County approves Unitary business case
Today was the crunch time for Somerset County Council and the debate over whether to go to a Unitary Council. The first step in this process was to debate the One Somerset business plan. This is the plan that will start the process. If approved, the business plan would be sent to The Secretary of State for Housing Communities and Local Government.
It was a refreshing debate in that a small number of councillors actually engaged with the debate without looking over their shoulders to double check the party line. Of course everybody said repeatedly that they all had the best interests of Somerset at heart. If we had a pound for every time we heard a councillor say that, we would be able to fund council services for decades to come.
It is hardly surprising to hear that Independent councillors didn’t respond to the notion of One Somerset with a party line. The major advantage to being Independent is you don’t actually have one.
However Green and Labour councillors distinguished themselves for actually having read the document, weighed up the pros and cons and come to a conclusion. Not all agreed with the One Somerset proposal, but it was refreshing to hear genuine points of issue, raised and some of them only answered with difficulty. This to these ears was a really positive development, even listening to those who clearly disagreed with our own view in favour of Unitary and voted against it when the vote was called.
Sadly the same could not be said of the LibDems. The party that led the charge for a Unitary Council back in 2007 is now dead against it. To date not a single LibDem councillor has been able to express why it was a good idea in 2007 when they suggested it, and a bad idea today when the other side suggested it. A cynic might conclude that the 2019 elections having delivered 3 out of 4 District Councils into their control. Suddenly they are very keen on retaining District Councils come what may.
But that is just a cynical point of view.
However on the floor of the chamber the questions coming through from their councillors smacked of wanting to delay the process at all costs. The Leveller heard nothing that suggested a better plan from the Districts was even on the horizon. We have heard a lot about the idea of there being a different way of working together. 18 months after the publication of the Future of Local Government in Somerset (February 2019) there is still no plan B. If you don’t work in local government, you’d be expected to get a plan together in around 6 months. But this is local government and it is much easier to do nothing and complain, than to do something and subject it to scrutiny.
Jane Lock summed up the position as “I do accept change but we don’t think this business case is good enough.” We have to take politicians at their word of course. But for those in favour of change it would be refreshing to know what changes would be acceptable? To date we simply don’t know. And exactly business case would be good enough?
But it would only be fair to note that the Conservatives weren’t any better. There was a lack of critical questioning and a tacit acceptance of the business case.
David Fothergill has passionately defended his team’s One Somerset document and has taken on all comers. The biggest compliment his colleagues could have paid him would have been to be his harshest critics. It would have served the debate better to hear some voices from the administration. To challenge the robustness of the business plan and ask some awkward questions. David Huxtable tried to justify his own reverse ferret, he voted against the LibDems plan for a unitary in 2007 but is now in favour. He tried, but there appeared to be little substance to his argument.
But all such business always comes down to the vote. In this case the plan was passed with 33 votes in favour, 14 against and 4 abstentions.
But let us finish with a positive. We have witnessed some truly rotten debates at County Hall in recent years. Name calling, spiteful remarks and lots of point scoring. Whether it is the chairmanship of Cllr Taylor, the slightly surreal circumstances of a video meeting or a belated realisation that these debates are witnessed and scrutinised, who can say. But the behaviour was civil, the language courteous and for all the points raised in our piece above, the standard of debate is definitely heading in the right direction.