Liberal Democrats gain control of Somerset’s new unitary authority
By Daniel Mumby, Local Democracy Reporter
THE Liberal Democrats have gained control of Somerset’s new unitary authority with an emphatic win over the Conservatives.
Somerset voters went to the polls on Thursday (May 5) to elect 110 new councillors who would oversee the transition to the new Somerset Council and then represent them until 2027.
David Fothergill, whose Conservative-controlled county council had pushed for the move to a single unitary, went into the count in Taunton on Friday (May 6) hoping that his party could weather both local and national opposition.
But his blue party was swiftly engulfed by an orange wave as the Lib Dems made huge gains across Somerset, unseating three cabinet members and securing a number of key rural seats.
The turnout for the elections was higher than the previous local elections in 2019, with three of the four district areas seeing around 40 per cent cast their ballots either in person or by post.
The warning signs were there from the start, with long-standing Tory councillor William Wallace being unseated in Blackmoor Vale and the Coker division swinging to local Lib Dem candidates Mike Hewitson and Oliver Patrick.
The fight for Chard ended in a stalemate, with the two divisions being shared by the two main parties and Connor Payne becoming the youngest councillor on the new council, aged just 20.
As Labour held onto its core support in Bridgwater (albeit with low turnout), the Lib Dems claimed their first big scalp of the day, winning both seats in Curry Rivel and Langport to unseat Clare Paul, the cabinet member for education and public health.
As the morning turned to afternoon, the Lib Dem gains continued to come, gaining a foothold in Dunster and winning outright in Mendip South and the key marginal of Blackdown and Neroche.
By 2pm, two more cabinet members had fallen by the wayside, with David Hall failing to winning in Somerton (having previously represented Bridgwater East and Bawdrip) and David Huxtable losing out in King Alfred (as did Sedgemoor leader Duncan McGinty).
In contrast to Mr McGinty’s fortunes, each of the three leaders of Somerset’s Lib Dem-led district councils were successfully returned, with Ros Wyke winning in Mendip West, Val Keitch holding on in Ilminster and Federica Smith-Roberts winning in Taunton East.
By the time David Fothergill’s seat of Monkton and North Curry came up, the writing was firmly on the wall – and while he and Norman Cavill won both seats in the division for the Tories, the Lib Dem’s victory was confirmed shortly afterwards.
Final results of the Somerset Council elections (Daniel Mumby)
Any fears that the Greens would split the Lib Dem vote across the county were largely unfounded, with the Greens only taking two of the three Frome seats and sharing the rural Upper Tone division with local independent Gwilym Wren.
Labour similarly failed to break through, taking two Bridgwater divisions and sharing the Wellington division with the Conservatives, while the Lib Dems’ core support in Yeovil, Wells and Taunton showed little sign of wavering throughout the day.
By the time party leader Sir Ed Davey arrived in Taunton at around 3.30pm, exclaiming “I wasn’t expecting that!”, the Lib Dems had pulled off an extraordinary result, winning 61 out of 110 seats to give them a majority of six on the new council.
The Tories finished on 36, with Labour and the Greens each claiming five seats and the remaining three going to independents.
The existing county councillors will formally stand down on May 9, and the new council will meet for the first time on May 25, where the new leader and cabinet will be announced.
The new Somerset Council will oversee county council duties for the next 12 months, before formally assuming control in April 2023 when the first existing district councils are abolished.