Somerset’s future – what the accountants say

It is not an envious position. There are as you know, two rival proposals for the future of government in Somerset. As the senior authority, Somerset County Council (SCC) is obliged to give government an honest appraisal of the alternative proposals put forward by the District Councils. This is not easy to do objectively. So SCC commissioned a number of independent organisations to do the review. We have focused on the one carried out by accountants PWC. Why? because the numbers really do matter in this. Amidst the claims and counter claims we need an honest appraisal of where the numbers actually lie.

Readers will know The Leveller® has campaigned for the One Somerset model (though we don’t like the name). However the opinions below are those of PWC. For our part we will only observe that they seem to endorse a number of the criticisms that we have made of the Stronger Somerset case:

So what follows is drawn directly from the PWC executive summary:

  • The options appraisal methodology set out in Stronger Somerset makes a direct comparison with the One Somerset proposal, which is presented in relatively negative terms. It is difficult to see how some of the assertions made about either proposal can be substantiated, given the evidence presented in the document. This calls into question the rigour and robustness of the options appraisal that has been carried out.
  • The financial analysis set out in Stronger Somerset is presented as being directly comparable with that included in One Somerset, even though the two reports are based on fundamentally different assumptions. While the Stronger Somerset financial case includes assumptions about the potential level of benefit that would be secured by using the reorganisation process as a catalyst for transformation, the One Somerset case does not (it refers to transformation opportunities but does not quantify these and has not included any assumptions in its financial case). Presenting the two financial cases as comparable in this way is misleading
  • The way in which the geography of the county is treated within Stronger Somerset does not make a particularly compelling case for establishing two new councils. Current population levels for the two unitaries proposed are below the range indicated by the Secretary of State and local data suggests there could be an imbalance across the proposed councils for the East and the West in terms of demand for services and income. This would call into question the financial sustainability of the two councils.
  • The operating and delivery model proposed in Stronger Somerset would result in duplication of activities and
    functions across the county
    . It is not clear how some of the proposals referenced in the document would mitigate this. For example, the inclusion of an alternative delivery model for children’s services within the proposal is not particularly detailed and represents an untested solution in this context (there are parallels with the children’s trust model, but these are typically introduced for other reasons).
  • The proposed strategic leadership and democratic arrangements are somewhat problematic. The significance of local government in Somerset being able to speak with ‘one voice’ is underplayed. Furthermore, Stronger Somerset is proposing establishing two new councils which would be served by 100 members each – a relatively large number for a county the size of Somerset. There is a case for arguing that the levels of resource and effort required to support such arrangements would be better deployed in supporting engagement, service delivery and decision-making that is closer to local communities.
  • The way in which Stronger Somerset describes ambitions to use unitarisation as a stepping stone to establishing a combined authority and securing devolution arrangements represents a further area of challenge. It is possible to interpret them as suggesting there is an intention to establish a combined authority that would bring together the proposed new unitaries following their implementation. There appears to be no precedent for this type of model (combined authorities are typically established to cover larger geographies and a greater number of constituent councils).
  • Stronger Somerset makes relatively little reference to the complications that would be associated with disaggregating the services currently provided by the County Council. This calls into question whether the risks associated with this process have been properly considered and has implications for the deliverability and sustainability of the Stronger Somerset proposals. This issue is also relevant to ‘place services’ delivered by all the impacted councils, and public health (disaggregating public health provision in the current climate has the potential to destabilise the response to the pandemic – Stronger Somerset is not clear on what is intended in this regard) . Furthermore, it is not clear what responsibilities in these areas are envisaged as having the potential to be transferred to a combined authority at a future date.

You can read the whole of the PWC report here

One comment

  • A ‘perspective’ of a Somerset man born & bred enjoined in Scripture: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away”.

    The last Government Reform ‘Balkanised’ the former Somerset County. The first elections to the new county council were held on 23 January 1889. Since then, members have been elected for a term of office (initially three years, now four), with elections held all together on the “first past the post” system. Hitherto Rural/Urban Authorities with retained Parish Councils.(Minor Authorities) It’s my conviction the former SCC was well established, resourced & to the fore post both WW1/WW2 and in my experience ‘exemplars’ in primary/secondary education; many a ‘primary’ school today beneficiaries. My recollection is that ‘elected’ membership was ‘apolitical’ although recognised some individuals, delineated today as ‘party’ apparatchiks; predominantly until the 1974 Reforms an emergent ‘community’ motivated individual; it could never have been perceived the ‘advent’ of ‘political’ nomenclature into parish/town councils.
    An interesting fact the Diocese of Bath & Wells encompasses the former ‘historic’ county and that should be the starting point in the current consultative process. In principle,

    I support the ’embryo’ proposal by SCC Councillor David Fothergill. At the outset the expected ‘challenge’ will come from the ‘Districts’ with the attendant ‘waste’ of precious rate-payers ‘treasurer’ pace Covid – 19 Pandemic. We’re witness to the demise of Somerset’s century’s ‘local’ Newpapers & the emergence of The Leveller 1SSN 2632-3389. (Somerset’s largest circulation newspaper) forensic in its local authority reporting. (15 August 2020: Issue 119 ‘Consequences’.

    I share the view notwithstanding the ‘pubic’ consultation HMG will enact legislation during this parliamentary term at which the 9 Somerset Constituency MPs will have ‘declared’ and was interested in the preliminary ‘thoughts’ of James Heappey MP, encapsulated in Wells Voice: September, publication, which in ‘principle’ endorses Councillor Fothergill’s proposal ‘a single unitary for the whole of Somerset, including NS/B & NES. West of England Mayor need to be factored into any consultation. SALC a ‘trojan’ horse more than a ‘mouth’ piece if resourced.

    Parish Councils must be the ‘vital’ progenitors of the ‘consultative’ process ignored per se over many years by the ‘district’ councils, to which witness the writer declaims, a ‘member’ of those first three ‘quadrennial’ of Mendip District Council, apolitical’ and community led of which the CPRE were ‘principal’ consultees, an abandonment of ‘planning’ to the rampage of ‘speculative’ development; of which we can expect further erosion in ‘local’ democracy input. This unique ‘jewel’ of Wells, desecrated on the altar of ‘profit’. It behoves contemporary ‘elected’ members to start setting the agenda; not managing an agenda and I await with baited breath that ‘member’ to invoke a F.O.I Enquiry on the Section 106s Outcomes & Proceeds accrued to the Church Commissioners on the ‘speculative’ housing in this unique place in the last quadrennial or so?

    Living on the Mendips, participating in the AONB ‘delineation’ I’m concerned at the increasing ‘incursions’ and ‘management’ pace Ash ‘dye-back’ the ever increasing destruction of ‘hedgerows’ replaced with fencing panels; witness the A371 on the west entry to Wells/Dinder Estate, both hitherto a ‘vista’ to the Mendip Hills. To be emulated the ’emergence’ of reinstatement of ‘Drystone Walling’ pace East Harptree, a dilatory commencement in the ‘immense’ funding’s’ for ‘tree’ planting.

    I’ve perhaps erred & strayed but society has to have learnt something post Covid – 19; whither the ‘leadership’ in this millennium?

    Graham E Livings, Lilliput, Upper Milton, Wells. BA5 3AH

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