Residents from the Burnham-On-Sea area were among the audience at a Somerset Advisory Board meeting last week as it met to discuss the next steps in local government reorganisation.
The Advisory Board sessions are intended to be less formal public meetings designed to provide a way for councillors, public sector partners, residents and other interested groups to feed into the process as the new unitary council takes shape.
It comes as the new unitary authority will officially come into being in April 2023, replacing Mendip District Council, Sedgemoor District Council, Somerset County Council, Somerset West & Taunton Council and South Somerset District Council.
Chairman of the Advisory Board, Cllr Faye Purbrick, opened the meeting with an introduction and a welcome followed by a presentation from the Programme’s Director, Dr Carlton Brand, on the recent Draft Structural Changes Order – which Parliament must agree to provide the legal basis for a new council. It included an update on possible dates for an election to a new authority, which it was stated could be either in 2022 or 2023.
Dr Brand advised the meeting that councillors from the four District Councils and the County Council had already provided feedback on the Draft Structural Changes Order. An agreed, full version will go through Parliament in early 2022.
There was a further presentation on how Local Government Reorganisation will be communicated to communities across Somerset; plus there was further discussion about the Local Community Network ‘pilots’, including one that will focus on health and wellbeing.
It was also announced that there will be 15 to 20 new Local Community Networks (LCNs) across Somerset that will be designed to give local people the opportunity to shape their communities within the unitary council. It was stated that LCNs will have decision-making powers to shape policy and take action to improve their local areas.
The meeting concluded with a review of next steps and the forward plan, led by Cllr Purbrick. The presentations from the meeting are available here.
Residents and representatives of parish and town councils attended and asked a number of questions.
A frank exchange of views revealed frustration with the minimal amount of public information on the changes. While recent developments, such as a new website, were welcomed, Councillors and public participants alike, urged a step-change in driving public awareness.
A range of ideas, to make more of existing local networks and to reach out to people sometimes overlooked in local debates, were put forward. The Advisory Board committed their team to following up on these ideas, welcoming peoples’ enthusiasm to drive the debate around how our new council should work. One speaker summed it up by saying getting this right now will be a ‘springboard’ for the new council.
Meanwhile, residents in the Burnham-On-Sea area, councils and partners can contact the LGR Programme at email@example.com
The Advisory Committee was also asked whether planning approval could be delegated to the Local Community Networks in the new model. Cllr Purbrick confirmed the current system, whereby city, town and parish councils can make recommendations on applications to a planning authority, would remain sovereign, but the views of councils on this were welcome.
Other questions concerned whether the proposals “will lead to services being better resourced” or if this would “be a merger of existing councils with no additional funding.”
Dr Brand responded that money will be freed up through this process to invest back into frontline services. He said it was about creating a new council with a new culture, one that will ensure local communities and local councils can come together to create a plan which will address many of the issues and service pressures which have arisen in the past ten or more years.
An additional question was asked around how current social housing stock will be protected through the creation of the new council. Dr Brand confirmed that the approved business case pledges to protect the four current models in each of the district areas and commits to building new housing.
The December meeting of the Advisory Committee will be held in Stoke St Gregory Village Hall on 16th December from 3pm to 5pm. The agenda is likely to include updates and discussions on the role and job description for unitary councillors and Local Community Network boundaries.
The aim, in future, is for the sessions to be streamed online so the public can either attend in person or view the livestream over the internet.