Somerset Sets First Unitary Budget

Moor views from Somerset

In just over a month’s time Somerset County Council will become just plain Somerset Council and all 4 District Councils will disappear. The 110 members of Somerset County Council (who will become the 110 members of Somerset Council) today voted through the first budget for that new authority. Cllr Brian Smedley (Leader of Bridgwater Town Council and County Councillor for Bridgwater South) was at the meeting and said “This budget was set by the ruling Lib Dems because they have a mandate from the people of Somerset when they won the last County election. But in fairness to them they consulted with other parties and the budget they’ve come up with is fair and so Labour and the Greens supported it, while the Tories spoke against it but then abstained. It’s clear that the people of Somerset voted to ditch the Tories at the last election so any nostalgia from them for their time in office didn’t go down well. Labour Leader Leigh Redman made it clear that we are giving the LibDems the benefit of the doubt while we all settle in to this new Unitary environment and then this time next year we’ll be judging the results.”

Unitary budget architect Liz Leyshon

The Main architect of the Unitary budget was Councillor Liz Leyshon, Deputy Leader and Executive Lead Member for Finance who said: “This has been the most difficult budget setting that any of us can remember. Inflation has been a huge pressure on the cost of providing council services and post-Covid we have seen rises in demand from Somerset residents for very complex support from both Adult Social Care and Children’s Services. The budget confirms an overall rise of 4.99% in the council’s share of council tax, made up of a basic rise of 2.99 per cent in council tax and the 2 per cent adult social care levy.  The increase is in line with Government policy and councils across the UK that have responsibility for Adult Social Care and Children’s Services. The first budget for Somerset Council includes substantial increases in funding for Adult Social Care and Children’s Services by £28million and £19 million respectively, to reflect that growth in demand and cost. The new budget provides start-up support for the Local Community Networks (LCN) and has Budget protected funding for the voluntary and community sector.  “

The Budget

The county budget was created through crops council consultation recognising the challenge of bringing five council budgets together into the new unitary Somerset Council. All councillors had been at great pains to defend the frontline services which including prioritising support for Somerset’s most vulnerable residents, and rejected options to close some household waste recycling centres plus all of Somerset’s libraries will remain open with unchanged hours. The Financial settlement recognised that these choices would have not been possible without the savings from the move to a single council. This also allowed the creation of a new and simplified Council Tax Reduction Scheme and an expanded Exceptional Hardship Scheme across Somerset. The Council also dropped a proposal to remove funding for many parish grit bins after the option was criticised during public consultation and through Scrutiny, and will now concentrate on pilot projects to work with local communities to improve gritting of the secondary network of roads in Somerset.  The rise in Somerset Council’s share of Council Tax is made up of basic rise of 2.99 per cent in Council Tax and the 2 per cent adult social care levy. As a result of these proposals the council tax for a Band D property will increase by £78.24 each year, or £1.50 per week.

Labour Leader Leigh Redman, supporting budget ‘this time’

Cllr Leyshon’s speech was quickly followed by other councillors -Hunt, Munt and Rodrigues all adding their twopence worth, but the bottom line seemed to be “Give it a chance”

Labour Response

County Labour Leader  Cllr Leigh Redman (Bridgwater North & Central)  rising to respond, said “Chair, in all the years I have been a councillor I don’t think there has been a busier time on the run up to budget setting. Members will know that I try to stay below the radar and keep out of the theatre that our full council becomes. My group wanted me to speak and outline a few points. We recognise the amount of work that has gone into this proposal. Line after line, scrutinised and checked. We wanted to thank officers and executive lead for the amount of time, they have invested in ensuring that all members of this council, have had a chance to understand and question the development of this important document.”

Cllr Adam Dance lays into the Tories

Cllr Redman continued “In this unprecedented time we find our country in, our budget has been seriously impacted by national politics and limitations, in this cost-of-living crisis, never has there been a more important time to find compromise. Overcoming a massive deficit while bringing together 5 councils, was always going to be a big ask. There are elements of this budget that are concerning, the reduced LCN budget will be a concern and impact community engagement. We need to continue to ensure our staff are supported through this process, seeing our financial position and LGR are understandably concerning for them. We recognise that elements of this budget have had to be tweaked. Chair, recognising the work that has gone on to evolve this proposal and the current financial position, the Labour Group will, this year, be supporting the budget.”

The Debate

Tory Leader David Fothergill attempted to gain some kudos for bringing in the Unitary changes but at the same time said that his group wasn’t prepared to support the budget.

Labour’s Hilary Bruce wants ‘reassurance about Town Centre regeration’

Lib Dem councillor Adam Dance (South Petherton) gave him short measure “I’m – disappointed that the Tories won’t support the budget. If it weren’t for the Conservative government we’d be in a better place. And remember it was the Conservatives who froze the council tax and if they hadn’t we wouldn’t have had those cuts and the damage they’ve already done to adult social care along with the removal of the preventative services!”

Lib Dem Cllr Mike Rigby (Lydeard) also defended his parties budget saying “I’m astonished at Conservative claims to oppose cuts. Where? We haven’t forgotten their panic with their emergency budget and their extra £18m of cuts. Or perhaps by abstaining the Cons are saying it’s not possible to set a budget for this unitary council they fought so hard to create…and .wouldn’t that be an astonishing admission!”

County Leader Bill Revans

Labour’s Cllr Hilary Bruce (Bridgwater North & Central) wanted to ensure the Lib Dems hadn’t overlooked some key areas following the abolition of the Districts saying “I’m disappointed not to see some of the points which came from scrutiny. One is crime prevention and community safety and the other is the regeneration  of town centres. I am now seeking assurances that the regeneration of  our Town Centres to ensure they are fit for future will be a priority in the new council?”

Responding to all of the above, County Leader Bill Revans (Lib Dem, North Petherton)  gave assurances to Cllr Bruce and welcomed Labour support saying “I want to say how different this budget process was. And it was never gonna be easy. We’re in a phenomenally different context and we recognise the pressures of inflation. I want to pay tribute to Liz Leyshon and to the 151 officer. It’s a real opus of a report and if we’d had council papers on physical papers we’d have in fact  destroyed the forests we wanted to plant. “

The vote

Labour’s Brian Smedley ‘Good to see the back of the Tories’

The vote was passed by an overwhelming number with Lib Dems, Labour and Greens plus 2 of the independents (and a lone Tory, Marcus Barr from Wellington) voting FOR  while all the other Tories abstained and just one councillor (Hugh Davies , Williton) voted against

Cllr Brian Smedley, the County Labour Group secretary, said “I’ve never been in a room with so many Liberals in my life. But it’s good to see the back of the Tories at least. They’ve lost control at County and they’ve lost their last surviving pocket of local control with the abolition of Sedgemoor District Council. If some good can come out of unitary it’s devolving power to the towns and parishes. As regards the budget Local authorities have little choice but to increase the council tax with inflation at record levels in 40 years plus the demand led pressure for care services all caused by having a Tory Government.  As a result of years of Tory destruction of services and  reduction of LA funding at a time when people are struggling with day to day bills the issue is to save those frontline services and especially where cuts would affect the most vulnerable. People know that the Tories are history in Somerset and the real change will come when they’re history nationally too.”

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1 year ago

Here here. I feel there is hope!

Linda Barnett
Linda Barnett
1 year ago

Thank you for this excellent summary
We are very pleased to read of the steps taken and especially the additional funding to Adult and Children’s Social care
As a previous Director of the latter I am very aware of the need for additional funding at this time

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