Unitary Debate Back on the Table

Cllr Brian Smedley calls for engagement with the unitary review to bring power back to the Boroughs

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?

David Fothergill-Tory Leader of County who has set the unitary ball rolling

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

Brian Smedley wants “Power back to the town halls”

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.”

Mick lerry at lectern
Cllr Mick Lerry – ” “Tories have caused their own problems”

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

Leigh Redman “Somerset may be too big”

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.


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Doug Ross
Doug Ross
6 years ago

I am dismayed that SCC have revised this idea becasue they can’t manage their budgets and hope to rob the District Council Peters to pay teh Coun ty Council Paul. We would have so mmany fewer councillors represneting us, especially here in rural West Somerset, that it would be a real detriment to local democracy, and much more difficult for opposition parties/groups to gain repersentation, especially as long as we don’t have PR in locla elections. WE rejected the one-size fits all solution of a Somerset-wide unitary by referendum once before. I see no reason to cahgn our minds. We should work to make the Districts stronger, and work together between the Districts, Towns and Parishes more.

clare sawdon-smith
clare sawdon-smith
6 years ago

Sounds briliant. Wells CLP would certainly be keen to be part of the conversation. Many thanks to Leigh and his colleagues for opening up this debate.

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