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.


  • Any way to avoid proper democracy. What’s the rush?

  • I am not a supporter of One Somerset due to the scale of the proposal, but the districts may be mistaken if they think people have any great loyalty to retaining them as merged administrations. People in Frome (from my observations) have never quite got over the artificial construct of Mendip, which took away their Urban and Rural councils, car parks and properties, and moved their assets to the smaller (but geographically appropriate) Shepton Mallet. I suspect people in this north eastern corner of Somerset would resent any money spent on an un-binding poll, the purpose of which might appear to be maintaining Mendip in some form of super council. Perhaps better not to ask…

    • Somerset Smithy

      I am a Frome person through and through and don’t want to see the “super districts” promoted by the district councils and strangely called “Stronger Somerset”.

      Much better the simpler, less bureaucratic One Somerset proposal -which includes decisions being returned to Town and parish level from the existing districts.

      As you say Mendip’s geography makes little sense and adding in the Yeovil area would make matters worse.

      There is little or no affection for Mendip District Council in Frome – I think most people would happily vote for One Somerset to get rid of Mendip and avoid an even bigger version of it.

      • Most of the lowest level of statutory authority in Somerset are small parish councils. I am a councillor on one such council. We have one very part time clerk as our only employee and seven councillors. Currently we have excellent support from our local District Council (SSDC) who are fairly local to us. We get next to no support from Somerset CC based in Taunton. If all of our large county have to look to Taunton for support how much familiarity with our parish do you think they will have? Personally, and my parish council collectively, wish we could stay with the current arrangement but failing that we unanimously support the smaller unitary authorities proposed in the Stronger Somerset option. Fear not Mendip folk, joining South Somerset will not be more of the same as with Mendip but a great improvement.

    • I think yr right Martin. I also wonder if actually all the experiment with districts has taught us, is the system or RDCs and UDCs might well have been a better system

  • Somerset Smithy

    I can only presume that our district councils have plenty of money to waste on promoting their divisive and bureaucratic plan to split Somerset in two…

    As well as £1,400,000 on a “too late to make any difference” referendum – I have been bombarded with adverts from the Stronger Somerset group during the consultation period – adverts on my Facebook feed, with my council tax bill and most recently via a door to door mailing.

    All despite me thinking such campaigning was not allowed during the consultation period.

  • Since when have The Leveller been the mouthpiece for the Conservative party?

    Report the news if you want to, but pease leave your opinion at the door.

  • Hilarious from the Lib/Dems given their recent refusal to respect the result of the recent Brexit referendum, they really are hypocrisy at its height.

  • Thank you Andrew and Secretary of State who says ‘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.”
    I don’t think this is possible with monopoly council services regulated only at election time. Citizens cannot vote for lower costs because there is no common data to compare the efficiency of all councils.
    In the 2007 Unitary vote, councillors organised a poll which claimed a majority of citizens were against Unitary and they were able to vote it down.
    This time the Secretary of State must decide.

  • If you are worried about a waste of public money, or abiased view of the options for unitary authority/authorities in Somerset the County Council led the race on this. Their promotion of One Somerset started way back into last year and was profoundly biased, even in their request for opinions. South Somerset has given our area great service over the 25+ years I’ve been a Parish Councillor whereas successive County Councillors have been at few of our meetings,just sometimes sending generic reports with little relevance to our parish. The One Somerset proposal would provide few councillors each covering a larger area than current County Councillors. The democratic deficit is plain. If you want your area to have its voice heard in a new unitary authority think carefully before you side with One Somerset.

    • I’m delighted you have had great service from your district council. It is always heartening to hear. Views about individual councillors, whether district or county do tend to vary a lot. I could point to good and bad, without prejudice to party affiliation, or whether district or county.
      Clearly you were not aware that SSDC has conceded that it too was working on the Stronger Somerset proposals throughout the pandemic. And clearly both proposals that have been put forward have come across as profoundly biased. They would. Both sides believe passionately that they are right.
      But that is not the point. If you think Stronger Somerset is the best deal, that’s great. Put in your representation in favour of it. We can’t all have the same view.
      However we do have a view – separate from which proposal is the best one – on wasting public money. That is what this article is about. In the same way we attacked the County Council for wasting money on the front page of pour March edition.
      There is a principle here that we profoundly object to and will continue to object to whether it is a parish, district, county or unitary council that is doing it.

      • Mr Lee,my main objection to One Somerset was clearly stated above – the extremely poor level of representation of , for instance, small village parishes such as mine. Democratic deficit is what that means. Our experience of our County Councillors has given us smple reason to be very concerned about this. There are many other reasons I believe the One Somerset proposal is cumbersome and unsuited to a large county such as ours, with very many small parishes with few resources but lack of effective representations is my main objection.

  • Somerset Smithy

    A Somerset wide authority would be a new council with almost twice as many councillors as Somerset County Council.

    The quality of councillors is likely to increase with a simpler, more straightforward, more accountable structure of local government.

    I live in Frome and most of our neighbouring towns are in Wiltshire (a similar county to Somerset) which has had a single unitary council for many years. My friends and contacts there are happy with the structure, even if they don’t support the majority party.

    I support One Somerset because I believe it will deliver better local services, be more accountable and will return more local decisions back to local town and parish councils.

    I don’t like the idea of breaking up Somerset into East and West and the associated creation of new, unelected county wide bodies.

    • One Somerset or the Stronger Somerset proposal for unitary authorities would bring new elections, which is why there is no County Council election this year. To say either option would lead to unelected bodies is a totally wrong understanding of this process.

      • Somerset Smithy

        It is not a misunderstanding. The proposal to split Somerset in two does include creating new organisations to manage county wide services. These new organisations would be unelected.

        The fact that it is necessary to create new Somerset wide organisations, if the county is split up, highlights that the best structure might actually be one council, rather than two.

        Especially so as many critical services (education, social care, child protection, etc) are already provided by a county wide council and delivered from local bases within local communities.

  • In either option for unitary authorities there will be elections in 2022. Should the Stronger Somerset option be chosen the only time there might be unelected authorities would be between the dissolution of the current system and the inception of the new unitary authorities. This, presumably would be decided by the Secretary of State so if you have issues on this I suggest you lobby him. Of course One Somerset would not be the same as the current County Council, who have been granted an unelected extra year beyond their statutory four year term.

  • Somerset Smithy

    The proposal to break up Somerset includes, for example, permanently outsourced children’s services to an Alternative Delivery Model and a shared services company. These new bodies would not be elected.

    Currently these services are provided directly by an elected county wide authority.

    • And why would these services not be provided by two elected unitary authorities? SCC’s oversight of children’s services has hardly wreathed them in glory either.

      • Somerset Smithy

        SCC will not exist. So hardly relevant how they or the district councils have performed in particular respects.

        It is part of the ‘Stronger Somerset’ proposal to split Somerset into two, to create both the county wide bodies I mention.

        We all agree on the move to a unitary structure, so that is a good thing.

        I am not planning to comment further, but thank you for your time and thoughts.

  • In what ways are any party ‘not respecting’ Brexit? Do you mean they point out drawbacks, or flaws in the subsequent deal? Do you not believe that in a democracy everyone is allowed to express their point of view? It is a strong tradition in this country so I should have thought any supporter of Brexit would be right behind it.

  • This is another example of LibDem smoke and mirrors. They keep calling it a referendum when their ‘poll’ has no more weight to it than a petition. They talk about democratic deficit when it’s they who are trying to somehow give themselves an advantage over this worthless vote and try to give it legitimacy by calling a referendum when it patently isn’t. The only possible fair question that could be asked in this regard could be Do you think Local Government Reform in Somerset should comprise of One Unitary Council OR Two Unitary Councils? That’s not good enough though as they know their ‘Stronger Somerset or One Somerset’ question is more likely to swing their way throwing away public money to try and win a ground war which doesn’t exist. The process for local government reform has precedent but they’re not content with as rather than put forward a positive vision for the future they decide to waste their business case attacking One Somerset. They were told they could not use District Council money to promote their business case but they chose to ignored it with SSDC regularly sharing social media posts from Stronger Somerset and all their Officers promoting it on their email signatures in communications The way the Districts have behaved is appalling and history will look back at them and see their actions were no better than a petulant child.

    • 1 – We all know it’s not a referendum, but the terminology has now passed into the public lexicon because the press keep calling it that.

      2 – You’re quite right, it has no legal weight, but wouldn’t it be interesting to see how the public feel about this?

      3 – Why do you feel that the ‘Stronger Somerset or One Somerset’ question is more likely to swing the way of the District Council’s proposal? If it’s a binary choice surely it would be 50/50. It could only swing one way if more people chose to select that option.

      4 – I don’t feel that this is throwing away public money. This what we should be spending money *ON*. Finding out what the public want.

      5 – Have Somerset County Council not used public money to promote their One Somerset campaign?How do they pay for all the advertising which comes through my letterbox and finds its way onto my Facebook page?

      • Thanks for some direct and helpful questions. We will answer in order:
        1 – actually the use of the word referendum is all over the resolutions put forward by each of the four district councils. That is the source of the confusion. You’d have to look quite hard to find the words “poll” and “s116.” If the press picked up on the word referendum, I can readily understand why. We admit we have perhaps laboured the point, precisely to avoid confusion.
        2 – yes it would. We supported a referendum (a real one not a poll) back last summer when the district councils were having none of it. Our objection has never been to the idea, but to the timing and waste of public money.
        3 – candidly we don’t. However we do question the motives of district councils that were against a referendum when there was time to organise one that could have co-incided with the May 6 elections. Why suddenly is it a good idea when it wasn’t last September?
        4- in principle we agree. Had the districts gone for a genuine referendum in September. Then a petition could be organised first to ensure 5% of the population were in favour of the idea (a pre-requisite for a referendum). There would have been [plenty of time. The whole thing could have been agreed, possibly with County Council elections too. The extra cost would have been minimal because elections were already scheduled for May 6. Doing it at the last minute after a sudden Damascene conversion to the idea, is what is causing a large amount of avoidable cost. That is our objection.
        5 – yes both sides have wasted large sums of public money advocating for their point of view, putting stuff on social media and through your letterbox. There is no difference between them in that regard.

  • Well the public consultation just took me 25 mins or so to answer 20 questions. https://consult.communities.gov.uk/governance-reform-and-democracy/somerset/consultation/. I would not want to put anyone off but i don’t think there will be many members of the public taking part, therefore i do think a residents poll makes sense and it would be democratic and predictably the Sec of State does not fancy it. I’d question the cost of £1.4million which seems way off for a postal and online ballot. Either way in a time of climate emergency, (check the recent methane levels at highest ever) we should be adapting to a very different world and quick. Instead we face 2 or 3 years of change, reorganisation, demoralised staff, the culling 169 councillors, (disclosure i am a green cllr) all for the Conservatives continuing austerity programme. Mendip DC has changed for the better with the new administration, and whilst it can still be frustrating dealing with bureaucracy, public opinion takes time to change. MDC are just writing to the government to request a UBI Trial, that would not have happened 2 years ago and building social housing and cycleways. In short i would favour no change, but Stronger Somerset in a smaller geographical area makes more sense than a huge one Somerset. But hey ho, lets wait and see what regal Robert ‘three homes’ Jenrick decides for our future.

    • totally get where you are coming from Shane. However Jenrick claims thousands of ordinary residents have already responded. Not that anyone can check this claim – but hey ho…

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