Posted: 15.10.20 at 10:15 by By Local Democracy Reporter Daniel Mumby
The government has blown the starting whistle on the race to decide the future shape of local government in Somerset.
Somerset’s existing five councils have put forward competing proposals for how the county should be run in the future.
On the one hand, Somerset County Council is backing the ‘One Somerset’ proposals -which would see the five existing councils abolished in favour of a single unitary authority.
On the other hand, the four district councils have put forward the ‘Stronger Somerset’ case, which would see the county split into two new unitaries – one in the west (Sedgemoor joining up with Somerset West & Taunton) and one in the east (Mendip linking with South Somerset).
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has now formally invited business cases for these proposals to be put forward.
Here’s everything you need to know about where things stand on the unitary issue:
What has the government said?
The MHCLG has formally invited local authorities in Somerset, Cumbria and North Yorkshire to put forward proposals for reorganising its existing councils into new unitary authorities.
The follows the decision earlier in 2020 to enact similar changes in Buckinghamshire (which went from five councils to one) and Northamptonshire (which went from eight councils to two).
Local government secretary Robert Jenrick MP said: “Where there is local support, changing the structure of local government can offer better value for money and improved services for residents.
“We have always been clear that any restructuring of local government must continue to be locally-led, and will not involve top-down solutions from government.”
Both the One Somerset and Stronger Somerset proposals will be put forward, with the government deciding which one should be taken forward.
The government said it would also accept formal submissions from North Somerset Council and Bath & North East Somerset Council (BANES) – both of which are already unitaries.
The two councils were involved in early discussions with the other councils before the publication of the Future of Local Government in Somerset report (known as the FOLGIS report).
However, neither body said it wanted to be involved with further reorganisation – and proposals to join them up with the existing Somerset councils (in whatever combination) have not attracted any real support.
BANES and North Somerset may still submit comments to the MHCLG, but it is extremely unlikely that they will push to become part of any new, larger unitary at this stage.
What will change?
If either of the business cases are accepted, Somerset will move from a three-tier system (comprising county, district and town/ parish councils) to a two-tier one (unitary and town/parish councils).
Currently, major services are split between the county council (which takes care of adult social care, education and transport) and the district council (which handles planning, environmental health and licensing).
Under a unitary, these services would all be available from the same council – though opinion is split over how much money would be saved.
Additional duties could be devolved out to town and parish councils, giving people more control in theory over how their money is spent.
How have the councils reacted?
County council leader David Fothergill has welcomed the government’s news, which comes just months after the full council approved the One Somerset business case in July.
He said: “I have long campaigned for a single unitary approach for our county which will reduce duplication, deliver significant savings and most importantly improve lives for residents in our county.
“From investing in climate change to reducing inequalities, we are convinced a single unitary approach is the right way forward.
“Our proposal ticks all the boxes for the fovernment’s tests and we are confident we have a compelling case to put before the secretary of state.”
Councillor Jane Lock, leader of the Lib Dem opposition group at County Hall, said the One Somerset proposals would lead to “one huge long-distance Somerset Council based in Taunton”.
She added the inclusion on North Somerset and BANES in the government’s statement meant Mr Fothergill’s plans had “been thrown into utter disarray”.
In a joint statement, the leaders of the four district councils said the Stronger Somerset plans would “fulfil all the government’s requirements” for new unitary authorities.
They said: “Stronger Somerset is the only option to create a real solution to the challenges we face across the county.
“With 25 per cent of our children living in poverty, with services for our young people with special needs failing, with communities feeling left behind and disconnected we can’t afford to keep things the way they are.
“Our vision for the future will create a Somerset where we can invest in our diverse and brilliant towns, city and villages and truly make a difference.”
What do the MPs think?
Ian Liddell-Grainger, the MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, has made his feelings on the One Somerset proposals clear with a series of disparaging statements made in the House of Commons.
The most recent of these came on Thursday (October 9), when Mr Liddell-Grainger used the anniversary of the Battle of Carhampton (which took place in 836) to ask for a debate on the future of Somerset local government.
He said: “Our county – our great county – is once again under threat from the divisive plans put forward by the so-called county council, God help us, which does not represent the county at all and has mounted an invasion against common sense.
“King Egbert and his son King Aethelwulf, and the great King Alfred himself, would have fought against it. Can we have government time to stand with our great kings and fight this rubbish before it is too late?”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House and MP for North East Somerset, replied: “It is worth bearing in mind that my honourable friend is right to say ‘the so-called county council’ – because the county council does not cover the county of Somerset but an administrative district of the historic county, and people should remember that.”
When will the changes come into effect?
The existing councils have until November 9 to put their business cases to the government, with a response expected around Christmas.
The MHCLG has stated that any new unitary authorities should be in place in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset by April 2023 – which would coincide with the next district council elections in Somerset.
The next county council elections are currently set for May 6, 2021 – though these could be delayed by parliament if a unitary could be in place soon after this date (with fresh elections for the new council).
The Lib Dems – which control three of the four district councils in Somerset – have warned the ruling Conservative group on the county council not to “use an election delay to hang onto power”.