Tory Secretary of State for local Government Robert Jenrick had been expected to make a public announcement all day about which version of Unitary Government we would have in Somerset. Would it be the monolithic single Somerset where district councils were done away with and feudal fiefdoms of an over-powerful and highly paid shire gentry would concentrate far too much power in their remote hands or would it be the localised democratic option that the people had voted for in a county wide ballot by 65% to 34%. Of course, it was the former, what were we thinking about. Of course this Tory Government can do whatever it wants. But if they were so confident how come they sneaked it out at the very last few minutes of the day, arriving furtively on a Parliamentary web site at 18.55? And if they were so open and inclusive how come Tory County Leader Fothergill was on BBC West claiming victory even before it was declared and the District Council leaders knew nothing? The result for the people of Somerset is nothing short of a disaster. And one which no one asked for or wants.
While District Councils waited in the dark in the hope that the popular STRONGER SOMERSET or the equally palatable ‘no change’ option might be chosen, and Somerset County Council strode through the bright light of day surrounded by eager TV cameras and sycophantic MPs bursting to break the news early, the Secretary of State instead released a statement deciding the fates of Somerset, North Yorkshire and Cumbria.
The statement for Somerset read “For Somerset I have decided to implement, subject to Parliamentary approval, the proposal for a single unitary council for the whole of the existing administrative county of Somerset. I considered that this proposal met all three of the criteria, strongly meeting the improving local government and service delivery criterion. I have also decided not to implement the proposal for two unitary councils – one council comprising the existing areas of Mendip District and South Somerset and the other council comprising the existing areas of Sedgemoor and Somerset West & Taunton. I considered that this proposal did not meet the improving local government and service delivery and credible geography criteria.”
What happens next?
Leader of Sedgemoor District Labour Group and Bridgwater Town Council, Brian Smedley, (Bridgwater Westover) said “The District councils will now meet to take in the news. Loyal workforces will have found out in this particularly underhand way their worth in the eyes of the Government Minister. Somerset Tory group and ‘fellow travelers’ will be jubilant at the grasping of even more power into their greedy distant hands and ever deepening pockets while opposition councillors of all parties -Labour, Green, Lib Dem and a large number of local Conservatives, will be angry at the con trick played on them and the people of Somerset.”
” This is a shabby trick by Jenrick. He’s absolutely ignored the clear wishes of the people of Somerset. He claims the outcome will deliver high quality services-it won’t. The aim was always the opposite, to cut costs and reduce services. With Somerset County Council’s appalling record on devastating cut backs he’s chosen the blatantly obvious vehicle to drive through these cuts to local services and in the same swoop removed a whole layer of soundly functioning authorities that were closer to their communities and could offer a challenge to the monolith that will be the tombstone for ‘One Somerset’. In his decision paper he said ‘we will not impose top down government solutions’ -but this is exactly what he’s done. He goes on to say ‘we will develop proposals which have strong local support’ -and that’s exactly the opposite to what he’s done. One Somerset LOST a public vote by more than 2.1. We now have ‘self-servatives’ in the driving seat. We must resist this and fight for a fairer solution. The Secretary of States decision has to gain Parliamentary approval in the Autumn and all parties, including dissident Conservatives, have to unite to stop this criminal erosion of democracy.”