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.“