Somerset at its worst
The last three days of April saw political point scoring of the worst kind across Somerset. We have seen every kind of petty backbiting, a lack of reasoned debate and entrenched views becoming more entrenched. Each of the district councils planned to meet on 30 April to decide vote on giving Somerset residents a vote. In short to hold a poll on which model of local government they preferred.
But before any of the district councils got a chance to vote two MPs with “history” had their pennyworth. Ian Liddell Grainger was on his hobbyhorse: “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Government’s consultation failed to seek the views of Somerset voters. This week the Minister of State publicly admitted that the online survey organised by his department made no attempt whatsoever to verify the identity of any respondent.” The MP has clearly been doing quite a lot of behind the scenes spadework. Despite the letter being on the face of it to the SEO of Somerset West & Taunton, the pdf opens to the title “Draft letter to Sajid Javid”. It must either be a very old letter, or he has been lobbying back benchers who used to be ministers.
His old adversary from the days of the Taunton/Somerset West merger was Rebecca Pow. Now of course a junior minister in the government she had a different perspective: “I am dismayed to hear…..district councils are planning to conduct a poll on local government reorganisation that appears contrary to your own original legal advice and to the stated position of the Secretary of State. I am particularly concerned that this appears to be a misuse of public funds…..“
Ms Pow was clearly not informed that having received a legal letter with the wrong answer, the districts had headed out to find someone who could give them the right answer. District Councils were given clear legal advice from a Queens Counsel that a poll of residents could go ahead. With the caveat that it should be solely for the purpose of finding out what residents want. It should not be with the main intention of thwarting the Secretary of State. And this is what enabled them to sit down on 30 April to consider a poll. But as we have pointed out before, that advice is very carefully worded.
Leader of South Somerset District Council (SSDC), Val Keitch, apparently hadn’t read that bit of the advice. First at scrutiny and then at full council on 30 April, she made her views clear. The Secretary of State had run a flawed consultation. It asked the wrong people, it was biased. Val Keitch didn’t agree with it. She didn’t accept it. And a poll of residents should put that right.
So SSDC endorsed the idea of a poll of residents, whilst also appearing to fly in the face of the legal advice it received. It became clear, to these ears at least, that the main purpose of the poll, was to thwart the Secretary of State.
Elsewhere the other three councils managed a much “cleaner” debate. No name calling, no Secretary of State shaming. A clear call for a poll of residents for all the right reasons. At least all four district councils came up with the same idea.
It was a long day starting with SW&T at 10 in the morning and finishing at 6 in the evening at Mendip. The voting was predictable. All opinions previously entrenched all following their various party lines very much as we predicted. Only the Mendip Greens and some of the independents appeared to have arrived at the debating chamber with some intention of listening to the arguments and then making up their own mind. The rest looked as if they had been whipped. They would no doubt say they hadn’t been, but that was how it looked.
If you are wondering where Somerset County Council (SCC) were in all of this fear not. They had laid rather low until the day (30 April), but they had low blows in mind. In a letter to the district council leaders, David Fothergill stated his case. That SCC took an opposite view to the districts was not a surprise. That they took the opposite view of the Secretary of State’s consultation was predictable. Nor was it a surprise to read they would not take part in the district council’s poll. But to say that SCC refused permission to allow One Somerset’s logo or branding to be used in the poll? That seemed rather petty.
But this whole process had been conducted with point scoring and acrimony throughout. Most people we have spoken to expressed the view that the sooner these institutions are replaced, whether by one or two councils, the better.
No doubt a poll will go ahead. Whether it will be a fair poll, with only one side arguing its case is debateable. No doubt the spending on adverts and the like to argue the case for Stronger Somerset will continue. Perhaps the Secretary of State will consider legal action against SSDC. For now we can only guess.
The Leveller® still believes One Somerset is the best option. We have campaigned on that point of view throughout. And equally we recognise our readers may not share that view. Which is why we also believed a referendum was the right way to go. Something we first mentioned in July last year in this piece: https://leveller.live/2020/07/07/greens-say-yes-and-no-to-unitary-somerset/ But this sort of last minute rushed mess was not what we had in mind.
What a mess and what an embarrassment.