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 https://onesomerset.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/PwC-Stronger-Somerset-Review.pdf