taunton or other major settlements.
He said: “They [the LCNs] really take decision-making to a community level.
“Porlock will be handled in a very different way to Frome or Wincanton, because they have different priorities.
“We see our towns and our parishes as really important – they know what their community’s priorities are.
“We need to work with them in terms of devolving assets and services if they want them, and making sure there’s a safety net for everybody else.”
Mr Fothergill said no town or parish council (including Wells City Council) would be forced to run or provide certain services if they did not wish to do so, stating: “It can’t be a cost shunt.”
How does this fit in with the refurbishment of County Hall?
The county council is coming to the end of a £10M refurbishment of County Hall in Taunton, fitting out ‘A’ block for staff as well as repairing the heating system for both the council buildings and the nearby crown court.
Mr Fothergill dismissed the notion that the council’s current HQ would be obsolete under a unitary authority, arguing large numbers of his staff were already based in locations outside of Taunton.
He said: “We had to spend money on County Hall. It was nearly 40 years since any money had been spent on it, and the heating system which also heats the courts was failing.
“About a third of our county staff are based out of County Hall here in Taunton – so in actual fact, we have more staff in the district offices than the district councils do.
“There will always need to be an office where the back room functions are provided, but in our model it will be very decentralised and we will maintain those hubs in different parts of the county.”
Will this lead to a ‘brain drain’ of staff leaving Somerset?
Two of Somerset’s district councils have undertaken ‘transformation’ programmes in the last few years, aiming to save money by streamlining how services are delivered and bringing departments together.
However, Somerset West and Taunton Council saw its redundancy bill for this transformation work rise by nearly £3M over its original projections – and it has had to spend roughly the same amount on temporary staff to ensure services stay delivered.
South Somerset District Council has also had to pour more money into its transformation programme to ensure services like planning and licensing can be delivered while permanent staff are hired.
Mr Fothergill said he was not worried about any kind of “brain drain” as a result of similar processes being implemented in a new unitary authority, and said cutting down on duplication would mean more money for front-line service.
He said: “There are two types of savings. One is transition savings, which is the £18.5M built into our business case – they are available to us every year.
“The other is transformation savings, which is when you bring departments together and transform your services. That is not in the business case, because the government don’t expect them to be in there – and in fact don’t want them to be in there, because they will be delivered by a unitary authority.
“The duplication is at a certain level – where jobs are not duplicated, then there will be no impact.
“We’ve got a lot of applications to join us at the moment, because people actually want to come and work in Somerset. I don’t see the brain drain at all.”
What about the local elections?
The next county council elections are due to be held on May 6, 2021, with all 55 seats in 54 divisions being up for grabs.
On Mr Fothergill’s time-scale, we could have a situation where the county council elected in 2021 would only sit for a year before a fresh round of elections (and the additional cost associated with that) for the new authority in May 2022.
The government could step in and cancel the 2021 elections if the unitary process was sufficiently far along – just as the police and crime commissioner elections were delayed by a year because of the coronavirus.
Mr Fothergill said this decision was out of his hands, and he was instructing his fellow Conservatives to act like there would still be an election in the spring.
He said: “We all have to assume the elections on May 6 are going to happen. Somebody way above my pay grade will decide whether it is not going to happen.
“There is an argument that actually to have two elections would be a complete nonsense.”
What happens next?
The One Somerset plans will be debated by county councillors at a full council meeting on Wednesday (July 29) from 10am. The meeting will be live-streamed at www.somerset.gov.uk/live.
If the council approves the business case, it will then be submitted to communities secretary Robert Jenrick MP, who will decide whether or not Somerset can formally proceed towards a new unitary authority.
If the government approves the business case, a new ‘shadow authority’ will go live in April 2021, comprising members of all existing councils, to oversee the transition of powers to the new council.
Regardless of what happens with the 2021 elections, the elections for the new unitary authority would be held in May 2022 if the One Somerset plans are implemented as intended.