Now that there is an active discussion about the future government of Somerset, one idea that will keep cropping up is the so called ‘democratic deficit’.
This arises because any new unitary authority will likely have around 150 councillors. Currently between the four districts and county we have 271 (59 SWAT, 60 SSDC, 47 Mendip, 50 Sedgemoor, 55 County).
The argument goes because there are fewer councillors somehow there will be less democracy!
It has never been entirely clear why having fewer councillors is a bad thing for democracy. Councillors still have to be elected, and re-elected. In other words they are still democratically accountable. And they still have a responsibility to report to Parish and Town councils in their patch, just as they do today.
To be honest the only group of people I ever hear suggesting that having fewer councillors would be a bad idea, is… councillors!
Less is more
Interestingly a large number of councillors are already both District Councillors and County Councillors. These are the so called double hatted councillors. For example Leigh Redman for Labour, Mike Rigby for the LibDems and William Wallace for the Conservatives each represent their locality as both District and County Councillors. And they do it very well and there are many more like them.
So if we were to have a unitary authority there would be no difference. Their electorate would still have just one person to see.
Simple lines of communication
But what about those places where there are different councillors?
Be honest, do you really know when you have an issue to deal with, if you should go to the District or County Councillor?
And how often do you find that each councillor is sure that it is the other councillor’s responsibility?
It is arguable that having one councillor improves democracy rather than detracting from it.
Why? Because electors can be precisely clear on exactly who is responsible for their services and there is no ambiguity over who to go to with a problem.
If anything a unitary authority will give a democratic surplus.
The LibDems on the County Council are sceptical. Councillor Jane Lock asks “What say will the people of Somerset have in this decision? Certainly, there is no evidence of a mandate: the last time a poll was undertaken, in 2007, 82% of residents voted against the proposed change to a Unitary authority.”
This is a fair point. Mind you, I don’t know if Councillor Lock has noticed the decade of austerity that has ravaged local authority spending since 2007, but some might argue that things do not look the same today as they did in 2007.
What is not a fair point is to argue that creating a unitary authority is an SCC takeover of the Districts. We are told “Liberal Democrats on SCC do not believe that a ‘hostile takeover’ of local services by the Conservatives at County Hall will achieve positive outcomes”. You can expect to hear a lot of this sort of talk over the weeks ahead.
This is, with respect, complete nonsense. It does not stand up to 30 seconds scrutiny.
In the event of a unitary authority being created, all of the existing Districts and the County would be abolished.
Nobody will be taking over anybody else.
A new unitary would be created.
There would be fresh elections at which all would be free to seek election. Including former District and County Councillors.
If Councillor Lock is predicting that David Fothergill would win any election and be elected the new Leader of a new Conservative administration, fair enough. But that is just a prediction. There would have to be an election first.
It is equally perfectly possible the LibDems would win the election. It would hardly look like a hostile takeover in those terms then, now would it?