District Council plans slammed by Secretary of State
Last week we reported on plans for a poll of residents of Somerset by the District Councils. The poll, which is specifically not a referendum, would be held under s116 of the Local Government Act. All four districts were due to hold full council meetings this week to vote it through. So far so good.
We pointed out at the time that the poll would cost around £1.4m of taxpayers money. That was based on Sedgemoor District Council asking for approval to spend £100k on the poll, and £250k on funds to campaign, legals and other ancillary costs.
We have now seen the meeting agendas published so far. The picture is less clear as the costs are not in fact, to be shared equally between the four districts.
The four councils have asked for £365k to spend on the poll. Sedgemoor and Somerset West & Taunton have also asked for £400k between them to spend on those other costs related to campaigning legals, contingencies and the like. However neither SSDC nor Mendip have actually put forward motions asking for approval of these ancillary costs. Presumably there will be campaigns, presumably there will be other costs, but these councils have not sought separate authority to spend that money.
So what we can say is that the poll and activities related to it will cost over £765k. But we cannot know the total amount because of the lack of information from two councils. Even so, whether it is £765k, £1m or £1.4m is not the point. The point is that this is a large amount of taxpayers money.
Added to which the results of the poll would be reported after the Secretary of State had made his decision. That is whether to adopt the One Somerset or Stronger Somerset proposals. We suggested, the timing of the poll suggested it had more to do with political theatre than democracy. And were duly vilified for saying so. That is of course merely a point of view.
Since then things have got even more complicated.
On Monday the LibDems in South Somerset launched a petition. This was curious. Why would you do that when you are voting to hold a poll of all voters? It seems like a duplication.
However it points to a realisation of something important. As things stand the District Council plan is to hold a poll under s116 of the Local Government Act. That does not carry the same weight as a referendum. However under some circumstances you really can hold a legitimate referendum on a change in governance. But only if you have a petition signed by 5% of your voters. This is presumably the reason for a petition. Although it might have made more sense to run the petition first, before holding lots of meetings about calling for a poll.
It was unfortunate that South Somerset politicised the petition. Remember all four district councils support Stronger Somerset. Three LibDem districts and one Conservative one. So it was a surprise to see that this was not couched as a district council petition. It was very specifically a LibDem petition. Thus excluding the Conservative administration in Sedgemoor.
Sedgemoor have honourably held the line supporting the same view as their LibDem counterparts throughout this debate. Their reward? The South Somerset LibDems now say “The Liberal Democrats believe that the people should have the final say on the future of their local government – not the Conservative Party.” A real stab in the back for Duncan McGinty and his Conservative administration in Sedgemoor.
We put all these points to the LibDems organising the petition. As of this evening (13 April) we have had no reply. We also asked Duncan McGinty for a comment though he too did not respond.
At which point The Leveller® became aware of a letter from the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick. The letter was addressed to all four council leaders and it pulls no punches. Mr Jenrick appeared to have read our article on the subject and makes many of the same, or at least similar, points:
“On the face of it, it is hard to see how this can represent value for money for the people of Somerset. You would have to account to your local taxpayers for whatever expense is incurred, and the consequences of that for your finances and delivery of local public services.”
“Were your councils to decide to go ahead with the exercise that you are now proposing, I would reiterate that in order to fulfil my published timetable the decision-taking process could be well advanced before you have any results from that exercise.”
“I reject any suggestion that the consultation that I am carrying out is not fit for purpose or in some way flawed.“
“The format of your letter itself, headed ‘Stronger Somerset’ (unbelievably stupid when the call for a referendum is supposed to be neutral) the name of one of the proposals, raises questions as to the risk of bias in this exercise, which it may prove difficult to overcome. Without such credibility there are questions as to the weight that can be appropriately given to the results of any exercise such as you are proposing.”
“Rather than facilitating my decision making, I believe that were you to undertake the proposed exercise it risks duplicating and detracting from the consultation to which thousands of people in Somerset have already responded, and would be confusing for local people, businesses and others in Somerset.“
Finally the Secretary of State invites the leaders to reconsider their plans to vote on a s116 poll this week. He notes several substantial legal issues that they would be well advised to take legal advise on. Of course, that is his view and it is important to note it is only his view. Although he is the decision maker, the district councils clearly hold a different view.
But the point we keep coming back to, is a simple one. There could have been a referendum. There should have been. The fact is that SSDC considered a referendum at their 10 September 2020 full council meeting. Their overwhelming conclusion was it was not practical or necessary to hold one.
But they didn’t. And because they didn’t, we question the reason why they propose to do it now when it is obviously too late. It may well of course embarrass the Secretary of State. Which would probably be fun. And if they were paying for it with their own money, not taxpayers money, that might be fair enough. But they are not.