Minister reveals Somerset’s future
Today Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, announced his decision on the future of local government in Somerset. The decision is not a great surprise.
The Secretary if State has opted for a single unitary authority. It will cover the geography and the functions of our county and district councils. It will see the end of Mendip, South Somerset, Sedgemoor and Somerset West & Taunton. The end two of Somerset County Council. In their place will be a single “Somerset Unitary Council”.
Despite Ian Liddell Grainger’s continued protests, demand for information etc. He will be predictably incandescent. Partly perhaps because the outcome has been predictable.
County Council Leader David Fothergill told The Leveller: “Delighted it has been chosen to take forward but now we must come together with our District colleagues to plan the transition to an exciting new Council. The opportunities for Somerset need to realised, waste reduced and services transformed. We will work closely with our Towns, Parishes and communities to build a local authority for the future”
It is the outcome The Leveller® has campaigned for, One Somerset.
Whilst the outcome is pleasing to us here at Leveller Towers, the process has been flawed. The opportunity to have a proper referendum was rejected by everyone when we called for it. Including all district councils. Then at the 11th hour they changed their minds. The referendum held by the district councils was deeply flawed as we have reported many times on these pages.
But we now have an answer from the Secretary of State.
The question is what happens next?
Green Party and Frome East councillor Martin Dimery told the Leveller: “Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, has decided that the One Somerset proposal for a single unitary council governing all of Somerset, is his preference. While I have no objection to smaller single unitary authorities like BANES, this decision will severely marginalise Frome and the north east corner of Somerset even more than it is now. A single authority incorporating 560,000 people stretching from the Wiltshire border to the edge of Dartmoor, is geographically and demographically too large. Effectively this is a power grab by Somerset County Council, abolishing the district councils and severely diminishing more localised democracy. Frome must not be reduced to becoming a dominion of Taunton, over 50 miles away. Only the most dedicated candidates should consider standing in the first election of 2022.”
We know that at least one District Council had discussed the possibility of Judicial Review. That was before the outcome was announced. To do so would not only look backwards, but waste more taxpayers money. Something we are constantly told, our local authorities have a short supply of.
Whilst welcoming One Somerset as an outcome, the name is inappropriate. Perhaps something can be done about that?
Then there is the issue of continuity. Whilst the size and structure of One Somerset was appealing, that is only if there is root and branch reform. If the County Council attempt to simply carry on as usual and add in some new bits, that will be an own goal. A new local government set up for Somerset requires a complete overhaul in every department. Including Highways, Education and Public Health. Not just planning and the new areas that are currently run by the districts.
Finally we need to see genuine localism not just lip service. The justification for One Somerset hinges on giving more to parishes and towns. On organising in such a way that local voices are heard. That local government is not run from Taunton but genuinely devolved around the county. And that major meetings are held at different location around the county.
Not everyone will agree we have the right answer. But we have an answer and now we need to see it delivered completely and effectively.
Local Government Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP said: “It is important that the restructuring of local government must be locally-led by those who know the area best and what is needed to help level up opportunity and prosperity.
“Residents, businesses and service providers in Somerset have had their say on what will work best for their area and now councils can start planning for the next step.
“Where there is local support, changing the structure of local government can offer better value for money and improved services for residents.”