On 2 July the four district councils of Somerset released a statement denouncing the Unitary proposal put forward by Somerset County Council. Their statement reads as follows: We want to make it clear that the District Councils of Somerset do not support ‘One Somerset’ and the proposals for a single council for Somerset. The detailed work which the five councils of Somerset commissioned together clearly concluded that a single council was the wrong solution for the people and communities of Somerset.. Somerset’s District Councils have been focused in recent months on supporting our residents and businesses through the Coronavirus crisis. This remains our priority including focusing on how we help Somerset’s communities and economy recover. However, as Somerset County Council is determined to push the debate on the future forward during the pandemic, as four districts we will now be putting our collective efforts to developing an alternative proposal. We have always said would refocus on this when the time was right.
We know we can offer a better future for the people of Somerset that reforms local government and is ambitious for our communities and their quality of life. Somerset does not deserve the cheapest local Government. Somerset deserves the best local government. We will develop the best plan for the future with the help and involvement of our communities.”
First a declaration of interest. The Leveller® supports and has campaigned for, a Unitary council for Somerset. That said we feel it incumbent upon us to point out a number of misleading statements made in the release above.
The District Councils are making a huge “holier than thou” point about not working on a plan during the COVID 19 crisis. Last week at a meeting of St Cuthbert Without council, Ros Wyke (Leader of Mendip District Council) made the claim that no work had been done by any District on the future of local government during the crisis. This is an untruth. South Somerset District Council have been actively pursuing alternative models throughout the crisis. We have asked them on 3 occasions to deny this, and, rather biblically, they have refused to do so. They have belatedly referred to an announcement of 5th June when they accepted they were indeed still working on the proposals – although we received neither a press release or a response to our emails on that date.
There is an implication here that the COVID 19 crisis is the only reason the District Councils have yet to formulate a plan. Again this is disingenuous. Anyone who has seen the Future of Local Government Report will have also seen the report date: February 2019. If the Districts were serious about coming up with an alternative to a Unitary council, they would have had a full year to come up with something before COVID 19 had even started in the UK.
In the Future of Local Government Report you’ll see there was a timetable for reaching business cases on all of the options. That timetable ran to May 2019. Of course it didn’t happen like that. Because everyone started arguing about the best way forward. But it could have happened.
The District Councils have a list of people to blame. Local elections, general elections, working alongside the county council, not working alongside the county council and now COVID 19. Even the plan the District Councils are talking about today, is simply another set of preferences with no hard ideas or proposals behind it.
The Districts claim in their statement that this report “clearly concluded that a single council was the wrong solution for the people and communities of Somerset.” This is not a big surprise. The Future of Local Government Report was written by independent consultants. It did not come to any such conclusion. This report was written by the all five councils, so the majority input came from the District Councils. Surprise surprise, it says what they have always believed. Although the county council had input, clearly it did not represent their view and at the point of publication they walked away from the process.
But take a look at the District Council plan. This is an example of the precision and clarity of thought they have come up to date for the residents of Somerset: “The opportunity is to join up those parts of the system through greater dialogue, transparency and an understanding acceptance of everyone’s part in making this work. It is clear from the background evidence, initiatives and strategies that there is a underlying theme of needing to quantify the demand for services and, determining the means by which preventative interventions can be developed across the public sector improving efficiency, and realise savings.” Straight out of “Yes Minister”. Meaningless management speak.
What we are looking at here, is a precisely honed demonstration of government by committee, the option the Districts prefer for Somerset. What we have is a big talking shop. Will it still be talking with few firm proposals in a year’s time?
The Leveller® politely suggests that the Districts do not wish to change anything. The current system works well for District Councillors, less well for the residents of Somerset. There are literally hundreds of councillors drawing allowances who do not wish to see the end of a system that suits them well. The Unitary proposal would probably see anything from 150-200 councillors lose their jobs.
The option the Districts want to pursue is closer co-operation. This is short hand for working together in the style of South West One. Led, ironically, by a LibDem controlled County Council it remains a prime example of why co-operative working is not a good idea. It delivered no monetary savings, no efficiencies and a worse service that cost residents more.
Similarly Mendip District Council’s failed five council co-operation plan. Five geographically remote councils coming together to save money by working co-operatively with a private firm. Just like South West One with IBM, it didn’t work.
And finally, the District Council promise to you is that “Somerset does not deserve the cheapest local Government. Somerset deserves the best local government.” That looks like a statement of intent. What the Districts seem to be promising us is more councillors, less accountability and something that may well cost more money.
Of course cheap does not have to be better. But a Unitary is not about offering cheap. What it is about is offering to reduce the cost of administration and invest that money in front line services. Schools and adult social care instead of Directors, Chief Executives and a small army of councillors.
Remember South West One. It was not the cheapest form of local government, and it wasn’t the best either. It was however a fine example of co-operative working.