Local government poll leaflet causes row

May 25 2021
Local government poll leaflet causes row

By Daniel Mumby, Local Democracy Reporter

A POLL on the future of Somerset’s local government has resulted in a row after a campaign leaflet directed residents to a spoof website.

Two rivalling proposals for the future of local government in Somerset are currently being assessed by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), with a decision due in the summer.

The four district councils are running a poll until June 4, giving residents the chance to express their preference with the results being sent to communities secretary Robert Jenrick MP.

But the poll’s credibility has been called into question after a link contained in the material posted out to residents directed people to a website spoofing the One Somerset camp.

Here’s what you need to know…

What is the poll?

The poll is being paid for by Somerset’s four district councils – Mendip, Sedgemoor, Somerset West & Taunton and South Somerset – and runs from May 18 to June 4.

It allows every resident in Somerset to chance to vote, either by post or online, between the two competing visions for how the county should be run from 2023 onwards:

• One Somerset, backed by the county council – which involves the five existing councils being abolished and replaced with a single unitary council, with more power being devolved to local community networks and parish councils

• Stronger Somerset, backed by the district councils – which will see the five existing councils replaced with two unitary councils (one for the east, one for the west)

Civica is running the poll at a cost of £310,000 (split between the four councils), with the results being sent to MHCLG on June 7.

There is a very slim possibility that he will decide that neither proposal is good enough – but given that other recent reorganisations in Dorset and Buckinghamshire have moved forward unabated, this is very unlikely.

What’s causing the row?

Alongside the ballot paper, the pack sent out to Somerset residents includes two leaflets, explaining both campaigns and directing people to the full business cases on their respective websites.

However, instead of directing people to www.onesomerset.org.uk (the official One Somerset website), the leaflet directs the reader to www.onesomerset.org – a spoof website created to satirise these proposals.

The site includes jokes at the expense of both Somerset County Council leader David Fothergill and its programme director Dr Carlton Brand, as well as listing joke pledges such as “every child will receive a rubber Sputnik” and “your parents will be turned into big blue arrows”.

The leaflet promoting Stronger Somerset directs people to the correct website (www.strongersomerset.co.uk) – raising questions about whether the poll can truly be considered impartial.

Whose fault is it?

The district councils claim the leaflet information was drafted independently by a legal firm.

A spokesman said on Monday (May 24): “We are aware of a minor error in the recent voter packs issued with regards to local government reorganisation in Somerset.

“The independently drafted leaflet accompanying the ballot paper omitted the last two letters of the web address for One Somerset.

“Full information on both the options for change for local government in Somerset has been and is still readily available at the official websites, and these have been well publicised in the last six months.”

Somerset County Council has called on the district councils to apologise and halt the poll.

A spokesman said: “This costly and confusing poll has trashed the reputations of the council, our leader, one of our MPs, and hundreds of hard-working staff and councillors.

“We call on the district councils to apologise immediately, set the record straight and declare the poll null and void before further damage is done.

“The spoof website is still live, residents are still being directed to view it, and it is still causing offence, upset and confusion.”

What happens next?

The poll will continue as planned, with residents having until 5pm on June 4 to have their say.

Mr Jenrick is expected to make his decision on which (if either) plan is taken forward before parliament rises for the summer recess, which is set to begin in late-July.