Somerset’s new Unitary Authority now has a date for its first elections. Thursday May 5th 2022 will see not only the elections for the new ‘One Somerset’ county unitary council, elected on the current county divisions but with 2 members each instead of 1 , but also Town & Parish elections, again elected on existing boundaries. Leader of Sedgemoor Labour group & Bridgwater Town Council, Cllr Brian Smedley (Labour, Bridgwater Westover) said “With the new ‘all powerful’ Unitary system people will be electing paid councillors with greater powers than ever before. We believe, however, that these will be too remote and the county is far too big to sustain localism in such a system. However, we have to engage with it otherwise people will be unrepresented. And a positive development is the fact that Towns and Parishes powers are also likely to be increased as the ’District’ layer of local government will be abolished. This gives us the opportunity to step up and take back control of our communities. Here in Bridgwater, Labour runs the Town Council and with more powers rescued from the outgoing Sedgemoor that we can stop falling into the hands of the County Unitary, we can regain a proper level of local government for us and really change the fortunes of our town. This could be reflected across the county and is the one glimmer of light in this new system which no-one asked for and so naturally the government has thrust upon us.”
The Somerset County Council divisions currently number 54, and return 55 councillors. They will now still number 54 but return 110. The last County election was May 2017. This returned a Conservative majority
However, the County Council was due to have an election in 2021 but due to ‘Covid’ its life was extended an extra year.
In the meantime, the Towns and Districts held elections in 2019 and in which the Conservatives suffered losses , which means the new Unitary Authorities are wide open for some surprises.
The current National Polls are showing Conservatives losing their Brexit inspired bounce to a more ‘incompetance’ inspired slump while Labour are ahead in most polls with Lib Dems and Greens floundering on often single figures. The latest ‘Covid Party Scandal’ has seen the Tories in free fall and losing by elections around the country.
Cllr Smedley continues “This time round there will be blood letting across the county as a whole layer of some 200 councillors has been made redundant. Yet it isn’t simply a matter of a vote on the competence or otherwise of the County Council, because the ‘new unitary’ should be a fresh start and so many district councillors will be looking for a new role on the new body or taking up a key position more locally on the Towns and Parishes. It will be interesting to see who ends up where..”
The proposal for the new County Unitary will see councillors initially serving 5 year terms on both Unitary and on Town & Parish level -the first year being as shadows then 4 years as UA councillors. To ‘equalise’ the system Towns and Parishes will also serve for the 5 years up to the next full elections in 2027 -during which time of course a General Election has to happen. After this it will revert to 4 year cycles
Cllr Smedley adds “But this whole thing smacks of being made up as they go along. All of a sudden they decided to hold the elections next May-when most people had been urging May 2023 to give them more time to prepare for it. In fact the changes will now suddenly go before Parliament in the new year and the law will not be passed until March. Then within 2 months the elections will be upon us. “ .
The elections are being welcomed in some quarters. Bridgwater & West Somerset MP Ian Lidell Grainger has campaigned against his fellow Tory County Council Colleague David Fothergill throughout and was agitating for a May 2022 election. When it finally came he criticised and complimented his Government at the same time saying “The Government did not listen to the referendum in Somerset over unitary, and they did not listen to the districts when they held their own referendum, but I am delighted to say that they have now said that the elections for Somerset will take place next year. My right hon. Friend knows how important democracy is…
His comments were echoed by Leader of the 3 strong Labour Group on Somerset County Council, Cllr Leigh Redman (Bridgwater South) who said “We now know that the new Unitary council will be elected in May 2022, 110 Councillors in the 54 Divisions was the only choice that made sense, this decision will see a newly elected council being the one to make the choices about the shape of the Unitary, they will be the Councillors that will then have to make the Unitary work for the first 4 years, with a boundary review in the first term to see boundary anomalies resolved and the shape of the new council finally in place. As a County Councillor we all signed up to represent our communities for 4 years, I was uncomfortable with 5 and welcome this decision, the people we represent will have an opportunity to elect the Councillors that will put in place the building blocks of the new Somerset Council. This council had passed its ‘best by date’ 6 months ago, we need to give the people the chance to elect a new one and we can now all aim for May 2022. I look forward to the election and know that we will see a big increase in Labour, I hope that I can be part of the new council.”
Cllr Brian Smedley, leader of the 11 strong main opposition Labour group on Sedgemoor District Council and Labour controlled Bridgwater Town Council has a different take “We didn’t support the 2022 election and called for a boundary review first. We went to great lengths submitting proposals for democratic changes which would have reshaped boundaries to fit the new communities and growing towns around Somerset. We proposed new wards that would genuinely reflect the changed landscape across the county and properly prepare communities for the changes coming. The only positive outcome for this rushed and unwanted shake down is the possibility that local communities could regain some increased democratic powers. Rushing it means half baking it. I can see why Mr Lidell-Grainger would want that, but it’s not the best outcome for the people of Somerset and his Government wouldn’t know democracy if it popped up on their windowsill and asked them for a vote on it.”
The County Seats
To find your electoral division go to the map of Somerset on the front of this website and click on your ward and follow directions.