Opinion shopping in Somerset
On the 15 April the four district councils planned to sit down and vote on holding a local poll. That poll was to give you a choice on the future of local government in Somerset. Did you prefer the Stronger Somerset model of 2 unitary councils, or the One Somerset version?
At the last minute the four council meetings, were pulled. At the time we were told that this was because of a letter received from the Secretary of State. It suggested the councils should get legal advice. What has now emerged, is that according to the Conservative group, legal advice had already been obtained. Apparently on 13 April Bevan Brittan in Bristol had given a legal opinion to the district councils. That opinion was that any poll was potentially a waste of taxpayers money and subject to challenge.
Specifically they say “our view is that there is a high risk of challenge based on best value and use of resources should the Councils go ahead, which could undermine the reorganisation proposals. Any challenge could impact upon whether or not there would be any reorganisation in Somerset this time around.“
Inevitably the district councils have gone to find further advice to support their point of view. They now have it in the form of Queens Counsel James Goudie QC. He has given a clear steer that a poll would be legal. He notes only that “There may be a challenge; but I regard any risk of personal liability as being very low. This is of course provided that there is no improper behaviour such as having an improper purpose.” It is not clear whether this would include some of the more dishonest posts that have appeared on facebook recently placed their by sitting councillors.
So next Friday the four councils will sit again on the horns of an uncomfortable dilemma. They can now call a poll and may choose to do so. That poll has now to be delayed even further. It will not close until the first week of June. And there are two conflicting pieces of legal advice to weigh up (all of which must now be paid for by taxpayers).
- One more or less says “no”, the other “yes”.
- Does the QC advice trump that from a firm of expert lawyers in the field?
- Or would the districts be best advised to go for the best of three?
- And the consultation organised by the Secretary of State is now closed