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.

20 comments

  • It was interesting to watch the EGM at Mendip District Council, yesterday.
    Thought-out the meeting members,stated their concerns to hold a poll.
    When it came to the vote,the members not wishing to hold the vote
    Went against their personal thoughts,and voted for the poll.
    It will be interesting to see if there will be a legal challenge

    • nemesisnemesia

      I have been watching the SSDC shenanigans.

      I thought that the Government consultation was very clear and everyone had the opportunity to respond. The arguments that it was ‘too difficult’ and ‘people do not understand it’, expressed by Val Keitch and other LibDems, and calling a poll a referendum because people recognise the term ‘referendum’ when it is not one, were insulting to both the common sense and intelligence of the electorate in South Somerset. SSDC had ample opportunity to address the matter back in September 2020. It is simply another money-wasting exercise by the LibDems.

      • Arthur Richards

        Wait, what about my Conservative friends running Sedgemoor DC? They voted for a poll too.

  • It would appear that what matters most to the district and county councils is who is in power, who has control of policy in the various parts of Somerset, rather that what they would do with that power. There doesn’t seem to be much difference in policies whichever party has control. Perhaps the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats could explain what they would do differently under the two options.

  • I’ve a lot of time for the Leveller but this article is hogwash. This is a great result for democracy in Somerset. All parties of all colours united to give the people a vote on which option they prefer: one council or two councils. This is a victory for the people. I’m not sure why you’re so disparaging. This is Somerset at its BEST.

    • As always we happily respect differing views. But… all parties of all colours united? Did you watch the meetings? Greens voted for in Mendip whilst saying they did so reluctantly and the process was flawed. Independents voted both for and against, but they are independents so fair enough. Conservatives voted in entirely different ways across all 4 councils.
      In addition we cite two contradictory letters from MPs. There was a petty response from the county council.
      Which bit of this is good?
      OK the ONLY good thing is we will now have a poll. But it will be deeply flawed. One side will campaign and the other side won’t. Add in the quite unnecessary point scoring comments by the Leader of SSDC which may yet leave the whole process open to legal challenge…..
      The worst of all of this, is we could have done the job properly months ago, but decided not to.

      • Good – after all, we do still live in a democracy and there is plenty of room for differing views (I hope!)

        I had hoped you’d take a more positive slant on this. Yes there was pettiness and bickering, contrary views and legal wrangling, but that bothers me less than you perhaps.

        My takeaway from this was joy that a majority of councillors across Somerset ARE interested in giving the people a say through a democratic poll.

        That’s a Good Thing.

      • Brendan Smyth

        You can call it democratic all you like but in reality this a publicity stunt. The poll – not referendum is not binding, the question is flawed and not neutral as is required by the electoral commission. Fact is the poll has no more weight than a survey and is essentially a rival consultation to the Secretary of States – which had already closed. There is an established route for local government which the Districts have shown zero respect for, they had the opportunity to request a referendum- an actual one but decided not to. Fingers crossed the government take SSDC to court over this because their behaviour throughout this has been reprehensible. Furthermore it’s not clear what they hope to achieve with this poll given that all Council’s agreed staying the same was not an option so the question of Unitary has seemingly been resolved although you still have LibDem Councillors including the Deputy Leader of SSDC running around d pretending this poll includes the status quo when they themselves want to abolish the District Council’s, they lambast the County for pursuing local government reform when they themselves were doing exactly that but hey why let the truth get in the way of ‘democracy’.

      • Contradictory letters from two local MPs.

        Can we see both public interest letters in full?

      • Oh do cheer up Brendan! This is a great thing for residents of Somerset, who will now have a chance to vote on which model of local government they prefer.

    • Brendan Smyth

      But they won’t will they Arthur because like what’s already been pointed out, it’s not binding, the population already could have a say through the governments consultation, this poll is no more legitimate than that consultation, it’s just being rerun by the Districts to try and claim some legitimacy so that if One Somerset is chosen, they can claim it was ‘forced’ on them. Finally, staying the same is not on the ballot which makes this whole exercise pretty pointless. You can’t claim that this poll is democratic when you’ve already answered the question. It would be like if the Brexit referendum in 2016 asked voters whether they wanted a ‘soft’ Brexit or a ‘hard’ Brexit without asking them whether they actually wanted to Brexit. The debate on Unitary is apparently already settled so why waste taxpayers money on playing politics when they could be investing into our town centres which desperately need a shot in the arm right now.

      • No disrespect Brendan but I’ve been following this whole saga very closely over the years and I think you’re a few chapters behind or perhaps a bit muddled. Forgive me for being condescending but…

        Parliament is sovereign, and no public poll can be binding on it.

        This poll is not pointless at all. I wish it had been organised sooner, but covid regulations prohibited that. This poll has enormous value, and the outcome should inform the direction of travel of our great county.

        You’re right, the government is making authorities “go unitary”, but that doesn’t mean the debate is over. It’s a nonsense to say the people shouldn’t get a vote on the options and should just roll over to whatever the County Council/District Councils/Government proposes.

        Rejoice! You’ll get a vote, too!

      • Brendan Smyth

        Yes you were incredibly condescending but I won’t be that petty so with respect (although I don’t see why as you refuse to use your full name), I have also been following this ‘saga’ extremely closely and the government is not making councils go Unitary, the councils in Somerset put proposals to the government on the basis they wanted to go Unitary so the government asked for business cases. I didn’t say that people shouldn’t have a choice but if you read what I wrote instead of ignoring the majority of it you will see the point I’m making is that this poll provides no more insight than government consultation which has already passed. You can’t claim it’s enormous value when it’s taking place outside of the established process for local government reform and the reason is because it’s a publicity student. You also can’t claim that people will get to decide the direction of local government in Somerset when they patently won’t and certainly not when all councils have decided that staying the same is not an option so regardless (unless the Secretary of State decides both business cases are not good enough) there will be change. I won’t be voting in this publicity stunt because it’s not a vote, it’s a consultation and I have already responded to the only legitimate consultation – the governments. I’m sure the Taxpayers Alliance will be very interested in this waste of money.

      • Arthur Richards

        There you go, my full name!

        I’m afraid you’ve put the cart before the horse there – the government is driving and indeed expecting local authorities to move towards the unitary model of local government. It’s all in the Devolution White Paper (currently on ice but being defrosted for publication after the local elections, apparently).

        However, a couple of years ago and because of the strain on statutory services created by growing demand and central gov cuts… councils in Somerset all agreed that change was needed. The County Council and the Districts were working together on a solution(!)… but then the County fired the starting gun by breaking away and publishing its own business case during the covid pandemic. A business case closely aligned with what the government expected to see in terms of local government. Then the Districts were forced to follow… then the Government asked them all to submit final drafts after that. It’s not quite as simple as you describe.

        This poll does have enormous value. One of the government’s own criteria for local government change is strong local support. What’s more, referendums have been held before where local government reorganisation is concerned, so it’s not right to say this one’s illegitimate because it’s outside of the “established” consultation process. It is complementary to it.

        Anyway, how can a democratic poll be described as illegitimate? That sounds like an attack on democracy, and in an open and transparent democratic country we should invite people to express their opinion at the ballot box where there is power to do so. Why wouldn’t we? In this case, the District Councils have that power. You just disagree with them exercising it.

        Now what’s your real name. Is it Mr Fothergill? 😂

  • nemesisnemesia

    Everyone had a chance to express their views on the Government website and to provide rationale for their views if they so chose which was to my mind a lot better than a simple yes/no vote because it gave the opportunity to argue the case one way or the other. Councillors could easily have widely publicised this had they chosen to do so. Instead, they argue that it was too complicated! The proposed poll is not a victory for the people, but a waste of money which could be better spent elsewhere.

    • They did publicise it …. we got a leaflet in Glastonbury this April with a tear off slip to send into the official consultation.
      The leaflet was signed by each of the district council leaders and recommended the Stronger Somerset case over the One Somerset one. Links were given to cases for both via the official consultation site so I do not see how the councils can argue it was too complicated.
      The consultation process made you explain your support for or opposition to the competing proposals and that makes sense if you are genuinely seeking public opinion on something.
      Issa

  • Democracy is most important but it is also the only regulator of monopoly council services, it fails very badly at this because I cannot vote for lower costs. Councillors organised a poll in 2007, claiming a majority against Unitary and they were allowed to vote it down. This showed that the Secretary of State’s present consultation method is the only way to deliver common sense savings like Wiltshire Council.

  • These District Councils sent a leaflet to electors in Glastonbury (presumably elsewhere too) encouraging us to vote for them in the consultation. It had a slip to send off.
    1. How does encouraging participation in the government consultation square with their legal case for their own consultation?
    The leaflet had a message inside promoting Stronger Somerset over One Somerset add was signed by all of the District Council leaders.
    2. Why waste council tax payers’ money if they planned to make us pay for an entirely different vote on it?
    Good to know that there were sensible councillors at Mendip with the honesty to oppose spending yet more money on an unnecessary duplication.
    Issa

  • pauljohnsellers

    Why don’t the Cons and Lib Dems dop the empire-building hostile takeover bids and just get on with trying to dleliver public services?

  • All of the councils, both our district councils and our county council, decided that those services would be better delivered by a different local government structure; they did not ask the residents of Somerset but instead ploughed ahead with rival proposais for the reorganisation.
    The government put that out to consultation so residents views on both proposals could be considered too. Now our district councils (3 Lib and 1 Con) want to undermine the process by misusing our council taxes for another vote – presumably because the One Somerset proposal had more support.

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