Reality Bites

The Leveller® has taken quite a lot of abuse for taking a consistent stand in favour of a Unitary Council for Somerset. Our leader article in the August edition which we publish tomorrow, explains just one reason why we feel this solution is inevitable.

This evening however we have been rather overtaken by events. We understand the district councils have abandoned their “principled stand” against a unitary authority.

It is almost certainly, the sound of reality biting. It has become very clear that central government favours unitary authorities as the way forward. It is also becoming clear that those authorities that go the unitary route are likely to benefit from better funding settlements than those that do not.

The four district councils have accepted that a unitary authority is the right way forward. This follows a meeting with the Local Government Minister, Simon Clarke.

It appears that they will express a preference for two unitaries. A western one comprising Somerset West & Taunton merged with Sedgemoor. And an eastern one comprising Mendip and South Somerset. To be honest that is a matter of detail. The key thing is that the principle of a unitary authority being the best way forward has been accepted.

The districts will now present their own business case to central government between early September and Mid-September 2020.

This is quite a turn around. As recently as last week district councils were telling us a unitary solution was the worst option of all those being considered.

A timetable has already been discussed with the minister that is likely to be along the lines of:

  • an eight week public consultation period – details as yet unknown
  • a decision would be expected in the early new year to Spring 2021
  • legals to be in place for a shadow authority / authorities for April 2021
  • New authority / authorities in place by April 2022

Making the best of a bad job the district councils will be asserting that their case is not about finding savings; it’s about finding a better way of meeting the needs of our places and people. It still does not occur to district authorities that one of the ways they could do that is to reduce wasteful administration and provide more services with the saving from reduced overheads.

But for now this is a detail. The argument appears to have been won.

12 comments

  • At Last they see the light. There is a but tho’….. if unity authority is the way forward I want to see a large slice of LOCAL admin on local issues with the funding stream to support it. IMO Local people seem to know what’s best for the …..”Locals”…. there is a surprise !!!.
    This should make local Parish and Town councils much more responsive to the needs of the population they represent with the power of legislation and financial liquidity to the job that those who voted for them want………It all adds up to the great diversity that is the United Kingdom,

  • In many areas of France the unitary authority is of a significant size with the local Town or equivalent of our Parish level having a significant degree of authority and a budget to match. You learn a lot through twinning! Sillé le Guillaume (Somerton’s twin town) has a mayor with lots of responsibility for the administration and services in the town and really is answerable to local opinion!

  • Graham pritchard

    A long time coming, our lackluster councilliors finally take their heads out of the sand.
    Maybe they have realised if they don’t move they will be moved😀

  • Beware the Ides of South West One

    The big budget services are County-based e.g. social care, education, highways.

    The problem with having two unitaries is you end up with two sets of County big budget services which is less efficient and more costly than one set in the current County Council.

    For two unitaries with scale we would need to revert to the ancient and traditional boundary of the Shire County of Somerset (not the diminished rump in Somerset County Council from the 1974 reorg).

    The existing and too small unitary councils of North Somerset and Bath and NE Somerset would be included.

    That would reduce 3 authorities with social care, education and highways responsibilities into two new unitaries with savings.

    To the West: Somerset West and Taunton, Sedgemoor and North Somerset.

    To the East: South Somerset, Mendip, Bath and NE Somerset.

    This is the right reorg on paper but politically fraught.

    In the end, the decision taken will be intensely political rather than wholly about efficiency, as it would be in the private sector.

  • Recently Frome Town Council implored Somerset Highways to postpone roadworks along an important road off the town centre, at a time when the town centre has been closed to traffic for reconstruction work. They were ignored, and chaos reigned. Recently, government funds for cycle lanes were generously distributed in Taunton and Bridgwater, whilst Frome received the short change. This precisely illustrates the impractical distance between County HQ in Taunton and those towns 50 miles away. As I have said often enough, a Single Unitary Authority is fine in itself, but it has to offer all Somerset towns reasonable access to the seat of power. An East Somerset/ West Somerset option is far more encouraging but it is regrettable that the Districts have waited until now to suggest this option.
    Martin Dimery SCC Councillor, Frome East.

    • I know this has been, broadly yr view for a long time. Agreed the late change of direction is unfortunate. The new plan looks sensible. But two questions. First, would that not end up with Frome being run from Yeovil (so not a lot better than Taunton). Second, the proposal puts together the two councils that have most overextended themselves with unwise property investment. Without having any beef with this plan of the district councils per se, I would have thought a north/south divide would have made more sense?

      • I would also add that a two District solution causes a number of problems:

        1) No matter how you split the County north/south, east/west it does not meet the size test set by the government. The government has said that a Unitary authority should have a population of absolutely no less than 300k but their preference is the minimum should be closer to 400k and no more than c.700k. When you add South Somerset and Mendip together, it’s population bis c.282k so unless we’re expecting exponential growth in population by next year, it won’t meet the test.

        2) Due to the demographics of each LA area, a two unitary solution would create disparity between the areas and in a east/west split the Western side i.e. Taunton and Sedgemoor would have a higher depravation rate than the East. Why create a situation whereby half the County will more deprived than the other?

        3) The savings in a two Unitary are nowhere near the potential of A single Unitary. The One Somerset Report puts the figures at c.£16m for two Unitary councils and c.£50m for a single. In addition, two unitary councils have a higher implementation cost.

        4) There are services such as Adult social care and childrens social care, Education all delivered County wide which also follow the same area covered by the NHS CCG so by splitting you’re creating more work and potentially having an adverse effect on the health and well-being of the most vulnerable. You also have issues like schools transport which is covered by County but what happens if a child lives in one Unitary area and goes to school in another?

        The Local Community Networks will empower communities like Frome, they will not be reliant on Taunton and have the ability to have some Highways issues devolved to them. If you get the chance read the report by SALC, it’s very good.

  • So both proposals favour unitary. But the question of scale is absolutely critical. It is impractical to have a Council of more than 100 Councillors, so oneCouncillor would have to respond to the needs of about 6,000 with a single unitary and about 3,000 with two. (Currently District Councillors respond to about 2,300 residents.) One unitary would be huge, the second biggest in the country. It’s JUST TOO BIG and remote. Look what happened to local democracy in Wiltshire, and this one would be even bigger. Genuine contact with communities matters and what do huge single authorities do with country parks, theatres, community centres, valuable voluntary organisations? Probably go the same way as SCC and close them. As for services that are better run at a County or Combined Authority scale, of course that can be arranged by a suitable partnership agreement. 82% rejected a single huge unitary last time, and hopefully will do so again.

  • Thanks Andrew. If you are right and Yeovil was to be the base of a new Unitary, rather than Shepton, we would far prefer the 25 mile journey from Frome, as opposed to the 58 miles to Taunton (according to Googlemaps). Also, there is a direct train line to Yeovil. In West Somerset the M5 corridor is the natural link. Getting to and from County Hall and forging personal relationships with officers presents a genuine democratic deficit for those on the outer perimeter of a large rural area. Interestingly though, this has improved with the dependency of on-line meetings. As for “unwise property investment” …well this is the main reason BANES doesn’t want to go in with Mendip, so there maybe little choice.

  • Councillors need to be able to relate to their constituents. They need to be known, be local and be held to account. So do the officers of the council. A single Unitary Somerset would be the worst of both worlds, too large and remote. Going back to the original proposal for 2 unitaries allows all services to be delivered in a manner based on understanding and engagement with local communities. As for where the HQ is for Somerset East Yeovil and Shepton Mallett both have drawbacks – looking at a map is the most realistic place which is on main routes, both road and rail, is geographically and travel distance the least worst for all residents Somerton with its railway station reopened…….?

  • It’s all feels very confusing and disruptive: unless everyone agrees, such change does little to reassure people of stability. Frankly I think that the idea behind all this reorganisation is just that: making us feel.uncomfortable
    .

  • I think a single unitary authority would be far too large and likely to be unresponsive. The SCC proposal relies heavily on something called a Local Community Network – I have asked SCC to explain but no response as yet – perhaps I can get some answers here.

    There is currently no such entity as a Local Community Network’

    Question A – What is a Local Community Network (LCN)?
    Question B – Who sits on the LCN and how are they appointed?
    Question C – What statutory powers will an LCN have?
    Question D – How will LCN statutory powers be acquired?

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