A CONTROVERSIAL bid to abolish all five of Somerset’s councils and replace them with one, unitary authority, has been approved.
The plan, which is now set to be submitted to Central Government for approval, would see Somerset West and Taunton, Sedgemoor, South Somerset and Mendip District Councils abolished, as well as Somerset County Council.
They would instead be replaced by a single authority overseeing all services in the county.
Supporters of the plan say it would bring about a more simplified authority, making it easier for residents to have their say, as well a saving millions a year.
But critics of the move say it would disenfranchise people living in the county and that the plan has been rushed through in the midst of a global pandemic, not giving people a proper chance to have their say on the scheme.
“This was a big step, a really historic step, but one that will end confusion over which council does what and bring real benefits to our residents, businesses and communities,” said Council Leader David Fothergill, who has championed the move.
“I’ve invited leaders from all parties to work with me to ensure we get it right for Somerset.”
The vote is the latest step to bring a single authority approach to Somerset with the business case due to be submitted to Government for a final ruling.
Cllr Fothergill says the business case has given a big tick to each of the Government’s tests for unitary status – it is based on local people having more say on decisions that affect them; it is the right size for our population; and it has good support.
As today’s vote took place, the latest figures of an online survey show 60% of those taking part so far support moving to a single council.
He said One Somerset will deliver more efficient, accessible, effective and sustainable local services leading to improved lives and better outcomes for Somerset communities.
Through the establishment of 15 to 20 new Local Community Networks (LCNs) across Somerset, One Somerset will also give local people the opportunity to shape their own communities. These will have real constitutional powers to scrutinise, impact and take decisions, he added.
The council also claims the move would save around £18.5m per year through reducing duplication, efficiencies of scale and reduction to back office and multiple contracts, allowing One Somerset more scope for investment in prevention and service improvements.
Cllr Fothergill added: “All councils agree change is needed – and Somerset is one of few councils still operating in an outdated two-tier system.
“Most local authorities, including most of our neighbours, are now single council models and reaping the benefits of a more efficient, streamlined service bringing real benefits to the lives of communities.
“Five county and district councils with different processes, politics and objectives leads to confusion, frustration and mess.
“One council for Somerset, all working together and closer than ever with partners and communities, will improve lives.”
The business case was passed by the council today (Wednesday), after a four-hour debate in which some councillors voiced opposition to the move.
Cllr Tony Lock said the unitary matter should go to a referendum, while Cllr Simon Coles was in favour of deferring the project until the economy was more stable following the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, the county council expects to receive a letter from the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, inviting the council to submit its business case for official review.
Further consultation will then take place in autumn 2020 with the aim of a new single council fully operating from 2022.
To find out more about the One Somerset model and have your say in the consultation, visit www.onesomerset.org.uk.
In the meantime, you can vote in our poll below…