by adamboyden on 14 August, 2020
It looks like Mendip and the County Council are to be abolished and replaced by Unitary authority – the remaining question is whether it will be one Somerset or two?
During the last 12 months, including during the pandemic, Somerset County Council has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money on staff and consultants to promote a reorganisation of local government in Somerset in the form of a single unitary council. This was criticised by a district council leader (here).
The Government have announced they will push for more unitary authorities to be created, in a White Paper this Autumn, as Polly Toynbee describes in the Guardian here. Then on 29th July, Somerset County Council approved its ‘One Somerset’ Business Case (here) and asked the Government to replace the County and District Councils with a single unitary authority (see item 7 here). The reorganisation is predicted to cost £16.5 million and make over 300 council staff redundant.
At the time, the four district councils proposed to collaborate on sharing services as a way of making savings and efficiencies without creating a new authority (see here). However, the Local Government Minister has just informed the district councils that they are to be abolished and that there is no alternative to Unitary local government in Somerset – see here.
So, faced with the choice of One Somerset or exploring a better alternative, the four districts now propose to work on creating two Unitary Authorities on either side of the M5 corridor – see here. Here in Frome this means Mendip District Council and South Somerset District Council will be working on a proposal for a single authority together with our share of County services. The business case for this will be worked up in the next few weeks.
A unitary for Mendip and South Somerset seems more logical, manageable and locally accountable than the One Somerset plan, which would stretch services from Porlock to Frome (a journey of at least 2 hours) in a single authority with the key decisions made in Taunton.
In recent years the County Council has slashed services to the most needy, including cuts to Citizens Advice, the Key Centre and other support for local families, including children with special educational needs and disabilities. Only in April, a damning Ofsted/CQC report described ‘significant areas of weakness’ in the SEND service, with part of the service ‘dysfunctional’. I do not trust the County to ‘take over’ district services into one authority effectively.
Reorganisation will be disruptive and expensive, and will also not address the problems unitary councils will face with increasing adult social care and childrens’ services costs, unless Government improves the arrangements.
A reorganisation does however present an opportunity to devolve power and services to a more local level, and improve the way councils work for the community. South Somerset DC already uses Area Committees (previously abolished by Conservatives at Mendip) for planning and other matters. ‘One Somerset’ proposes ‘Local Community Network’ committees as well as devolution of services to parish councils. There is potential for a local Frome area committee to take on important decision making powers at Unitary level, in either option, and this needs to be explored further.
So does the extent to which parish and Town Councils are willing and able to take on more services, and how these will be funded. Frome Town Council, which has successfully built up the staff, precept and political support to take on much more work than other parish councils, is likely to be keen (which Mendip recognises, and is currently transferring ownership of the Boyle Cross/ Market Place area to FTC, after previously transferring several open spaces, including the Old Showfield).
Whatever happens, the Government seems to be in a hurry, as a decision to proceed with one or more unitary authorities could be made by Government in the next few months. There will be a short period of consultation, a ‘shadow unitary authority’ (or authorities) created from April 2021, the new unitary council/s starting work in 2022, and the County Council elections due in May 2021 could be cancelled.
What do people think? In 2007 a similar unitary proposal (by the then Lib Dem run County Council) was opposed by all the districts, who organised a county-wide opinion poll in which 82% (turnout c.200,000) of Somerset residents rejected the idea. Neither the County nor Government want to see their plans stopped by a referendum, and are not planning to put any proposal to the people this time, but how else can they show that what they want to do has any public support?
I will be reporting on the One Somerset proposals and the emerging alternative, and their pros and cons further in the coming weeks. Please let me know what you think.1 Comment