Discussions by five Somerset councils to work out how they could collaborate more or even merge have ended in disagreement.

Somerset County Council wants to replace all five local authorities, including itself, with a single new unitary council.

But the four district councils across Somerset would prefer to work more closely together, rather than merging.

The news has emerged this week as a new report commissioned by all five councils looking at potential options has been published.

The study cost £167,000 and was paid for by the county council and the four district councils comprising of Sedgemoor, Mendip, South Somerset and Somerset West and Taunton.

The options suggested in the report range from staying with the same arrangements, to closer co-operation, or creating new authorities.

The new councils could include neighbouring authorities like North Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset.

The report estimates that moving to one new authority covering all of Somerset could save up to £47m a year, but may cost more than £82m to implement.

It suggests that closer co-operation between councils could save £32m a year and cost £74m to bring in.

Somerset County Council leader Cllr David Fothergill said: “All the options have merit, but I have said many times I believe the way forward is a single authority for Somerset.”

“It makes sense for our residents to deal with just one authority. It makes sense to our businesses who will find it easier to grow the economy, and it makes sense for councillors to speak with one voice to government.”

Representing the four district councils Val Keitch, leader of South Somerset District Council, said: “We actually think change is needed. We acknowledge that, but we don’t believe that one single unitary that covers from Porlock to Frome and beyond is the right way to deliver services.”

“We think if we can have much closer collaboration between all five councils then that’s the way to deliver services better because it keeps it local as well.”

Joint statement from district council leaders:

A joint statement has been issued from the Leaders of Mendip District Council, Sedgemoor District Council, Somerset County Council, Somerset West & Taunton Council, and South Somerset District Council:

“Over the past 18 months, Somerset’s four district councils and Somerset County Council have been exploring together the future options for local government in the county. The aim of the review is to determine the best way of delivering local public services and meeting community needs in Somerset in the future. The aim has not been to simply cut costs, the intention has been to find a way, through the better use of our resources, to sustain vital services now and for the future.

Following extensive research which has been evaluated to ensure the benefits and implications of any possible changes are understood, the Leaders of all the councils have been determining the best possible option for Somerset.”

Q&A on the proposals: 

Why are changes to Local Government in Somerset being considered?

On Wednesday 2 May 2018, Somerset County Council announced its intention to start a conversation with the district councils and other partners to explore what model of local government could be a better way to deliver public services in Somerset.

All the councils in Somerset recognise the need for change in local government in Somerset and have committed to working together on a joint review of this.

Who is involved?

Mendip District Council, Sedgemoor District Council, Somerset County Council, South Somerset District Council, Somerset West & Taunton Council have all been part of the initial conversation with both North Somerset Council and Bath & North East Somerset Council also playing a part in the discussion.

What has happened to date?

The four district councils and Somerset County Council have been working together to assess Local Government delivery in Somerset and a range of options for change. Our residents and business are at the heart of that conversation and this is about creating a system of Local Government that works more efficiently for them. The options for change will looked at a range of scenarios for how services can be transformed in different structures and ways of working of local government in Somerset.

A consortium involving Ignite – together with Collaborate, Pixel Financial Management and De Montfort University – was selected to undertake research into this broad range of options for the future of local government in Somerset from a variety of perspectives including community benefits and financial efficiency. Following their initial research, an internal team drawn from the five councils of Somerset has been undertaking further work on the options to help finalise the research. The Ignite report is what is being released this week.

How much is this going to cost?

The review is being taken forward as a piece of work jointly commissioned and paid for by all councils in Somerset. The cost of the work with the consortium was £167,000 split evenly between the five councils of Somerset. No further budget has been set at this time.

How long is it going to take?

A precise timeline for the review cannot be given at this time until the scope and details of the possible options have been agreed.

Lib Dems statement on the report:

The Liberal Democrat Group at Somerset County Council have released the following statement in response to the Conservative Leader of the Council’s statement of intent to actively pursue the creation of a Unitary Authority for Somerset. 

Jane Lock, Leader of the Liberal Democrat group at Somerset County Council, said: “We are not opposed to a change in the way Council services are delivered for the residents of Somerset.… if they can be provided in a better, more cost-effective way.”

“However, we have a number of major concerns – not least the estimated cost efficiencies that will be achieved, how the County Council proposes to make use of District Council reserves and assets to shore up its own budget weaknesses, the fact that this will effectively be a hostile, undemocratic takeover of public services and the environmental impact of centralising services.”

Cllr Fothergill’s statement follows many months of work by external consultants, commissioned by the County Council, exploring different ways of delivering services for the residents of Somerset.

“The main elements of the report, by London-based Ignite Consulting Ltd, are now eighteen months old,” says Cllr Lock. “The extended work includes a range of alternative approaches with some vague estimates of costs and potential savings that may well prove over-optimistic.”

The Liberal Democrats say they are also concerned about the “undemocratic“ way in which the Conservatives are seeking to create a unitary authority.

“This is a major change in which public services are overseen and delivered,” says Cllr Lock. “What say will the people of Somerset have in this decision? Certainly, there is no evidence of a mandate: the last time a poll was undertaken, in 2007, 82% of residents voted against the proposed change to a Unitary authority.

“Liberal Democrats on SCC do not believe that a ‘hostile takeover’ of local services by the Conservatives at County Hall will achieve positive outcomes and we are concerned that this action demonstrates the kind of toxic culture that currently prevails there.”

“We believe the Districts to be closer to the communities they serve, unlike the increasingly remote County Council which has had to reduce its expenditure by nearly a third over the past ten years.”

Finally, says Cllr Lock, her party has major concerns about the environmental impact of any centralisation of service.

“Currently, a huge range of local services in Somerset are managed and delivered locally – all that will change if services are centralised and run from Taunton.”

“The County Council is currently spending £10million on refurbishing the main office block at County Hall. This suggests that SCC Conservatives intend their proposed new Council to stay in Taunton, creating a more remote service with yet more people driving from all over Somerset to Taunton, just at the time all Councils have declared a Climate Emergency.“