Somerset unitary – it’s a bumpy road
It has been a mixed week in the progress towards a new council for Somerset. First the plus side. The Leveller® has learned that the district council’s have decided against seeking a judicial review. For the moment they have decided to accept the single unitary model. They intend to work with the county council for the better interests of the community.
So far so good.
Less positive news has come from Whitehall. The man in charge of overseeing the transition from London is Paul Rowsell. He is Head of the Governance Reform and Democracy Unit.
Negotiations about how to move to a new council have thrown up some odd ideas. The suggestion is that the new council should have 70-80 seats. This is rather less than the 100 that One Somerset envisaged in their bid. It is significantly less than the Stronger Somerset proposals.
It is also a bit bizarre. There are currently 55 divisions (constituencies) of the County Council. So to have 70-80 seats will involve significant boundary changes. That can only be done by the Boundary Commission for England (BCE). Which would be fine were it not for the fact that the BCE were not already engaged in a nationwide review of parliamentary constituencies. The Leveller has reported on these changes already and they are not small beer.
It appears to us at Leveller® Towers, inconceivable that this can be achieved sensibly in the next 9 months. And that would be essential as Whitehall are saying elections for the new authority must take place in May 2022.
We have also heard that Whitehall says that the good folk of Somerset will pay for the BCE work. We would have normally expected this to be a cost to central government. Of course this may just be a matter of negotiation.
What is completely beyond our understanding is this. A new council with 110 seats could easily be organised for May 2022. Simply by having two councillors elected for each of the 55 existing divisions. No boundary review, no expense. The new council could then get on with the business of reforming and reorganising itself.
What is being proposed is messy, complicated and expensive and actually appears to serve no good purpose.
Correction – many thanks to all of you who contacted us to point out that the Boundary Commission for England no longer looks after local council boundaries. Since 2009 that is now done by a separate body, the Local Government Boundary Commission for England