Somerset Unitary a step closer
Today the government published the “Somerset (Structural Changes) Order 2022”. This is the legal document, that once approved by Parliament, will bring about the creation of the unitary council. The order clarifies a number of important details. Most of these are as has been anticipated by the Leveller® over the past 6 months.
Purists will rage about the repeated use of the word Somerset throughout the document. In local government terms, the ancient county of Somerset is simply not recognised. The fact is that Bath and North East Somerset and North Somerset are separate local authorities. So in this Standing Order, for the word Somerset, read the bit of Somerset covered by Somerset County Council.
The draft Statutory Instrument confirms that from 1 April 2023 there shall be one authority in Somerset, Somerset Council. On the same day the districts of Mendip, Sedgemoor, Somerset West & Taunton, and South Somerset will be abolished. All district councillors will cease to hold office on that date.
The council will elect 110 new unitary authority members in May 2022. The elections will use the existing 55 divisions of the county council with 2 new councillors per division. There will then be a Boundary Commission review of the number of councillors between 2023 and 2027.
For the purposes of the merging into one authority, Somerset County Council will be a continuing authority. This means it will drive the processes required to create the new council. This will help to give staff continuity of employment. In other words they will be treated as if they have always been working for the council. Even if they joined one of the districts before working for the unitary. It has implications for pension and redundancy rights.
However if Somerset County Council will be the driver of the merger, the draft Statutory Instrument makes other things clear. It is a duty, a strong legal word, to consult between all the districts and county. All councils must work together to enable the transfer to the new authority and provide information when asked. In short the Standing Order goes out of the way to put in place a legal framework to enforce co-operation. There are other provisions about elections, which we’ll cover in more depth in the February edition of The Leveller®.