U-turn paves way for unitary talks

In a shock announcement tonight, Somerset’s district councils have performed a major U-turn and have agreed to work towards a plan to abolish themselves and create two new unitary authorities across Somerset.

It comes after two years of district councils arguing that unitary authorities were not the best option for Somerset.

The news was delivered to council members in a series of briefings across Somerset.

Immediately after the briefings, Somerset County Council leader David Fothergill welcomed the decision and offered to meet his counterparts.

“It is frustrating it has taken them this long to agree with our position but at least they have dropped their opposition to unitary authorities,” he said.

“I am available to meet as soon as tomorrow if it helps to move us along to get the best solution for Somerset. I have argued long and loud that unitary status will remove duplication, create more local opportunities for residents and businesses and deliver savings that could be invested in frontlines services and priorities like climate change. Let’s not get left behind and let’s get it right for Somerset.”

In the briefings, councillors were told their own council’s preference was to create two separate unitary councils – one seeing Somerset West and Taunton merge with Sedgemoor District Council, the other seeing Mendip merge with South Somerset. But there was no detail on how the key issue of how the majority of local government spending – on adults care and children’s social care – would be dealt with across the county.

The U-turn comes in response to Somerset County Council’s own One Somerset proposals, voted through just two weeks ago, to ask government to abolish ALL councils in Somerset and create one single new authority.

“I have been asking for two years, why have five Chief Executives, HR teams, IT contracts and so on when you could have just one. It is easy to understand and frankly a no-brainer. The districts are now saying why have five when you could have two – it is a difficult option for the public to understand, but let’s meet and discuss the best option for Somerset,” said Cllr Fothergill.

“It is hard to see why people in Wells, Shepton Mallet and Frome would want to be run from offices in Yeovil and why people in Bridgwater would want to be taken over by Somerset West and Taunton Council but we need to talk it all through.”

The business case for One Somerset highlights a number of clear benefits from scrapping all five existing councils and setting up a new single authority.

These include:

  • One council listening to the needs and concerns of residents, parishes and businesses, providing clear accountability.
  • One point of contact for all local services, ending confusion and frustration for the public.
  • One council but with 15 to 20 new Local Community Networks (LCNs) established in every corner of Somerset to give local people the chance to shape their own communities. These will have real constitutional powers to scrutinise, impact and take decisions.
  • Detailed analysis of costs and savings using all the available evidence shows expected savings of £18.5m per year, with one off implementation costs of £16.5m. Over five years the expected savings are £52.6m. This is money which instead can be spent on real local issues and challenges including:
    • Caring for our most vulnerable residents
    • Delivering life chances for our children and young people
    • Reducing rural isolation and loneliness
    • Delivering the housing each community needs
    • Investing in climate change
    • Boosting economic growth, jobs and apprenticeships.

To find out more about One Somerset, read the business case, and to have your say on the plans, please visit www.onesomerset.org.uk. You can stay up to date with the campaign on Twitter @One1Somerset and on Facebook @OneSomerset.