Now is the time

It was put on hold during the pandemic. But with schools starting to go back and businesses putting a toe in the water, the unitary debate is back.

At stake are two differing views.

Somerset County Council (SCC) believe that the way forward is to create a unitary authority, like Wiltshire, Cornwall, North Somerset, Bath & North east Somerset and Dorset. This would see District and County councils vanish. they would be replaced with one local government body, a unitary authority. that would do everything from planning to Highways, social care to waste collection.

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The District Councils do not like this model. They would like to see a loose and limited co-operative arrangement between the councils. With some shared services but without clear lines of accountability. Examples of this type of arrangement include SouthWestOne and the Mendip experiment of sharing services across 5 geographically separate district councils.

The Leveller® must declare an interest here, as a strong supporter of the unitary model.

Today surveys of residents and businesses across the county will be sent out. SCC will look to gather viewsabouts disbanding all five councils and setting up a new single Unitary Authority.

If the unitary project was handled effectively:

  • The combined authority should be able to save around £25m by reducing costs
  • the combined council would have substantial reserves,
  • the impact of over £100m of property investments that now look horribly overpriced, would be watered down.
  • the council would be better resourced to handle adult social care

One other thing is also worth noting in passing that. As South Somerset District Council noted, government handed out greater financial resources to cope with the pandemic to areas of the country with Unitary authorities.

Meanwhile SCC Leader David Fothergill pushes forward: “Our focus has been, and continues to be on coronavirus and keeping people in Somerset safe. This goes without saying. However, as we move towards recovery we also need to be looking ahead and preparing to support our residents and businesses in uncertain economic times.”

Rumours have been rife (if unsubstantiated) that South Somerset District Council have approached Devon County Council during the pandemic. This was allegedly with a view to finding an alternative to entering into a unitary with SCC.

However Cllr Fothergill only had praise for the joint working during the pandemic crisis. He noted that “Coronavirus has shown that working in a crisis with our district colleagues can bring about some great results. But it shouldn’t take a crisis to do that – we know that having one Council will keep those great services going but also free up vital funding to invest in key areas like climate change and more local decision making. We need this to work not just in a crisis, but in our day-to-day operations and that’s what unitary will do for Somerset.

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