2 sides of the Somerset argument
Yesterday we published a letter from Alex Parmley setting out SSDC’s attack on the unitary council proposed by Somerset County Council. As promised we have managed to get hold of SCC’s response.
Our views in favour of unitary are well known.
However we have placed the two letters side by side (well one above the other actually!) so readers can see the various points and form their own judgement on the debate.
Here’s the SSDC letter to start with:
ONE SOMERSET BUSINESS CASE: SOUTH SOMERSET DISTRICT COUNCIL’S FORMAL RESPONSE TO THE BUSINESS CASE
Further to the Somerset County Council’s consultation on the One Somerset Business Case for a single unitary council in Somerset, the South Somerset District Council met on 16 July 2020 to consider the business case and its response. This letter sets out South Somerset District Council’s formal response to the consultation which I would be grateful if you could report and consider alongside the other responses you have received. South Somerset District Council resolved that it did not support the One Somerset Business Case. In resolving this the Council agreed the following commentary:
Summary statement: “SSDC believes that this is a solution put forward by a discredited authority based on failed examples of change, with inadequate evidence and a high risk of bad outcomes for residents and communities.”
The reasons why SSDC does not support the business case and where more work or clarification is required
1. The proposed unitary authority is based on failed examples of local government which have lost vital local services and democratic accountability. SSDC cannot support a risky experiment to suffer a similar fate:
Currently, residents, businesses and communities are supported by high-performing districts that have demonstrated sound financial management and digital transformation, and have a mandate to deliver valuable discretionary services (such as town centre regeneration, theatres and swimming pools). The county administration has focused on tax cuts not needs, reducing budgets to the point of service failure (transport, social care, special educational needs and disabilities) and abandoning other service areas, relying on others to fund them (youth services). This business case extends that approach over key services delivered by Districts which are valued by business and residents.
The ‘One Somerset’ business case relies on evidence from other single county unitaries, including neighbouring Wiltshire, and recent unitaries where it is too early to measure success. Wiltshire is reported to be on the verge of issuing a S114 bankruptcy notice. Wiltshire’s Local Council Networks (Area Boards) have been a conspicuous failure with little funding, autonomy and officer resource, and very limited devolution to parish and town councils. Local Council Networks on this model will in no measure replace the quality of service of the District Councils. Dorset has failed to devolve services to parishes, and a period of paralysis has followed the implementation of single unitary authorities, that can ill be afforded in the aftermath of Brexit and Covid-19.
Alternative options to the single unitary are given only superficial analysis.
The business case fails to recognise the transformation necessary in the delivery of social care.
2. A single Somerset unitary is too big for effective local democracy in Somerset, and will lead to a substantial democratic deficit:
If two tiers of local government are to be reduced to one tier, it makes no sense for the new tier to be at the level of one of the previous tiers.
The government’s aspirations for devolved authorities are based on Local Enterprise Partnership areas (in our case, Somerset combined with Devon). A unitary for the whole of Somerset would be too close in size to a future combined authority of Somerset and Devon.
A unitary for the whole of Somerset would be too remote from local communities, residents and c.300 Parish and Town Councils.
The average size of the 20 rural unitary authorities in England is around 300,000. A single unitary for Somerset would serve a population of about 560,000, and would nearly be the biggest unitary population in the country, and spread over a great geographical area.
Single Unitaries are not necessarily the norm, especially if an authority borders on differing authorities. Evidence is Cornwall which is the only single Unitary in the SW and borders only Devon. The SCC administrative area borders Dorset, Wiltshire, the other 2 unitaries in Somerset, and Devon (2 tier).
Under the business case, each Councillor will be expected to take on 8 times the work of an existing Councillor, over a wider area and on a much broader range of responsibilities: the loser in this democratic deficit will be the communities and residents.
The SSDC model is a recognised national leader in involving communities, as evidenced by being awarded Council of the Year and 3 Beacon awards for this work – the key element of the model is the Area Committees.
One of the government’s tests is a strong level of public support. The business case’s exaggerated claims on this are wrong, not only because the business case has just been published, but because the last time a single unitary was suggested, it was rejected by about 82% of the population.
3. The financial arguments in the business case appear to be inadequate and flawed, and urgently need an independent and thorough investigation. Observations include: –
The cheapest solution is not usually the best.
There is a substantial risk of not delivering the financial benefits.
The business case has failed to demonstrate any duplication in front-line services leading to savings.
The business case takes no account of the transformation savings that have been realised in district councils.
The reported finances of the county and district councils are outdated, and in some cases misleading. The county’s claims of financial stability need to be carefully scrutinised, including any hidden borrowing.
Savings of Chief Executive salaries are claimed, when these are less than those of County directors.
Financial analysis appears to estimate cost from the County perspective, rather than from the point of view of the Council taxpayer.
District and Parish Councils have had to step in and fund community services that have been cut by the county council. Will these be funded under the single unitary?
No cost to the taxpayer has been taken into account when parishes take on responsibilities.
£18.5m per year saving, even if corroborated by scrutiny, would be less than the cost of poor delivery of social care, which is what has happened so far when delivered at a county scale.
It has been stated that the single unitary will discontinue commercial investment to save vital services. It is unclear how this lost income will be made up.
It is unclear whether the financial case relies on rises in Council Tax.
4. The business case also claims to offer benefits that are not sufficiently evidenced. These also need an independent and thorough investigation.
Any aspects of the business case it does support
SSDC is open to the view that a unitary authority can provide a solution to the future of local government in Somerset, but not at this scale. However the district councils do not under-estimate the challenge of a unitary delivering the best services to residents and communities even at a smaller scale.
SSDC accepts that there are some services that should continue to be delivered jat a county-wide or a regional combined authority level (eg. transport, health, police, regional strategies, waste partnership, home finder, some back-office functions), but not those working with and supporting communities.
The discussion paper commissioned by SALC is worthy of further study. However SSDC agrees in particular with the views expressed that: –
o The burgeoning demand, particularly for children’s and adult social services, will in any case soon dwarf any proposed savings
o It is clear that the scale and complexity of Somerset’s challenges are so great they are unlikely to be effectively addressed from a unitary council which is too distant from recognising and responding to local concerns.
Alex Parmley – Chief Executive
And now the SCC response (to Val Keitch as Leader of SSDC):
I am writing following review of the recent letter from Alex Parmley which set out South Somerset District Council’s commentary on the One Somerset proposal and Business Case. You should know that the letter was circulated to all Somerset County Councillors for the Full Council meeting last Wednesday and as such they would have had a full appreciation of its contents and therefore the ability to use the information it contained as the debate progressed. I have to report that the few comments that did reference your letter were entirely dismissive.
There is much to comment on regarding the contents of Alex’s letter, which itself appears on the whole to pass off assumption and subjectivity as fact. This is disappointing, adds little to the debate and of course ought to be corrected as it is very disconcerting when our services have been working hard for several years for Somerset’s residents and businesses.
For example, Alex makes reference to Somerset County Council (SCC) being a “discredited authority”. It certainly is not. To suggest that is contemptuous and leads to one simple question – discredited by whom? Not Grant Thornton, the financial auditor who has given SCC an improving rating. Not the CQC and NHS England who both point to Somerset as a leading innovator in terms of adult social care and the way we work in the health and care system; Not OFSTED which reports that Somerset’s children’s social care is improving. Not government ministers who say SCC’s school building programme is a trailblazer to others. Not highways maintenance / infrastructure which is rated in the top 25% of the country and consequently gains Somerset extra funding. Not in terms of economic development with SCC teams securing tens of millions of pounds of government funding. Not in terms of SCC’s frontline customer services, including the double-award winning contact centre, or SCC’s digital excellence which just last week was shortlisted for a national award. SCC’s public health team has responded magnificently through the pandemic crisis. We know and understand our challenges and your characterisation is totally false and misleading.
Regardless of our differing position on the matter of local government structure in Somerset, the fact remains that as organisations with shared interests in Somerset and its residents it will be vital that we work together in what continues to be a challenging period for all. Alex’s letter will undoubtedly and rightly be received very coldly by thousands of Somerset County Council staff who continue to work tirelessly to support the people of Somerset. Whatever the outcome of this and other business cases and decisions by Government, we will in the end be asking our collective workforces either through reorganisation or collaboration to work together and the letter will not be seen to help in that respect. Therefore, I have to say that it is your letter that is discredited, not this Authority and as the head of paid service for SSDC, Alex ought to be thoroughly embarrassed to have put his signature to it. His letter is political by nature and should have come from you as the leader of your Administration.
I note the reasons why South Somerset District Council does not support the business case and indeed the letter states that more clarification is required. I have no doubt that the coming months will require a deeper exploration of all developed business cases and I would be delighted to offer any clarification that is required on the points that you make. However, for this response, if I focus on just a few of the many points of inaccuracy contained within Alex’s letter.
The point that “The county administration has focused on tax cuts not needs” is totally inaccurate. There has been no council tax cut in Somerset in living memory and I am surprised that such a simple fact has been overlooked.
The claim that SCC has been “reducing budgets to the point of service failure (transport, social care, special educational needs and disabilities)”, when for example the investment in children’s services, including social care has markedly increased over recent years. When we take into consideration the improvement of child protection services (as judged by OFSTED) I can only assume that your own Council did little exploration of the facts before getting its view muddled in such a manner.
On the theme of finances, it states: “The financial arguments in the business case appear to be inadequate and flawed, and urgently need an independent and thorough investigation.” I would state in response that the financial analysis has been conducted by two separate independent experts using the same methodology as previous unitary business cases. All numbers benchmark well with comparator cases and those new unitary authorities delivered. It goes on to comment that “the cheapest solution is not usually the best” where in fact our solution is not the cheapest. The letter states that the case failed to demonstrate any duplication leading to savings where in fact any thorough reading of the business case would show that these are of course considered and included within the business case. Finally, on this point it goes on that: “Financial analysis appears to estimate cost from the County perspective, rather than from the
point of view of the Council tax-payer.” This is erroneous. It in fact estimates cost from a council tax-payer perspective.
I could go on, but it would serve little other than to utterly undermine the credibility of the commentary you supplied in response to the One Somerset business case. Ultimately, I believe that this initiative provides us with an opportunity to improve, set an ambitious vision for Somerset, increase investment in public services, avoid duplication, waste and confusion and build local government services that are modern, fit for the future and financially resilient. The doom-laden letter sent from your authority appears to say nothing that offers such an ambitious proposal to the Somerset people.
I would close by reflecting that throughout this process my team and I have gone to great lengths to share our ambitions, plans, thinking and schedule of activity openly with you and all our council colleagues in Somerset. I would have hoped that this would have encouraged my district colleagues to at least engage and input to our work, even if they could not support the direction of travel. Alas this openness has fallen on to stony ground. By comparison the work that you and colleagues say is ongoing is shrouded in silence, mystery and secrecy which therefore bodes ill for any notion of collaboration, engagement, consultation or scrutiny. Your Council may wish to reflect on this poor state of affairs so that whatever outcome is reached is well thought through and in the best interests of Somerset. We remain delighted to share our open and inclusive methods if it helps.
David Fothergill – Leader Somerset County Council