As we reported earlier today, the future of Somerset is being reduced to political name calling. The Conservatives at County Hall have come up with a plan to save money. Its not the only plan, but it is one that can be seen to deliver savings for the future.
LibDem councillors have pretty much unanimously decided that because it is a Conservative idea, they’ll go against it. And that includes a number of LibDem councillors who just a few months ago were happily in favour of a unitary council.
So it is refreshing to find a place on the political spectrum where we can have intelligent debate on an idea on its merits. This has come from the Green Party county councillors. The statement below from Cllr Martin Dimery is not unequivocally in favour of a unitary council for Somerset. But it takes the ideas, analyses them, looks for strengths and weaknesses and generally takes a view based on facts, not political opportunism.
Here it is in full:
Somerset County Council Leader David Fothergill has published a report advocating that should disband current councils and replace them with a Single Unitary Authority, similar to those in Wiltshire and Bath and North East Somerset.
In principle, I agree that a Single Unitary Authority which brings all our services under one roof, has its merits. It is absurd that Mendip District is responsible for collecting rubbish in Frome for Somerset County Council to dispose. It is better that Highways and Planning work belong to the same authority, thus helping easier consultation on new building projects. It is bizarre that one authority looks after street parking, while another car parks.
The main objection I have to a Somerset- wide Single Unitary Authority however, is that we in Frome have long suffered from being a distant outpost of local government. We are on the edge of Mendip, the Parliamentary Constituency, and crucially, the County Council in Taunton. For those of us representing Frome, this entails a 100 mile round trip to attend meetings and makes short and informal consultations unmanageable. Inevitably officers based in Taunton have limited knowledge of issues specific to Frome. John Clarke, my fellow Green Party Councillor representing Frome West, is also of the view that Frome is often forgotten. This is particularly true in regard to public consultations. County officials charged with ensuring each District of Somerset hosts a consultation day on matters as important as Sure Start Centre closures or Climate Change policies, have habitually based the Mendip consultations in Glastonbury or Shepton, more convenient for Taunton, but distant from those in Frome, Mendip’s largest town, and therefore the most in need.
My personal view is that if we are to be properly represented, then our services need to be run on a much more localised basis. Whilst certain assurances have been made to John Clarke and myself by David Fothergill on the matter of outsourcing some of the services into regional hubs, the fact remains, Somerset is far too big an area geographically to run its services effectively, and with a population of 550,000 much bigger than the optimum size for a Single Unitary Authority.
I strongly believe more research needs to be done into the prospect of Frome- and perhaps Mendip- joining Bath and North East Somerset, or perhaps forming a new authority incorporating Mendip and South Somerset. The BANES option makes more sense, especially as it is currently quite small for a Single Unitary Authority. Many Frome students attend schools and colleges in Radstock and Bath. Our bus and rail routes are busiest running to Bath and back. It has been particularly difficult to retain bus services to our nearby villages when they straddle the County borders. We look to Bath for our hospitals and medical needs, and many in Frome commute to Bath daily.
Whilst political considerations should not be taken into account, I would hope that when the matter is decided upon by the Government, we do not find that the Liberal and Green dominated Mendip area is swallowed up into the vast Tory heartlands that surround Taunton, but one cannot rule out cynical manipulation in the current climate.
No doubt some councillors will be looking to preserve the status quo to protect their seats. Mine will be up for grabs too, but if we are to consider what is best for the town of Frome and the surrounding villages, we should take this opportunity to get the best possible long-term outcome.