Poll result shows preference for two new unitary authorities
By Daniel Mumby, Local Democracy Reporter
SOMERSET residents have voted by a clear margin to replace their existing councils with two new unitaries rather than one.
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).
A non-binding poll was organised by the four district councils, the results of which were made public on Monday afternoon (June 7).
These results will now be sent to communities secretary Robert Jenrick MP ahead of a decision in the summer.
The poll – run independently by Civica – allowed every resident in Somerset the 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)
Just over 111,500 votes were cast out of just over 436,600 eligible voters – producing a turnout of 25.6 per cent, around five percentage points lower than the recent police and crime commissioner elections.
The final count saw 72,561 votes for Stronger Somerset (65.3 per cent) and 38,547 votes for One Somerset (34.7 per cent), with 481 spoiled ballots.
By district, the results were broken down as follows:
MENDIP: One Somerset 31.1 per cent, Stronger Somerset 68.9 per cent
SEDGEMOOR: One Somerset 35.9 per cent, Stronger Somerset 64.1 per cent
SOMERSET WEST AND TAUNTON: One Somerset 38.3 per cent, Stronger Somerset 61.7 per cent
SOUTH SOMERSET: One Somerset 33 per cent, Stronger Somerset 67 per cent
In a joint statement, the four district council leaders said the result sent “a crystal-clear message” to the government and defended both the cost of the poll and how it was conducted.
They said: “There are potentially significant changes ahead for local government in Somerset that will affect residents’ services and their quality of life for decades to come.
“We believed it was important that the residents of Somerset were given a proper say in their future in a simple and democratic way.
“We put our faith in the voters of Somerset to make up their own minds by organising a local poll, independently run and verified, while others took every opportunity to discredit the poll and to stifle debate.
“The government claims they had thousands of responses to their consultation, but they cannot say for sure how many came from Somerset residents. More than 111,000 residents have now had their say in this poll – that’s a huge number and cannot be ignored.
“We thank everyone who has voted in this poll. Their voices must now be taken account of in the decision-making process.”
Somerset County Council said the Stronger Somerset proposals would not meet the government’s criteria for any new unitary body.
A spokesman said: “We have been clear from the outset that this was a deeply flawed, biased and expensive exercise.
“Residents, businesses and other organisations that are key to local government services in Somerset had already had a well-organised and accessible opportunity to make their views known on this matter – through the government’s official consultation.
“The secretary of state will now make his decision of which proposal best meets the three tests he set out in his invitation to submit proposals for local government reorganisation in the county: a unitary council should improve local government in the county; the proposal should command a good deal of local support in the round; and a unitary council should have a population between 300,000 and 600,000.”
Mr Jenrick is expected to make his decision on which proposal will be implemented before the parliamentary summer recess begins in late-July.