City council assesses unitary implications

July 28 2021
City council assesses unitary implications

WELLS City Council could gain new powers following the decision to abolish Somerset County Council, Mendip District Council and the county’s three other district councils, and replace them with a single unitary authority for Somerset.

It means that some of the services currently provided by others could become the responsibility of the city council instead.

Town Clerk Steve Luck said: “We are pleased the decision has been made, bringing an end to a long period of uncertainty.

“Wells City Council see this as an opportunity and will be working on behalf of local residents to do the best for our city. We have already had discussions with Mendip and will do everything possible to get city assets back under the control of Wells City Council.

“We will also be working with Somerset to provide more services at a local level.

“The councillors and staff will be doing everything possible to implement the changes and get the best value services for our local residents.”

Robert Jenrick, the Secretary for State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, announced on July 21 that he was backing the One Somerset proposal put forward by the county council.

The next steps will be for Parliament to make a formal decision to set up the new council ahead of elections anticipated in 2022 and then the new unitary council officially in place in April 2023.

Councillor David Fothergill, Leader of Somerset County Council, said: “We’re delighted the Secretary of State has backed our ambitious plans to give Somerset the resilient, unified, and dynamic system of local government it deserves.

“One Somerset is simple, it is clear, and it delivers what our residents want – better services, better value for money, decisions made locally, and an end to the confusion and bureaucracy of having multiple overlapping councils.

“We are now calling on everyone to get behind One Somerset – and we look forward to working with our district councils, partners and everyone who lives or works in Somerset to deliver our vision of improved services for all.”

The district councils had put forward an alternative plan, Stronger Somerset, for two unitary authorities.

In a joint statement, the Leaders of the district councils said: “The Secretary of State is riding roughshod over the people of Somerset who voted 65 per cent to 35 per cent in favour of the Stronger Somerset plan over the other scheme chosen by the Secretary of State… We are duty bound to represent the interests of our constituents to our fullest ability. We will continue to seek to ensure that their voices are heard. There is still a chance for Parliament to see sense and force a rethink. We just cannot understand why the wishes of the people of Somerset are being ignored.”

Wells City Council lost some of its powers with local government reorganisation and the creation of Mendip District Council in 1974.

Mendip is responsible for, among other things, planning applications, public car parks, and running markets.

Commenting before the announcement was made, Wells MP James Heappey said he was in favour of the One Somerset vision.

He said: “In my view, the single county unitary – as there is in Cornwall and Wiltshire – is a more efficient way of delivering county-wide services whilst creating space for more empowered town and parish councils. Personally, I believe the larger council actually creates more room for ultra-local decision making and I have been impressed by the resurgence of town councils in Wiltshire since they went down this path.”

He added that it was important that everyone regards this as an entirely new enterprise, not just a continuation of the current county council, and he hoped that all sides would now work together, no matter what the Secretary of State decided.