Somerset poll to cost £1m+

Opinion piece

Papers were published today for the Sedgemoor District Council meeting next week. In amongst them are some interesting facts about the upcoming poll (it is not legally a referendum). This was announced earlier in the week. The idea is to give a voice on the future of local government in Somerset.

The Leveller® has always supported the idea of a proper referendum. A referendum on the same day as the local council elections would have been ideal. Cheaper and on a much more practical timeline. And it could have been made binding on the Secretary of State, should he have allowed it. And had the district councils lobbied him in a timely fashion.

The Leveller® says: Let us be clear. We all know what a consultation is. We have watched these deeply flawed exercises before. Such as the one conducted over the merger of Taunton Deane Borough Council and West Somerset. So the districts knew well in advance exactly what would happen. To protest now at the last minute that a consultation will not do, is at best myopic. At worst a piece of political theatre.

There will no doubt be much hand wringing and discussion about how this wasn’t possible. The fact is it was. All that had to happen was to convince the Secretary of State. This apparently was not the preference.

So to be clear this is not a referendum. It is (sorry to be technical) a poll held under s116 of the Local Government Act. This effectively allows councils to hold a poll, which is effectively a glorified petition. It does not permit a referendum, despite the fact that Sedgemoor repeatedly call it one. It is not binding.

The true cost of the exercise (you will be paying – not central government) has now been revealed. It is contained in Agenda item 4.2 for Sedgemoor District Council’s meeting next week. it asks the full council to approve £100k for the poll and a further £250k principally as campaign costs. As Sedgemoor is one of four districts pledged to do the same we can assume total costs of £1.4m. So the four districts expect to spend a further £400k on the poll itself. Followed by a further £1m spent by lobbying for their case. And that is on top of what they have spent already lobbying the Secretary of State.

There are, The Leveller® argues three significant flaws in the poll.

The first is that it takes place across a three week period. It is akin to gathering signatures on a petition. Once you have cast your vote, that is it. The fact that the arguments rage on and you may change your mind is your problem. If a poll is going to deliver anything of value, far better to have a single day and a deadline for responses.

The second is that this is going to spend £1.4m of your money. If the job had been done properly the costs of the poll could have been shared with other elections. And spend it on an exercise that is arguably a waste of time (see point 3 below)

The third and more fundamental flaw is that the results will be known, and delivered at a point when the Secretary of State will have given his decision. The consultation being conducted by the Secretary of State ends on 19 April. A decision is expected in the fortnight following that. This poll will not report until after the decision has been taken.

So what is the point of an exercise that will report your views after the decision is taken? It is to embarrass the Secretary of State by providing a popular response that is different to the one he chooses. Because the districts expect he will choose the One Somerset case. Which of course he may not.

6 comments

  • SSDC are delivering their leaflets to Dorset residents too!

  • Not nearly as big a sum of money as that wasted by SCC on the whole unitary bid in the middle of a pandemic.

    • Actually you’ll find that SSDC were also working on Stronger Somerset right through the pandemic too. And they were the authority tasked with coming up with a document, so not surprising the others didn’t.
      And as to which side spent what in total to date – well it’s about the same. But now this…,

  • If you polled the public do you think that they would support running on with local government reorganisation amidst the worst pandemic for over 100 years?

    Shame on all parties who carried on with this local government reorganisation during the pandemic.

    You are quite right to point out that the consultation to merge Taunton Deane Borough Council and West Somerset Council was a sham.

    The majority of respondents were against yet the Local Government Minister still approved it. That was Rishi Sunak, so following party lines did him no harm at the time.

    It is worth googling “House of Lords Taunton Deane West Somerset” for the debate.

    Big savings were promised and duly NOT delivered. In fact, it ended up costing around £10m more than expected – thanks to a bizarre voluntary redundancy scheme whereby staff could self select for generous redundancy terms regardless of service needs etc.

    Warnings were issued that the modest merger between Taunton Deane and West Somerset would be subsumed by a Unitary within 5 years and here we are!

    Had Sedgemoor District Council been included too that would have made more sense but personality differences prevailed.

    We elect Councils every 4 years, so why are we about to reorganise our Somerset councils for the first time since the bodged 1974 elections (which begat the unloved Avon Council), WITHOUT a popular vote?

    I would like to vote for returning Somerset from its diminished 1974 borders to the longstanding historic borders and include North Somerset and Bath & NE Somerset (both too small to be cost effective unitary councils).

    That would in turn lead to two unitary councils: One for (Som West & Taunton +Sedgemoor + N Som) and the other being (South Som +Mendip +Bath & NE Som).

    But that option hasn’t been worked up.

    Sadly, in my view, the One Somerset unitary locks us into the botched 1974 reorganisation when the historic County of Somerset was partially subsumed into the unloved Avon Council.

    • Hard not to agree with many of these points. Our main contention throughout is not that one side is right or not. Although we have always been honest with readers about preferring the One Somerset bid. That said our over-riding position is and always has been to have a referendum to decide the future of local government in the bit of Somerset left to us. It is our view that Somerset residents have not been well served by this process. I know others will disagree.

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