On Wednesday 2 May 2018, Cllr David Fothergill, Tory Leader of Somerset County Council announced that he intended to start a conversation with the district councils and other partners to explore whether a unitary model of local government could be a better way to deliver public services in Somerset. Immediately the ‘Unitary debate’ was back on the table and immediately the Tories were at each others throats.
A joint statement from all 5 ‘District’ Councils took issue with their Top Tier party colleagues saying ” The assertion that district councils in Somerset are in financial difficulty is inaccurate……and the claim that a unitary authority is needed to protect district council services is misplaced and just plain wrong. “ The statement continued “The district councils believe the projected savings from establishing a unitary council suggested by Somerset County Council are unrealistic and not based on a sound analysis of our position. Given its financially precarious position, the districts intend to work with Somerset County Council and other partners to examine all the options for reform in Somerset local government. This conversation could include unitary councils but all other options should be objectively assessed as well.”
Which Way for Somerset?
Somerset is currently governed through a 3-tier system, which includes County, then 5 districts and then a multiplicity of smaller Town and Parishes of varying sizes and limited powers. It has looked at the idea of unitary authorities several times over the years along with other parts of the country, but, whilst other parts of the country have chosen the unitary option, each time has come down on the side of status quo.
Labour Leaders around Somerset however are keen to take part in the conversation. At a recent meeting in Bridgwater , the Labour leaders of Sedgemoor District Councillors, Cllr Mick Lerry, Somerset County Councillors, Cllr Leigh Redman and Bridgwater Town Council, Cllr Brian Smedley, agreed to take up the gauntlet and engage in the process calling for as wide a discussion as possible.
The Greatest power at the Locallest level
Cllr Brian Smedley (Bridgwater, Westover) , whose Town Council is comprised of 14 Labour members to 1 Tory and 1 Lib Dem said “For the Labour Party the strongest representation is in the Bridgwater Area and we have long suffered – not necessarily in silence – from having our historic Borough status taken away from us and being submerged in Tory dominated Sedgemoor District Council since 1974. We have argued for the restoration of Borough status for Bridgwater and of course this principal should be applied equally around the county. We would therefore be very happy to discuss with other Somerset communities how they feel they can achieve the strongest forms of local government at the locallest of levels with the maximum amount of democratic representation.”
Tory Failings have caused this
Cllr Mick Lerry (Bridgwater,Victoria) , whose Labour group is the strongest opposition party on Tory Sedgemoor with 10 members said “We know that the reasons the County Tories are calling for this now is because they’re in dire straits. Their own National Government policies of austerity has caused them to make cuts and their own failure locally to raise adequate council tax targets over the years has driven them into debt. We are not interested in a model that reduces services or representation and we’re not interested in looking at cuts. However, we welcome the conversation.”
Small Enough to Care-Big Enough to Matter
County Council Labour leader, Cllr Leigh Redman (Bridgwater South) says “Somerset is probably too big to be the only local authority here, but it’s one option on the table, along with maybe replacing Somerset with smaller authorities. If we go down the unitary route we need a solution that is small enough to care and big enough to matter. But this conversation gives us the chance to have an input across the county at Parish, District and County level to work out what actually is the best system. Accordingly I am happy to facilitate a meeting of all Labour Groups locally and invite down colleagues from existing Unitary Authorities across the country to help decide what form of local government would be in the best interests of us here in Somerset”
Labour CLPs and Branches around the county are being asked to consider the issue and to send representatives to take part in a Conference on the subject to be set for this summer.