TALKS over the future of local government in Somerset are set to begin after the county’s district councils performed a shock u-turn over their opposition to plans for a ‘unitary’ system.
Just two weeks ago, Somerset County Council passed a business plan which would have seen all five councils in the county abolished.
They are the county council itself, as well as Somerset West and Taunton, Sedgemoor, Mendip and South Somerset district councils.
Under the plan, branded OneSomerset, they would be replaced by one single, unitary, authority.
The plan was strongly opposed by all four district councils.
But now, in a shock move, the district’s have announced they would take part in work towards creating a new, unitary system, but one that would see two new authorities for the county.
One would be created by merging Sedgemoor and Somerset West and Taunton, the other by merging Mendip and South Somerset.
The news was delivered to council members in a series of briefings across Somerset.
Immediately after the briefings, Somerset County Council leader, David Fothergill, welcomed the decision.
“It is frustrating it has taken them this long to agree with our position but at least they have dropped their opposition to unitary authorities,” he said.
“I am available to meet as soon as tomorrow if it helps to move us along to get the best solution for Somerset.
“I have argued long and loud that unitary status will remove duplication, create more local opportunities for residents and businesses and deliver savings that could be invested in frontlines services and priorities like climate change.
“Let’s not get left behind and let’s get it right for Somerset.”
One key sticking point in the talks however, could be how the majority of local government spending – on adult care and children’s social care – would be dealt with across the county.
Cllr Fothergill has long endorsed a unitary system for Somerset, claiming it could bring about huge savings.
However, the district’s fiercely opposed the plans, claiming projected savings were uncertain.
And in a tweet after the u-turn was revealed, the Somerset Liberal Democrats said it still opposed the move to a unitary system.
“Don’t be fooled by the headlines,” the tweet said.
“The situation is, we continue to opppose and find ourself with One Somerset, or we make our own case.
“We have to do this because the Government has said there will be a unitary, no ifs, no buts.
“Most of us don’t like it at all but this is reality.”
We always expected a u-turn by the @SomersetLibDems @tdlibdems or any @LibDems . Like all Westminster parties, they can’t be trusted. After all, they wanted a unitary authority in 2007 when they were in charge of @SomersetCouncil #LibDemOrTorySameOldStory https://t.co/C4GCo7tb1V
— Somerset Independents (@SomerInds) August 11, 2020
And leader of pressure group Somerset Independents, Andrew Pope, said: “We always expected a u-turn by the Liberal Democrats on the district councils.
“They never fully backed our call for a Referendum on how Somerset residents are governed.
“Only a minority of Lib Dem councillors said they supported it – but they did nothing to make it happen.
“Like all Westminster parties, the Lib Dems can’t be trusted. After all, they wanted a unitary authority in 2007 when they were in charge of Somerset County Council – it was party political then, as it is now for the Tories.
“It’s just another case of Lib Dem or Tory, same old story. Residents didn’t want this in 2007 and they don’t want it now.”
South Somerset District Council said: “The districts’ position has been consistent throughout.
“A single unitary is not the right choice for Somerset and we will continue work on a more ambitious plan for Somerset which will be a credible and positive alternative to the county proposals.”
But Cllr Fothergill added: “I have been asking for two years, why have five chief executives, HR teams, IT contracts and so on when you could have just one?
“It is easy to understand and frankly a no-brainer.
“The districts are now saying why have five when you could have two – it is a difficult option for the public to understand, but let’s meet and discuss the best option for Somerset.
“It is hard to see why people in Wells, Shepton Mallet and Frome would want to be run from offices in Yeovil and why people in Bridgwater would want to be taken over by Somerset West and Taunton Council but we need to talk it all through.”