Unity for unitary?

The state of local government in Somerset could do with a shake-up. So says a report commissioned by the five councils of Somerset. The report is formally published today. The fact that it has existed since February last year tells you a lot. There has clearly been a lot of argument and disagreement behind the scenes.

Three tiers

The current administration of local government in Somerset is split into layers. The top tier is Somerset County Council. This serves the whole ‘modern’ county of Somerset (that’s the traditional county without North Somerset or Bath & North East Somerset). It provides social services, libraries, public health policy, education and roads and highways.

The second tier comprises four District Councils. They cover the same area as Somerset County Council. We have Mendip, Sedgemoor, South Somerset and since April last year, Somerset West and Taunton. The districts are responsible for planning, collecting council tax, waste collection services and licensing everything from music to markets.

The bottom layer, the parish or town council will continue to deliver the most local services and be directly accountable to the local population. That will continue whatever happens next.

So what could change?

The most obvious step is to merge the top two tiers into one.  To create one single ‘unitary’ authority.

This is not a matter of anyone taking over or being taken over, by anyone else. All the councils would be disbanded and a new authority elected. That authority would take on all the functions currently split between county and district.

It is hardly controversial. It has been successfully taken in Wiltshire, Cornwall, North Somerset, Bath & North East Somerset and most recently in Dorset.

Somerset is almost unique in the South West in not having moved to a unitary authority. The only other county not to do so is Devon.

Savings

It should not be a big surprise that savings can be made. For instance instead of five chief executives on say £150,000 each, we would only have one. In simple terms there is your first cost saving, £600,000.

Of course the new organisation will be large and it will not be as simple as saying management costs will only need to be 1/5 of that of the five current councils. But they should be significantly smaller than they are today.

And with further savings in legal services, finance, human resources, payroll and the like it is not hard to see how very substantial savings will add up quickly.

Today’s report has a lot of big figures for savings. Some of them look, to be perfectly honest, a little bit fanciful. SCC Leader David Fothergill said today “I have said many times before, I believe the ‘Unitary’ Authority option is the most cost effective and best way forward for Somerset….. The report estimates potential savings of £47m a year. Even if we were only to save half of that it would make a massive difference.” I suspect his ‘half of that’ will be closer to reality.

Whatever the number, taking no action makes no sense.

Other solutions

The report looks at other possible ways of saving money.

Loose co-operative working arrangements, splitting the county in two into a west and east unitary authority.

But none of the ideas make a lot of sense.

The only way to deliver significant meaningful savings is to put all five organisations together and get them working as a single unitary authority.

David Fothergill has championed the idea of a unitary authority since he was elected Leader of SCC in 2017. He has been consistent and vocal.

Everybody seems to agree that no change is not an option.

The key question now is will District Councils be part of the problem or part of the solution?

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