Somerset Unitary = the starting pistol is fired
We have had two weeks of contradictory messages. Will the Westminster Government move forward with unitary plans or not? Only a week ago it seemed likely the proposals would be shelved.
Last night Local Government Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP asked councils in Somerset to submit bids. This effectively fires the starting pistol on the move towards a unitary council in Somerset. Note the words “bids” in the plural. Jenrick said last night “The government may receive more than one locally led proposal for each area reflecting the local debates. In the event of this, the Local Government Secretary will consider all proposals received and decide which, if any, subject to consultation and Parliamentary approval, to implement.“
That means that both Somerset bids can progress. The One Somerset bid favoured by Somerset County Council and the Stronger Somerset produced by the Districts. However it was interesting to see that bids have also been invited from Bath and North east Somerset and North Somerset. This seems to leave the door open to the possibility of a bid that would unite the historic county of Somerset. However it is a tight timetable. The Secretary of State tells us the aim is that any new unitary councils would be established by April 2023.
David Fothergill, Somerset County Council leader told us last night “I am delighted that the Secretary of State has invited us to submit a business case for local government reform in Somerset. I have long campaigned for a single unitary approach for our county which will reduce duplication, deliver significant savings and most importantly improve lives for residents in our county. From investing in climate change to reducing inequalities, we are convinced a single unitary approach is the right way forward. Our proposal ticks all the boxes for the government’s tests and we are confident we have a compelling case to put before the Secretary of State.”
As of this morning there has been no comment from the Stronger Somerset bid. We’ll add it to this article as soon as we receive one.
It was announced that Councils in Cumbria and North Yorkshire would also be given the opportunity to submit their bids. The Secretary of State noted that any locally-led proposal he receives will be assessed against the longstanding criteria for unitarisation.
A proposal should improve the area’s local government. It should command a good deal of local support across the area. And finally should cover an area that provides a credible geography. The size of any unitary council will be considered. It should always take into account local identity and local geography, as well as economies of scale.
The Secretary of State noted that following the creation of unitary councils in Northamptonshire and Buckingham, this was the next phase. His department considered Somerset, Cumbria and North Yorkshire to be the furthest advanced in their unitary discussions.
Councils in Somerset invited to submit proposals include:
- Somerset County Council
- Bath and North East Somerset Council
- North Somerset Council
- district councils in the area: Mendip; Sedgemoor; Somerset West and Taunton; South Somerset
This evening (10 October) we received the following comment from the Stronger Somerset team: “We have received the invitation from the Secretary of State to submit our innovative plan for real change in the way services are provided by local Government in Somerset. Our draft plan is already with the Government and, after listening to the views of our residents and key partners in the coming weeks, we will be ready to submit our full proposals within the deadlines that have been set and that they will fulfil all the Government’s requirements.
“All councils agreed on the need for change but the county council and the districts fundamentally differ in our view of why we need to reorganise.
“There is now a clear choice between a very traditional form of local government which aims to save money and Stronger Somerset – a new approach that will deliver modern, efficient services and really focus on how we drive our economy forward, improve quality of life and deal with the climate crisis. This cannot be about delivering the cheapest form of Government without tackling the growing costs of services. Stronger Somerset is the only option to create a real solution to the challenges we face across the county. With 25% of our children living in poverty, with services for our young people with special needs failing, with communities feeling left behind and disconnected we can’t afford to keep things the way they are. Our vision for the future will create a Somerset where we can invest in our diverse and brilliant towns, city and villages and truly make a difference.”