Hiccup at start of Somerset poll

It is hard to write this without sounding like carping. But the facts about the poll on the future of local government in Somerset are as follows:

On 30th April all four district councils voted to hold a poll on the unitary debate. The poll would offer voters the choice of a one unitary or two unitary solution. The motion approved by the councils explained that: “the poll be held commencing on Tuesday 18th May 2021 and closing at 5.00PM on Friday 4th June 2021.”

On 17 May Facebook posts from South Somerset District Council explained: voting opens tomorrow on the future of local government in Somerset! Look out for your voter pack in the post. You can vote online or by post using your ballot paper.

Except that you can’t. You can’t vote without your ballot paper and the data on it. So to be able to vote on the 18, ballots should have been posted on 17. But see below….

On 18 May we contacted a number of Somerset residents none of who had received a polling card. In the afternoon of 18 May we received a press release saying “Ballot papers will start dropping through letterboxes this week for the local poll on options for change in local government in Somerset.”

In a statement issued by SSDC on behalf of the four councils at 4.30pm matters had moved on. We were told “We have been very clear that ballot papers would be posted on 18 May to allow Somerset residents to participate in the poll which runs until 5pm on 4 June.” Well yes, if you ignore the facebook posts on 17 May and the motion voted on by councillors on 30 April.

At the same time the four council leaders issued a statement saying “Local people must be allowed to have the opportunity to have their say clearly and unambiguously. A properly organised, independently run public vote is the best way to ensure that happens.” So far it is not looking especially like a “properly organised poll”. Does it matter? Possibly not. It depend on when the voting papers finally arrived. If they were sent second class they won’t arrive until 20 May at the earliest. If councillors thought they were voting for a poll that started on 18 May and lasted until 4 June, perhaps the end date should now be extended?

Meanwhile campaigning has started. Councillors Oliver Patrick and Peter Seib posting on Facebook a summary of “facts” skewed, unsurprisingly, to show their choice of Stronger Somerset in the best light. This is followed by a suggestion that you should vote in letters coloured, by an amazing co-incidence, in the same colours as the Stronger Somerset bid font. And the vote symbol appears directly above the Stronger Somerset option. The posts were made on 16 May and had not been removed by the time the poll had opened on 18 May.

It is frustrating that we have a poll where one side is nakedly campaigning and the other refuses to engage. It will make it very difficult for the poll to be in any sense fair, and that is not the fault of the Stronger Somerset team.

At least there is a vote, which is better than no vote.


  • Their post is nothing but deceitful, it’s comical that the LibDems crowed about ‘democracy’ when they’ve offered nothing but falsehoods. I wonder how they think their less efficient model turning 5 organizations into 5 can deliver £30m more ‘investment’ than One Somerset turning 5 in 1 – there was nothing in their business case about it or claim how One Somerset will cut when there was nothing in their business case about cuts – it’s pure conjecture.

    • Oliver Patrick

      One Somerset’s “Why have Five when you could have One?” is hardly a slogan for investment, is it? It’s the sort of slogan that precedes cuts. Indeed, One Somerset has costed £8.4million for redundancy payments. That’s a lot of staff cuts.

      More worryingly, the One Somerset plan contains no map for service reform – it’s underlying and repeated assumption is that savings can be made from cuts to back-office duplication and that statutory services can be improved simply by bringing all the County/District Council budgets into one place. Again, that sort of plan just precedes cuts elsewhere.

  • Disagree that their vote is better than no vote Andrew, the poll is not neutral so you can understand why One Somerset will not engage. Not only that but people have had the opportunity to have their say through the government consultation in which the Secretary of State says 1000s replied. That’s far more than the 300 odd which responded to Dorset. You should call this poll out for what is it, political motivated and a blatant disregard for public money.

    • Absolutely right. The government consultation has been open for some time, with everyone able to respond directly. This poll is an unnecessary waste of time and public money. It is also flawed as it doesn’t include an option to maintain the status quo.

  • My Smyth, you accuse me of deceit.

    There are presently 7 councils representing the people of Somerset (don’t forget B&NES and NS are parts of Somerset!) and under the reform this reduces to either 3 or 4 councils, so surely the first deceit is to call a bid “One Somerset”.

    It is also a deceit to suggest that cross-county partnership organisations don’t exist already. The Somerset Waste Partnership, South-West Audit Partnership, Somerset Rivers Authority, Building Control Partnership, Homefinder Somerset and many others were set up and controlled by the local authorities because these are efficient, effective ways to deliver, more cost-effective than these being functions within the council. Indeed every one I’ve named is lauded as best practice.

    A further deceit is not counting the many commercial organisations where contracted out delivery replaces public servants. These contracts have a poor record – for example Skanska double-billing and the abortive Southwest One – but they’re not in your organisation count.

    Finally, one of five “organisations” you include in the Stronger Somerset count is actually the Government’s intended “Combined Authority” which is a layer above these councils. This is not Stronger Somerset’s invention, nor part of the bid, but it makes sense to draw down on the specific growth funding that is only made available to areas with this type of arrangement. Any Combined Authority would have to be formed with other councils, such as B&NES, NS and possibly Devon’s County and Districts. I would expect your mega council to frighten partners away, it would be so much bigger. Without forming a Combined Authority, Somerset residents miss-out on essential cash help, is that your proposal? Perhaps you think they would prefer a Mayor of Somerset?

    At least be consistent.

    We counted just the Councils, because only the Councils are elected, accountable, tax-raising public bodies that commission or deliver services. These “other” organisations are specialised to be effective and efficient. If they aren’t, they’ll be replaced. There’s very little revenue, it’s very important not to waste any.

    What the people want is a Council that is theirs, which listens, cares and acts. Not a dictating monolith.

    • B&NES and N Somerset are not part of Somerset, they are part of ceremonial County which has no bearing on local government. If you want to get technical both of those Councils were part of the County of Avon until 1996. From what I gather B&NES and N Somerset decided not to participate due to their connection (or in B&NES membership) of the West of England Combined Authority hence no business case was put forward by them but I’d be interested to see whether they responded to the legitimate people’s survey – the government consultation. It is deceitful when the Stronger Somerset business case made a single mention of the of £214m but offer no explanation of how you arrived at the figure. Furthermore it’s deceitful to claim you can generate £30m more in investments when the other side you chastise for producing a lower yield will have to cut. That’s not supported by any evidence, you are misleading the public.

      • I’d also make the point the government at no point has intended to create a combined authority in Somerset that is you mr invention, last I heard it was a Devon and Somerset combined authority not a Somerset wide and that was a proposal that was to be forward to government and not the other way around.

  • No sign of paperwork in this mornings post 19/5/21

  • The poll always lacked credibility and is a disgraceful waste of public money. It has now descended into farce.

    There is no sensible case to split Somerset in two – or for the county to have two large councils as well as our local city, town and parish councils.

    However, it is still best to vote for One Somerset and to encourage your family and friends to do likewise.

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