Ballot papers for the local poll on options for change in local government in Somerset are now in the hands of all of the county’s residents care of an initiative by the 4 District Councils to make sure the people had the referendum they were previously denied by Secretary of State Robert Jenrick whose ‘consultation’ exercise ended in April without such an option. The poll, which ends on June 4th, asks voters to choose between the two options being considered by Government to replace the existing five councils – county council and the four district councils:
- One council for Somerset(“One Somerset” – the plan for a single council proposed by Somerset County Council)
- Two councils for Somerset: Eastern Somerset and Western Somerset (“Stronger Somerset” the plan for two councils for Somerset – an Eastern and a Western Somerset council – proposed by Somerset West and Taunton Council and the other district councils of Somerset).
The poll is being independently run and verified by Civica Electoral Services on behalf of the four district councils and ballot papers are accompanied by two information leaflets – one on each proposal.
Blue on Blue
Councillor Duncan McGinty, Tory Leader of Sedgemoor District Council, who is taking a principled stand against the ‘One Somerset’ County Tories said: “The reorganisation of local government affects everyone. It will have a profound impact on local services, individual and community prospects, local representation and health and wellbeing across the county. Local people must be allowed to have the opportunity to have their say clearly and unambiguously. A properly organised, independently run public vote is the best way to ensure that happens.I urge everyone to use their vote, whichever option they prefer.The people’s choice must be respected.”
The District Council Leaders have written to the Secretary of State to inform him of the poll and its dates and ask that the result of the poll be properly considered as part of the decision-making process on the future of local government in Somerset.
Across the County there are some acute divisions with an increasingly bloody blue on blue battlefield landscape.
Labour Voices Back STRONGER SOMERSET
Sedgemoor Labour Leader Brian Smedley (Bridgwater Westover) sums it up “County Tories are a strange breed and you wonder what really separates them from their lower ranked town and district versions. But this life or death struggle makes it very clear. County Tories support ‘One Somerset’-the over big, too remote unitary vision for the county which sees all power centred in Taunton, and large horizon spanning electoral divisions where people still think they’re represented by some medieval feudal overlord and keep voting them in unless they turn up with the militia and burn down their cottages and sequestrate their hamsters. Meanwhile at lower levels the Tories on town and district largely support the smaller more accountable and far more democratic ‘Stronger Somerset’ model. Presumably, because they value being closer to the communities they represent. And it’s no surprise that across the county all the other parties support this model too. Labour, Lib Dems and Greens back Stronger Somerset as the best option precisely because it reflects the real variety of political opinion the lower the level.”
Cllr Smedley explained the history “In 1974 when the current system came in, the powers of many local communities ,such as Bridgwater with its Labour Borough Council, were destroyed overnight and submerged into larger districts such as Sedgemoor District Council. It took 30 years to regain those powers when a town council was created for us back in 2004 and then another 10 years to grapple with constructively working with Sedgemoor. Yet now all that is out of the window in this mad One Somerset power grab. The agenda is clear – its feudal overlordships for the boys and jobs and service cuts for the rest of us. Stronger Somerset isn’t of course the answer, that would be a restoration of powerful towns and parishes delivering services at the locallest level, but it’s the best choice of the 2 on offer. People need to show their opposition to One Somerset by voting in the postal ballot coming round now otherwise there’ll be no local democracy left to defend at the end of all this.”
The Case around the County
Labour voices around Somerset echo this position and relate it to their local circumstances.
Vibrant & Exciting
One major criticism about the County’s ONE SOMERSET model is that it is far too big. Sean Dromgoole of Somerton & Frome Labour Party agrees “Any plan that involves vibrant, delicious, exciting Frome being governed by Taunton feels about as likely to succeed as getting Mick Jagger to sing backing vocals for Des O Connor”
The Right Size
By contrast the County Feudalists try to argue that the 2 Stronger Somerset Unitary’s are ‘too small’. Labour councillor Brenda Weston of Somerset West and Taunton disagrees saying “Here’s ‘some useful info’ from recent population estimates for comparison: BANES: 192,106; North Somerset: 213,919; Isles of Scilly: 2,153. Proposed Sedgemoor+ SWT Unitary: 274,466; Proposed Mendip+South Somerset Unitary: 280,792. “
In fact the case for two unitary authorities is precisely one of geography which the Secretary of State claims is a key to success. Sedgemoor Labour Councillor Alexia Bartlett (Bridgwater Dunwear) says “Stronger Somerset is a way of ensuring the county is united in its response to the needs of residents. With two areas working together, it will consistently provide a more specific and individual response to the people in those particular communities. Unlike the Government and County proposed model, Stronger Somerset ,with its close links to neighbourhoods, promises to be a model with a clear and more personal understanding of residents’ requirements. This is a major benefit, contrasting with the remote, detached and unwieldy quality of the alternative. Support Stronger Somerset.”
The main argument for Stronger Somerset is the closeness to the community compared to the remoteness of the One Somerset megalith. Bridgwater Town Councillor Cllr Mick Lerry (Labour, Bridgwater Victoria) says “Even with unitary status Local Government must be close to the community and people. That is why a vote for stronger Somerset is important in this poll. We need to send a message back to government that they should not force an unwanted change on the people of Somerset, that will weaken the connection of local democracy and Government.”