Somerset Poll degenerates into farce

On Wednesday we noted that councillors from all four districts voted for the poll to take place between 18 May and 4 June. Despite that, ballot papers were not even posted out until the afternoon of the 18 May. This meant no-one would be able to vote until 19 May at the earliest. The Leveller has heard from a number of residents who only received their ballot papers this morning, the 21 May.

Where that leaves the vote of the councillors and the legal status of the poll, heaven only knows.

But now that ballot papers have arrived, it gets worse. The district councils delivered two leaflets with the ballot paper. One for each case – Stronger Somerset and One Somerset. The districts are running the poll and the county council refuse to take part. The districts claim that “The text for these leaflets was drafted independently by a firm of solicitors, Sharpe Pritchard, drawn from the executive summaries included in the respective submissions to the Government.

This apparently was such a hands off exercise that nobody thought it was a good idea to proof them. Either that or more sinister machinations are at work. Because the leaflet for One Somerset advertises a link that takes you to a spoof website.

This really is incompetence of the highest order. It may make Ian Liddell Grainger laugh. The spoof website https://onesomerset.org/ is full of the sort or material he will find hilarious. In terms of the fairness of the poll, it is closer to farce.

Can you hear a scurrying sound? It is the sound of hurried footsteps as those involved try to distance themselves from responsibility.

Meanwhile a spokesperson for the four district councils suggested the Police should be involved. The spoof website taken down. Which is surely missing the point. The spoof website has not appeared to coincide with the poll. It is a bit of satire. It is arguably rather funny.

The issue here is surely not that the spoof site should be hounded out of existence. The issue is how did the districts produce a leaflet that had such an embarrassing error. They point out that they sent the leaflet to One Somerset. But One Somerset had made it plain it would not take part in the referendum. The fact they did not respond should surprise no-one. The duty of care is on the councils that proposed the referendum, not the council that refused to take part.

Of course not everybody sees it this way. In a press release today MP Ian Liddell Grainger suggested “Needless to say the One Somerset campaign is blaming everyone else except themselves. But it is their own incompetence responsible for this mess. Their supporters, including some of my Parliamentary colleagues, are now demanding that the Referendum is scrapped. That is ridiculous.”

38 comments

  • In Glastonbury we have yet to receive any polling cards or leaflets. That said, I have looked at the spoof website and, given that not everyone follows the Leveller to be aware that it is a spoof site, it is disgusting that our District Councils are using our council tax funds to indulge in a dirty tricks campaign such as this.
    Please alert the Electoral Commission and ask that they investigate whether the District Councils have broken any laws with the misleading leaflets they are sending with the poll cards?

    • I am in Bridgwater and have yet to receive a ballot paper

      • This really is a farce. The incompetence is staggering. Can you imagine a real election and people not getting ballot papers until 4 days after it started?

      • And the Leveller’s estimate is that this cost us, the taxpayers, £1.4m.

    • I have now received my polling cards in Glastonbury with the leaflets “produced by Mendip District Council, Sedgemoor District Council, Somerset West & Taunton Council, and South Somerset District Council” that has the dodgy web address to the fake One Somerset site.

      So we can write to or email our complaints to the “Returning Officer” for our own district councils as well as contacting the Electoral Commission to complain about the disgraceful conduct of the poll (misleading information and late ballot papers).

      The Stronger Somerset leaflet does not mention that they propose 2 Councils with 3 new additional organisations on top of that for a shared services company, a combined authority to cover the whole area of their 2 new councils, and an “Alternative Delivery Model” for outsourcing children’s services.

      • The whole name “Stronger Somerset” is misleading – it actually involves breaking up Somerset and ongoing unnecessary duplication and bureaucracy.

        Much better one council for the county and more powers for our local city, town and parish councils.

        Vote One Somerset!

    • If our Councillors can’t even get this right, Then why on earth should we trust them to govern us in the first place…!!! The mind boggles…!!!

  • Don't tell him Pike!

    Will they try and blame the printer?

    It is usual for a master copy to be signed off by the client as accurate before the print run. Was that done in this case?

    South Somerset District Council have been the lead authority for Stronger Somerset throughout and procured the consultants etc.

    Were South Somerset District Council in charge of the printing?

    I am quite sure that Private Eye would love this story.

    Eyes Passim!

    • It is also usual to check any links contained in the copy before you send the copy to the printers.

  • My papers were received this morning. I shall be submitting a complaint to the Electoral Commission.

  • The whole things is so absurdly embarrassing! Utter shame on the District Councils for this farce. The two Somerste model is patently ridiculous and this pretend referendum is a nonsense. How much money is being wasted!?!?

    • I read somewhere else that approximately £310k is being spent just for Civica running the poll (not sure if that is correct) but that figure does not cover literature, advertising etc. There is also the unknown cost if the leaflet these district councils sent out to try to sway the official consultation process in favour of strongersomerset. All council tax payers’ money that could have been spent on the services District Councils are meant to provide.

  • ITV report link below.

    Says both independent adjudicator and Somerset County Council checked the leaflet and missed the error!

    They say Police have been informed.

    https://www.itv.com/news/westcountry/2021-05-21/councils-apologise-after-offensive-website-appears-on-leaflet-sent-to-residents

    • Incorrect, it says in the report that the information was sent to SCC but the Districts did not receive a reply. SCC even commented that they have had no involvement. This was a balls up which compromises the legitimacy of the poll.

      • The poll/vote should now be cancelled or voided as it is impossible to alert all electors to the misleading nature of the OneSomerset literature (that actually comes from the district councils’ StrongerSomerset campaign).

  • The Leveller seems to be in thrall to the Tories. What about the utterly UNtransparent ‘consultation’ that they devised on whether there should be one unitary authority for our large county or two, the latter option strongly favoured by all the District Councils. So, your ballot paper came a day or two late, but you have PLENTY of time to return it. Realise this is propaganda by the Tory One Somerset takeover, make your own decision and have your voice heard.

    • This does not sound words of a LibDem poodle at all! Can you imagine if people received their ballot papers for the May elections well after polls were due to be opened? I’m sure you’d be protesting, I thought the whole reason the LibDems wanted this poll was because of ‘democracy’ well obviously ‘democracy’ can’t matter that much if the ballot papers are just a tad bit late a d the information sent was incorrect. If the District Councils can’t run a simple local poll without sending the ballots out at the wrong time or sending out information out to the electorate then what hope do they have in running two Unitary authorities. I think the word Omnishambles springs to mind.

      • What nonsense – nothing to do with party politics. I am a Liberal Democrat and support One Somerset.

        One Council for the county makes sense.
        We will still have our excellent city, town and parish councils.

        Not wasting money on a biased public poll makes sense.
        Especially when it is being held after the end of the consultation period.

        If I ever receive a ballot (still waiting…), I will vote One Somerset.

  • nemesisnemesia

    There was an opportunity to reply to Government consultation on the proposals which ended on 19th April. It was not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ consultation, but gave scope to provide each respondent’s arguments for and against the One Somerset proposal. There was nothing ‘utterly UNtransparent’ about it! Of course the District Councils are against it because Councillors do not want to lose their positions and all the allowances which go with them. No figures seem to be available for 2020-2021, but you can see the costs for 2019-2020 at
    https://modgov.southsomerset.gov.uk/documents/s33312/CouncillorAllowances201920.pdf

  • After the cock-up that was SSDC’s “transformation” where team managers/members were allowed to take (very generous) voluntary redundancy and they had to be replaced by less competent/experienced people I have little faith in SSDC’s ability to do anything right nor am I inclined to follow their recommendations.. That said, the thought of a single council running Somerset makes me concerned about lack of local accountability and democracy – planning being run by Taunton will probably make SSDC’s Planning Department seem like a model of democratic accountability and professionalism.
    Rant over – I’ll be voting for two so that maybe there will be less complacency, but I would prefer the status quo
    PS – envelopes arrived in BA22 7 this morning – isn’t it a pity that Royal Mail don’t date stamp bulk mail!

    • So you think SSDC transformation was a cock up so you’re voting for the SSDC plan? Makes no sense, the One Somerset plan makes it clear planning will not be run from Taunton, services will not be delivered from Taunton they will (and will have to be) like every other large rural Unitary like Wiltshire and Cornwall run even more locally than they are now.

  • I am a Liberal Democrat voter, but am appalled by the party making this a petty party political issue and wasting money on a poll that is clearly biased and held after the close of the consultation period.

    I can’t see there is any 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.

    That is… If you receive a polling card. Afternoon of Saturday 22nd and still nothing received at my house in Frome.

  • The original sin was the naff Government consultation done online without any of the authentication, checks and balances that should be applied to any serious poll.

    I live in Taunton and a similar naff online “anyone can play” poll was run for the merger of Taunton Deane and West Somerset Councils a few years ago.

    There was a clear public majority against as many thought we would in Taunton Deane subsidise the tiny, bankrupt West Somerset Council.

    That was the case as when joint Council tax precepts were raised, Taunton Deane taxpayers had a rise around £5 a year more than West Somerset taxpayers.

    Taunton still doesn’t have a Town Council and we could end up with a unitary without a Taunton Town Council in place for several years.

    The current Somerset County Council boundaries are merely a rump of the historic County of Somerset, based on the failed 1974 Local Government reorganisation, which brought us the unloved Avon by breaking up our historic shire County .

    There are two options missing from this advisory referendum:

    a) The option to revert to the historic boundaries of the true shire County of Somerset and by including too small North Somerset with too small Bath and NE Somerset, have two sustainable unitaries.

    b) For those who worry that a One Somerset unitary will be based on the County Council as a “continuing body”, they may have management calibre and/or planning concerns, so would prefer the status quo of retaining District Councils.

    During the A358 dualling consultations by Highways England, with just one single, flawed option with a new closed junction in Taunton South (enabling a town split by a motorway), Taunton Deane Borough Council was a community champion. By comparison, the County Council Highways service was at best “sitting on the fence”.

    There are many planning pressures on Taunton which could again enable large-scale development across the M5 and I have concerns that a unitary based on the County Council will not represent communities as robustly as our District Council did. There is no Taunton Town Council in place either.

    All of these Local Government reorganisations are, in my view, a smoke screen for underfunded social care services, which will continue to consume other service budgets whatever structure is implemented.

    Once District Council reserves are consumed via a single unitary like One Somerset then will we be back to square one still needing sustainable funding for social care?

    • Surely the point is that your elected councillors represent you?
      The underlying issue is which format of local government will be the most cost effective and efficient in delivering services to us; that was the point of a consultation process where we had to objectively consider the advantages and disadvantages of both proposals rather potentially tick a box without first reading the proposais in full to make an informed decision.

  • I note that none of the savings in the One Somerset business case allow for any efficiency savings to accrue to the hard-pressed Council taxpayer. Not a one-off reduction or a freeze.

    Why is that? Is it because the Nationally underfunded social care deficits (with an ageing population) are unsustainable? Almost certainly.

    It is not just about economic efficiency although that is very important.

    It is also about not losing a sense of place and having a planning authority local enough to understand local issues.

    In my experience, many councillors when faced with complex and technical matters, tend to defer to Officer opinion.

    In Wiltshire, with a single unitary, Private Eye Rotten Boroughs reports that they have imposed a higher housing needs figure than the Government.

    The Wiltshire unitary are now imposing a huge 7,500 homes housing estate on Chippenham using a ring road and land they have a pecuniary interest in. A very clear example where economic development comes up against local planning, yet the same authority wears both hats at the same time.

    In Somerset County Council, social care deficits have eaten heavily into the budgets of the lower priority Highways to the detriment of their capabilities and resources.

    This also appears to have impacted on management cultures as County Highways have had a series of quite negative audit reports over: poor s106 planning gain oversight; lack of Travel Plan oversight; controversially poor contract management with Skanska for Highways maintenance and repairs for a £30m a year contract – see The Leveller.

    Would I want One Somerset County-wide Planning to become part of the ECI Directorate that the County Council Highways service sits within or led by the same Senior Management team? Nope.

    Am I concerned that the new One Somerset unitary will, if it is based upon a “continuing authority” premise, inherit the same County Council Senior Leadership team with some of the poor management cultures identified in ECI Highways? Yup.

    Would I in those circumstances, prefer the status quo and retain planning within local District Councils?

    Given my ECI Highways concerns, to my own surprise, I would.

    Can I vote for that? No.

  • I am unclear whether your point is that the increasing demands for social care costs potentially remove funds from the needs of highways (which would be the same situation for either model of local government) or you just have a gripe with the people currently running highways (who would probably be re-employed by any new Stronger Somerset councils or, if they take an expensive redundancy, where you may equally find the new people a disappointment)!

    There are great councillors, officers and personnel around as well as less good ones; that will be the case regardless of the local government model we opt for hence the issue is really which one can deliver the best efficiency and value for money.

    As a resident I feel very let down by both my town and district councils failure to recognise and resolve an issue in Glastonbury. I have found that my county councillors (who represent different political parties) have been really good on the issue and have brought in the leader of Somerset County Council to help. My experience of County is different to yours perhaps but I acknowledge that there have been good councillors at district and town council in the past.

  • Some good points.

    I don’t have a “gripe” – Just a series of bad local experiences backed by repeated poor audits giving independent corroboration to my sincere concerns (that ECI Highways is currently “unfit for purpose”) i.e. it isn’t personal it is about the professional issues.

    Do you know whether the County Council Chief Exec and the Senior Leadership Team will have to compete for the posts within the new unitary or whether the nee unitary will be constituted as a “continuing authority” given that the boundaries and population remain identical?

    My point, which you did not address, is that if One Somerset ends up being “continuity County Council” then I would prefer the status quo of four Districts and a County Council. Never thought that would be my position but there it is.

    The wider point I am making is that reorganising local councils, when the real issue is massively unsustainable social care funding against rising demands, is simply tinkering at the margins when real national reform in social care funding is overdue.

    The pandemic has clearly highlighted serious funding and workforce deficiencies between social care and the NHS.

    Sadly, in the recent Queen’s Speech, this Government (like so many before it) failed to “grasp the nettle” and address social care funding plus “socialise” the family burdens of dementia, as we do through the NHS whole of society funding base for all other diseases.

    We have the “sticking plaster” of a local stealth tax adding a 2.99% social care precept to council tax making council tax rises close to 5% a year.

    Will the One Somerset unitary stop those big council tax rises or will they continue unabated? Simply not addressed in the One Somerset business case.

  • David, I accept that you would have preferred the existing model of a county Council with 4 District Councillors and therefore understand that not to have seen the status quo as a third option in the consultation must irk you; the status quo is not my preferred option.

    I do not know how the existing jobs within either the districts or county would be divided up but would be surprised (given that recruitment, induction and on the job training present additional transition costs) if filling new posts from the experienced talent pool with local knowledge was not the first step.

    As to resolving the issue of funding social care – this will require political parties working together at the national level as it needs a longer term approach and commitment than one or two parliaments; something sadly outside the scope of local government restructuring.

    My council tax bill is being driven up by my town council who yearly impose increased precepts well beyond the rate of inflation (creating new responsibilities for themselves with associated employment costs and even decide to buy an additional building). Then there is my district council happily frittering away council tax on badly managed and unnecessary “advisory polls”. …. oops, better stop here or I will find myself amidst rant about their crazy decision to allow a 2 nights duration festival in Pilton this September with no overnight camping – I will take some convincing that there are up to 49,999 spare beds locally.

  • Or is it the case (it is by the way) that the County Council has withdrawn from services pushing the costs down to Town and Parish councils?

  • Not in the instances I have referred to David.

  • Issa – Care to reveal your real name?

    • David that is a very odd and slightly threatening request to make of someone online.

      I am using the name many people know me by; That is the name I to post here and please do call me Issa here if you wish to.

      As our chain of comments on the article developed into a specific discussion it seemed sensible to address my replies to you directly (as David given that you post as David) but if that is a breach of online etiquette or it makes you uncomfortable then please do say and I will not do so again?

      • Nothing sinister, mate.

        Just wondered if I knew you given you are so well informed.

        No worries.

      • David thank you for the explanation. I do not know anyone named David Orr so doubt we have met.

  • *STOP PRESS* When you go to vote online the One Somerset leaflet is available and has been corrected to the genuine One Somerset website address (plus the missing .UK).

    I can’t paste the screen grab into this text-only comment box.

    • Too little too late – once people get online to vote, they will have already decided.

      They will have done any research prior to going online to vote.

      It is a poll funded by people who want to break up Somerset, held after the close of the consultation period.

      The information provided was written by a company funded by those who want to break up Somerset.

      Even before this farce it lacked any serious credibility.

      I am in Frome and still not received any information or polling cards (Sunday 23rd May).

    • So anyone voting by post will not be aware of the dodgy link provided by Stronger Somerset to the misleading spoof One Somerset site.

      The advisory poll needs to be cancelled or voided; it has not been run properly and is very biased in terms of the literature accompanying the ballot papers which are still arriving after the poll has started.

  • Ballot paper only received this morning [SW&T council]!

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