Greens say Yes and No to Unitary Somerset

To start we will as usual declare our interest. The Leveller supports and campaigns for a Unitary Council for Somerset. This is a council to replace the four districts and one county council. We also support the principle laid out in the Mel Usher report that much more local government should be devolved down to town and parish councils.

Today the Green Party in Somerset set out there own position. In essence this boils down to Unitary is not a bad idea, but not now. They conclude “As local councillors representing the Green Party in Somerset, we welcome the opportunity to review restructuring local government. We are particularly in favour of devolving power back to local communities. The current proposal for a Somerset-wide single unitary authority however, threatens to centralise power even more than at present, and pre-empts the Government’s intention to adopt unitary councils, nation-wide. We believe a wider range of more suitable options may be available if this decision is deferred until the proposed Government White Paper is published.

As an alternative they propose that if something has to be done now, “given the Government’s decree that each authority must be a minimum 400,000 in population, an alternative would be for Mendip and South Somerset districts to combine with the current unitary council of Bath and North East Somerset (BANES).”

There are two objections to this. Firstly the requirement from government is that a unitary should be 300,000 not 400,000 as stated. Secondly BANES has made it very clear it is not interested in a merger with Mendip or SSDC. BANES is committed to joining a Bristol super authority. Even if Mendip and/or SSDC joined BANES in that enterprise, it would rather defeat the argument. If you don’t want to be governed by Taunton because it is too remote from Frome or Yeovil, being governed instead from Bristol is an illogical solution to the problem.

As a secondary issue, it would unite the two Somerset Districts with the heaviest exposure in investment property in one new council. That council would start with a significant financial exposure to property that could very quickly impact on service delivery.

9 comments

  • The Government has just increased the minimum number from 300- 400,000 persons per authority. In a Government review, a small unitary council like BANES may well have to amalgamate, and may not have the freedom of choice. The point is, to look at other options. Many of us in Frome would rather be in BANES or even an authority including Bristol, which is much nearer to us than Taunton. Our bus services, schools and colleges, train line, main hospitals and major employment centres are Bath and Bristol. For years Frome has found itself on the neglected outer-edge of Somerset. This, has been slightly compensated for by having some services provided by Mendip, based in Shepton,15 miles away (as opposed to 50 miles away). If that layer of local government is taken away, the fear is, we will be even more disenfranchised. I personally support the idea of Single Unitary Authorities if the provide closer contact with local government.

    • It’s hard not to have some sympathy with your views. I ‘d say any unitary authority combination in Somerset is worth looking at. We hear views from Frome all the time and the dissatisfaction is well known and I think quite well understood. But of course Frome may be the biggest town in Mendip but those views are not ones I hear as much when I listen in on meetings in Street, Glastonbury or Shepton! Even in Wells the position is much more balanced between the yeas and nays.
      I’m not so sure that the views of Frome would carry a majority in Mendip.
      Going in with BANES may suit Frome, but what you may be asking for is separation from Mendip!
      And taking Mendip in with BANES will take you into the super authority in Bristol which BANES is committed to joining. I would only caution be carefully what you wish for. Frome is already seen as a very small side issue in Bath which is, let’s face it, a city four times the size. BANES have as I understand it, made pretty strong noises that they are not interested in a merger with Mendip. But over in Bristol, well ask people in BANES. When the real control is in Bristol, Frome will feel as if it were in another galaxy. It is easy to knock the current set up and I acknowledge it has not been kind to Frome. But having some influence over affairs when your capital has 55,000 is one thing. Getting heard when the real action is in a city with close on 700,000 is, I suggest, going to be very hard indeed. You’ll be even closer to the bottom of the priority list than you are now.
      However holding off for now and waiting for a government review of a new unitary system does seem to make a lot of sense to me.

    • The model, as I understand It, would devolve a lot more power to town and parish councils. Surely this will benefit Frome Yeovil Dulverton Williton and all The test of our towns And parishes?

      • Undoubtedly, but the Greens whose stronghold is around Frome are articulating a genuine grievance whereby Frome feels on the edge and ignored/disenfranchised. The issue for Frome is that other towns in Mendip may not feel the same way.

  • Andrew, you may be right about other towns in Mendip not necessarily seeing it in the same terms as Frome, but then they are not affected in the same way. As a County Councillor I have had to constantly ask why Somerset public consultations, sometimes for the poorest in our community, scheduled in each district, were usually held in Glastonbury or Street for Mendip…25 miles from the largest town of Frome. The answer could not be denied, it was for the benefit of those arranging it from Taunton. There have been some improvements since I raised the issue. On the matter of Local Networks and Planning Boards, a word of caution. Ask the parishes of Wiltshire what happened there in spite of the same promises. I do not speak for all Green Party councillors when I say that I approve of Single Unitary in principle, but yes, I’d much prefer Frome to be in BANES.

  • What you have written here is not quite accurate. The government’s test number 3 is that any unitary authority’s population should be larger than 300-400,000 (according to SCC’s own Business Case). That leaves a huge range available.

    I don’t think that a unitary for Somerset is a bad idea, in principle. However when in the midst of an emergency, which the climate emergency undoubtedly is, one cannot spend three years re-organising. We don’t have the luxury of time. I don’t think that SCC or the districts have really grasped this yet. In the County’s Business Case, the climate emergency is listed as one of the challenges they have to face over the next few years. It is the challenge.

    • OK James fair enough – I was intimating that the minimum is 300,000. Which I believe to be the case (ie 300-400k). The fact is that rules out a 2 x Unitary approach which some have advocated.
      If you could point to serious action being taken under the current system to mitigate climate change – I’d agree with you. I can’t see any evidence to support that proposition. Just a lot of hot air and tree planting.
      The best way to get the climate emergency up the agenda IMHO is to have one authority dominated by elected representatives who have it as THEIR priority.
      This to my mind is a problem for the Green party. The influence of Green councillors is diluted by the number of councils they are on. The very number of councils actually mitigates against a strong Green voice.

  • This proposal from the Greens only make sense through the perspective of the County Councillors who both represent Frome. It was touched on in the article that B&NES is part of the West of England Combined Authority which was established by an Act of Parliament. Either B&NES secedes from the WECA which they’ve said they’re not interested or SSDC and MDC join WECA which will mean having an elected Mayor and another level of government and little to no cost savings. Cllr. Dimery is incorrect when he says the minimum was increased by the government, in reality it was 300k and the government statement said 300-400k to provide more flexibility.

  • Devolving power locally is a good principle. The other side of devolution is that the cash to pay must follow the PowerPoint act. Over the past 30 years this is what hashollowed our local government – they have the duty to provide local services, but are denied the funding. And it allows central government to smirk to itself and tell its critics it’s a consequence of local priorities and decisions.
    Be awake to this happening.

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