unitary for Somerset – latest plans

A Somerset Unitary council is now on the horizon.

The outline proposals, subject to final consultation and amendment, have been published in draft. This is in a document called a Structural Change Order. This, when passed in Westminster, will bring the new council into existence.

The Leveller® understands that it contains some good news. That is, it proposes 110 councillors in the existing 55 wards of the county council. At least for the first election which will ideally be in 2022 but may be deferred until 2023. This, we understand, is not yet decided. Minister are still taking representations from the councils over how best to proceed. If it is 110, that will keep things simple and also ensure proper representation. For the moment, the idea of 80-90 councillors appears to have been ditched.

The bad news is that it appears the Secretary of State seems determined that the new body will be called Somerset Council. Which as many have pointed out, it isn’t. It will only represent around two thirds of the historic county of Somerset.

The new authority would come into being on 1 April 2023. At that point all districts will be abolished.

The next contentious issue is that the County Council will continue. Effectively absorbing the activities of the other councils. If this turns out to be the final position, it will be seen by some as a hinderance to genuine reform. All sides agreed in the unitary debate, that reform of the existing institutions is necessary. The risk is that now the activities of SCC will continue unreformed and they will simply bolt on the districts’ activities. That would, arguably, be a poor result for Somerset (or at least our bit of it).

The transitional arrangements will be worked on by a committee comprising:

  • The Leader of SCC
  • Four SCC councillors
  • The four Leaders of the district councils

They in turn will form a team of officers to work on the structure of the new council. It is envisaged that the new committee will be in place in 2022, shortly after the Structural Change Order is published in its final version.

Reacting to the document, Bill Revans, the Leader of the LibDems on SCC told us “The draft Structural Change order (how Somerset will be run in future) published by the government today shows that Somerset Conservatives misled us all along. This statute abolishes the four District Councils and the word “county” is deleted.
It confirms what we said all along, that the one council process is a hostile take-over of the four Somerset District Councils by Somerset County Council, to bail the Conservatives out of their financial problems. This is not the “new” council promised in the business case.
The three-month delay in deciding whether we would proceed with elections because the Conservatives couldn’t decide how many councillors there should be or what the ward boundaries would be now continues to the end of the month.
Our Elections were postponed last year because some Conservatives thought the electorate might be confused. Now the Government is on the cusp of cancelling them again. The Conservatives are determined to cling on to power at county hall at all costs. They have no mandate for an unelected sixth year in office. Democracy matters. Next May’s elections should not be cancelled.”

David Fothergill, Conservative Group Leader does not agree. This is what he says about the arrangements: “The decision to create a continuing authority has nothing to do with preserving the County Council it is about retaining a legal vehicle which will avoid transferring across over 110,000 contracts, TUPE transferring 4,500 staff and spending an additional £3 million of public money on transition. The request to be a continuing authority has been in the public domain since December 4th last year when the Liberal Democrat leader was made aware and has not been challenged by them in the meantime.

It is 50 years since the last reorganisation in Somerset and will probably be the same before the next so it is incumbent upon all Leaders to put aside politics and do what is right for Somerset. Rushing through a sub-optimal solution is not in the long term best interests of service users or residents. This is not about this year or next year, it is about building a local government framework which is sustainable for the next 20, 30 and longer years.

5 comments

  • I totally endorse the comments by Bill Revans.

    David Fothergill is on the record as assuring us that the unitary would not be “continuity Somerset County Council” but now we know that is exactly what we are getting.

    It is to all intents and purposes a hostile takeover by Somerset County Council enabled by an inept Government Department.

    When I responded to the One Somerset informal online consultation (read that as “noddy”) it now turns out that I was responding to a false prospectus.

    I am very dismayed by continuity Somerset County Council becoming the unitary as I have doubts about the leadership and management cultures particularly in ECI Highways.

    This is a shoddy and undemocratic process with a poor outcome.

    I hope somebody instigates a judicial review but I doubt that is viable given public money is at stake.

    This isn’t “levelling up” it is local Councils by diktat from Whitehall and London.

  • Rushing into a new council is a foolhardy way to manage change of this magnitude. All parties need to concentrate on whats going to provide the best outcome for the residents of Somerset.

    24hrs after the Orders were received from The Sec of State and before full consideration has been given to all of the “What Ifs ” that need working through, it seems some have taken positions that perhaps show their true colours rather than consideration of whats best for the new council.

  • What are the Liberal Democrats of Somerset West and Taunton council up to? Why did they suddenly switch from proposing a new large town council based on the original unparished central area to a very large one including adjacent parish councils such as Staplegrove and Comeytrowe?

    The new Somerset Council will devolve democracy via about 20 Local Community Networks where parish councils and town councils will be represented.

    Liberal Democrats are strongly represented in central Taunton. After their recent choices, do we really want them to have even more authority within our future Local Community Network? They spent £200,000 of our money on an unnecessary and flawed poll despite being warned by the Secretary of State that it misunderstood the criteria for local government reform. It was also unfair because it did not tell voters how county services would be duplicated in their two unitary proposal, Stronger Somerset. This would have been an impossibly complicated and unprecedented experiment replacing five councils with five new organisations and 200 councillors instead of the 100 with the approved One Somerset single unitary council.

    Instead of one senior management team, the Liberal Democrats here wanted five including a Children’s Trust, a shared Enabling Service and a shared Delivery Organisation which would have been far more risky than Southwest One which had a massive difference of £250m between predicted savings and actual outcome.

    I don’t think a consultation is necessary for Taunton Charter Trustees to simply create a large Taunton Town Council based on the unparished central area, ready for the change to unitary next year. We will then have the leadership and authority to act like all surrounding towns.

  • David Fothgill has mentioned at One Somerset briefing.
    There is an opportunity for Parish Councils,to have a strong role.
    Hopefully this will happen,to stop Community Issue Companies being involved.
    Since CIC are not accountable to residents.
    Please can The Leveller contact Parish Councils,to get a balance opinion

  • “NUNC DIMITTIS”!

    The ‘extraordinary’ consequences of this being ‘determined’ at Whitehall, an ignorance at ‘conception’ aided & abetted by much of the ‘media’ in referencing, firstly a West of England Combined Authority which it is plainly not; a once proud City & County of Bristol with remanent of St Gloucestershire/B & NES to the ‘segregation’ of North Somerset, historically coterminous to the west of the River Avon. Clevedon/Portishead/WSM historically so enjoined!

    “The last Government Reform ‘Balkanised’ the former Somerset County. The first elections to the new county council were held on 23 January 1889. Since then, members have been elected for a term of office (initially three years, now four), with elections held all together on the “first past the post” system. Hitherto Rural/Urban Authorities with retained Parish Councils.(Minor Authorities)

    It’s my conviction the former SCC was well established, resourced & to the fore post both WW1/WW2 and in my experience ‘exemplars’ in primary/secondary education; many a ‘primary’ school today beneficiaries. My recollection is that ‘elected’ membership was ‘apolitical’ although recognised some individuals, delineated today as ‘party’ apparatchiks; predominantly until the 1974 Reforms an emergent ‘community’ motivated individual; it could never have been perceived the ‘advent’ of ‘political’ nomenclature into parish/town councils.

    I supported the ’embryo’ proposal by SCC Councillor David Fothergill. At the outset the expected ‘challenge’ would come from the ‘Districts’ with the attendant ‘waste’ of precious rate-payers ‘treasurer’ pace Covid – 19 Pandemic.

    We’re witness to the demise of Somerset’s ‘century’s’ local Newpapers & the ’emergent’ LEVELLER 1SSN 2632-3389. (Somerset’s largest circulation newspaper) ‘forensic’ in its Local Authority reporting. (15 August 2020: Issue 119 ‘Consequences’’ and subsequently!

    Whither the ‘nine’ Somerset, Honourable/Rt Honourable MPs?

    https://onesomerset.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/PwC-Stronger-Somerset-Review.pdf

    Graham E Livings, Lilliput, Upper Milton, Wells. BA5 3AH

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