Burnham-On-Sea and Highbridge town councillors have voiced concerns about Somerset County Council’s controversial plans to create a new unitary authority, axing district councils.
The ‘One Somerset’ proposals could lead to big cost savings but would also lead to radical changes in how local services are delivered, as reported here by Burnham-On-Sea.com.
Town councillors have raised a number of concerns during their latest meeting, which was held online, after hearing from Leader of Somerset County Council, Cllr David Fothergill.
Cllr Sue Harvey said: “I am a little concerned about how we actually hold the County Council’s feet to the fire when it comes to funding. I like the idea of more control coming down to the grassroots very much. I like the idea of us having more say in local affairs. I do feel that a lot of residents feel that much of the decision making that’s taken on their behalf is made in Bridgwater and beyond.”
“But I am concerned that if services are hived off to town councils, funding must follow or we may find that we’re taking on all these extra duties. Without the funding we could look like the ‘baddies’ because we have to put up the local precept in order to cover them.”
Cllr Dawn Carey added: “My concern with this is actually the extra potential workload that we’re going to end up doing, particularly for the wonderful ladies in the Town Council office that keep us going day to day.”
Cllr Peter Clayton said: “I think the finer detail will come out soon, but I don’t think we should go down one side or the other, particularly as we haven’t heard yet from the district councils and Councillor McGinty [leader of Sedgemoor District Council] – only then can we have more of an informed opinion.”
Cllr Andy Brewer added: “I don’t understand what the outcome is likely to look like if we went for a unitary council. I was told by a Cabinet member at Somerset County Council that town and parish councils could cease to exist.”
Cllr Phil Harvey said: “Keeping people’s feet to the fire is important. If this is it to go ahead I think it is important that we would need some really good assurances about funding and functions. We need things like ‘service level agreements’ and to consider the long-term position.”
“It’s all right for Somerset County Council to say we could have the income from car parks – that would be very nice and quite significant – but in 25 years’ time will it be so significant?”
“How can we learn from other Parish Councils, who’s going to ask the questions, so that we can actually understand what’s going on elsewhere.”
Town Council Clerk Sam Winter said: “We have carried out research and looked at what’s happening around the country. We know from the information that there have been problems with perceived ‘dumping’ on Parish Councils. I think we can avoid that, but my concern is that we might get very excited and think we can take on some functions without giving thought to whether we can actually perform the functions using our staff and finances.”
“You need to look at what functions potentially you could feel comfortable doing, and start flagging those up, so when people start the conversations we have an agenda. I don’t think we can stay silent until everybody else joins in or we’re just going to miss the boat.”
Cllr Mike Facey proposed a sub-committee be formed to consider the proposals in more detail. Cllr Clayton agreed that forming a new group would be a “very good idea.”
Cllr Phil Harvey also gave his support to forming the group, adding: “I think we need to move really quite carefully. I have a feeling that all of this is going to be ‘beside the point’, because I think the Government is going to impose a unity solution across the whole country in their devolution white paper.”
“That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t deal with the unitary position, but I think we need to look at what others have done and what the particular experiences are in Wiltshire, North Somerset and Dorset where there have been unitaries for some time.”
Council Clerk Sam Winter added: “We can sit down and go through the experiences – there’s an awfully rich seam of problems that we want to avoid.”
The sub-committee members will comprise of town councillors Phil Harvey, Peter Clayton, Mike Murphy, Chris Allen and Helen Groves.