Explanation of proposals for two unitary authorities in Somerset

August 28 2020
Explanation of proposals for two unitary authorities in Somerset

By Daniel Mumby, Local Democracy Reporter

SOMERSET’S existing five councils could be abolished and replaced with not one, but two new unitary authorities if new proposals are approved.

Somerset County Council and the four district councils have been at loggerheads in recent months over the prospect of replacing the existing system of local government in Somerset.

County council leader David Fothergill has thrown his weight behind a single unitary for the whole county, with the ‘One Somerset’ business case being approved by the full council in July and subsequently sent to central government.

Now the four districts have fired back with their own vision for the future – dubbed ‘Stronger Somerset’ – which will see two unitaries created instead.

Here’s everything you need to know about these new proposals, and what they could mean for the future of local government in Somerset:

What are the four districts proposing?

Currently, Somerset has a ‘three-tier’ system:

• The county council, which is responsible for children’s services, adult social care, education and transport

• The district councils, which handle planning application, environmental health, licensing, car parks and business rates

• The town and parish councils, which cover low-level issues such as benches, waste bins, community grants and other services.

The four district councils – Mendip, Sedgemoor, Somerset West & Taunton, and South Somerset – originally pushed for the current system to remain in place with “closer working” behind the scenes (e.g. sharing planning and legal officers).

But now they have thrown their weight behind splitting Somerset into two new unitary authorities – Western Somerset Council and Eastern Somerset Council.

The West council would be formed by merging Sedgemoor with Somerset West & Taunton, while the East council would be creating by combining Mendip and South Somerset.

These new councils would take on all the responsibilities currently shared between the county and district councils, with some power being transferred to the parishes if they requested it.

The exact number of councillors would be determined by a review, which would be conducted by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England – but there would be a maximum of 100 councillors per unitary.

This is in contrast to the ‘One Somerset’ proposals – which, as the name suggests, would involve abolishing the county council and all four districts in favour of one new council for the whole county of Somerset.

Why east and west?

The split between east and west is motivated by two main factors: government guidance and the character of Somerset.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has expressed its support for unitary authorities in recent times, with a white paper on the future of local government being expected in the autumn.

The government wants any new unitary authority to be responsible for around 300,000 people – meaning the two new councils would just meet the criteria on the basis of both current population and projected future growth.

The Stronger Somerset business case also singles out key geographical differences between east and west Somerset, arguing it is too large and diverse to be governed well by one council.

A spokesman said: “It would be impossible for a single unitary to do justice to the unique characteristics across our people and place.”

The differences singled out between west and east include:

• Transport (west benefits from good links to Bristol and Exeter, while the east relies on A-roads and minor roads)

• Economy (west focuses on nuclear power, tourism and retail, while the east focuses on aerospace, construction and food and drink)

• Nature of major events (Bridgwater Carnival vs. Glastonbury Festival)

Why two councils instead of one?

The four districts argue that the ‘One Somerset’ proposals will not solve the longer-term problems in Somerset, including demand on services and the way in which local government needs to be run.

A spokesman for the four leaders said: “The One Somerset case is only about delivering direct transition savings – but that is dwarfed by the growing costs.

“It does not provide for a reform agenda that will tackle the big challenges facing our communities and stem growing costs.

“It is traditional and lacking in vision for better, modernised services and an improved quality of life for Somerset’s communities.

“Stronger Somerset would see those issues addressed through two completely new councils which adopt the latest thinking on public service reform, working in collaboration and combination, integrating with others to drive change.

“This is unlike the One Somerset approach that simply creates a larger entity to do broadly what existing councils do today.”

Would the two councils work together at all?

Yes – through a new ‘combined authority’ which will be created with other councils in the south west.

This new authority could include councils in Devon, Plymouth and Torbay, and will be designed to act as a powerful lobbying force to secure more funding from central government and drive forward change.

The combined authority – which may include an elected mayor – will not be able to overrule the new two councils, nor will it have any direct role in the day-to-day running of their services.

It is more a formal arrangement to make sure the voice of Somerset is united with those across the South West, making Whitehall sit up and take notice.

How much money will this save?

The new unitaries would cost nearly £14 million to implement – a sum which the business case estimates would be repaid within three years of taking power.

Over a five-year period, this new structure could save nearly £55 million – and this would outstrip the One Somerset proposals over a ten-year period.

The districts believe two unitaries will ensure local government remains “close, accessible and accountable to the people it serves, and can shape the places it is responsible for”.

In a joint statement, their leaders said: “Somerset does not need a system focused solely on making savings and centralising power. Somerset deserves better.

“It needs an ambitious plan that truly focusses on the different needs of its people and places, and that protect the voices of our diverse communities and businesses.

“Central government has made it clear that it wants a unitary solution for Somerset, but it has to be the right solution that delivers a chance for our county to not only survive, but thrive.

“Together, we will build a stronger Somerset.”

What happens next?

The four districts will submit the Stronger Somerset business case to the MHCLG, which will consider it along with the One Somerset case and make a decision as to which one (if either) will be taken forward.

For more information on the proposals, visit www.strongersomerset.co.uk.

• Picture: Somerset County Council's headquarters at County Hall in Taunton (Daniel Mumby)