ALL for one or one for all?

That is the question for local government in Somerset as plans have been proposed to abolish existing authorities in favour of one ‘unitary’ council.

Leader of Somerset County Council, David Fothergill, first floated the idea in May 2018 in a bid to save the county ‘up to £28million’ a year - and maintains this is still the best option in 2020.

READ MORE: Plans to scrap all six Somerset district and borough councils revealed

Soon after, the authority was forced to make £15 million worth of cuts in an emergency budget as it struggled with the ever-rising cost of social care.

The county has been through this scenario before, when residents voted against plans to replace the current two-tier system back in 2007.

And since the fresh bid’s conception, the county’s four district councils - Somerset West and Taunton, South Somerset, Sedgemoor, and Mendip - have come out against the idea of abolishing their institutions.

A report was commissioned following the announcement, costing £167,000 split evenly across the five councils, to explore the options as all of Somerset’s authorities face tough financial circumstances.

A number of options involving many different councils across the county have been outlined in the report, with two being the preferred routes.

The seven options presented in the report are:

  • Staying ‘as is’: the current arrangements would continue with each council pursuing their own savings initiatives. Projected annual savings: up to £10M
  • Collaboration and integration (a.k.a. ‘Get Fit and Sharing’): each existing council would undertake transformation, with “increasing degrees of sharing and collaboration” – such as shared back-room staff and having the same broad policies. Projected annual savings: £10m-£32m
  • Unitary – one new council for Somerset: this would exclude BANES and North Somerset, but see the county council and four districts replaced with a single unitary authority for the whole county. Projected annual savings £47m
  • Two unitaries (north and south): this plan would see a new unitary for Somerset and merging BANES and North Somerset together to form a new unitary authority. Projected annual savings: up to £80m (but implementation costs are high)
  • Two unitaries (east and west): this plan would see North Somerset join up with Sedgemoor and Somerset West & Taunton to form one new authority, with the other comprising BANES, Mendip and South Somerset. Projected annual savings: up to £80m (but implementation costs are high)
  • Three unitaries: this option – preferred by current Wells MP James Heappey – would see three new authorities created. BANES would join up with Mendip, Somerset West & Taunton would merge with South Somerset, and North Somerset would join with Sedgemoor. Projected annual savings: up to £80m (but implementation costs are high)

Somerset County Council continues to campaign for a unitary authority.

This option, outlined in the report, comes with projected savings of £35m-47m, but would see the number of elected councillors across the authorities go from 300 to between 100 and 125.

Cllr Fothergill said: “It’s the right thing to do. We can no longer stay quiet on a report that offers so much potential investment for our residents, businesses and communities.

“Extra money, from new schools, better roads, investing in climate change, more buses; there’s so much we could do with funding on this scale.

“All the options have merit, but I have said many times I believe the way forward is a single authority for Somerset.

“Even if it only saves half of what the report suggests, that’s more than £23m extra to spend on residents, every year. Just imagine what we could do to improve lives across Somerset with that sort of investment - to me it’s a no brainer.”

Bridgwater Mercury:

SOMERSET COUNTY COUNCIL: Leader David Fothergill 

Cllr Fothergill said the unitary authority would help them speak to central government with ‘one voice’, despite most of the district councils being Liberal Democrat-led, while only Sedgemoor and SSC are Conservative-run.

He added: “I know there will be differences of opinion but I am more than happy to work with my district colleagues where we have common ground. It would be easier to keep the status quo, but I want to do what I believe is best for this county and its residents.”

Although the districts are against plans for one ‘unitary’ authority, they have accepted change is needed to improve the way local government works across Somerset.

The ‘collaboration and integration’ option, aka Get Fit and Sharing, which is preferred by the district councils, would see projected savings of around £10m-32m.

Bridgwater Mercury:

DISTRICT COUNCIL LEADERS: Ros Wyke (Mendip), Federica Smith-Roberts (Somerset West and Taunton), Duncan McGinty (Sedgemoor), and Val Keitch (South Somerset)

A joint statement issued by the district councils says: “Change is necessary to not only deal with the financial challenges within the county council but also to meet increasing demands on services and in particular, to deal with the big challenges facing our communities including child poverty, older people living in isolation, the climate crisis, housing and infrastructure.

“Our aim therefore is not to simply cut costs. Our intention has been to find a way, through the better use of our resources and working with our residents, to sustain vital services now and for the future to help secure a better quality of life for communities in Somerset.”

READ MORE: REACTION: Opposition party responds to unitary authority plans

The district councils fear: a unitary council would lead to ‘millions’ of taxpayers’ money being spent on changing structures, a Taunton-central base would not be best for all communities of the council, and the loss of elected representatives could lead to a ‘democratic deficit’.

The councils are also sceptical the projected savings of a unitary council would be met on time, if at all, while integration can start quickly.

The spokesperson added: “A big unitary council, distant from communities, will not be able to deal with the big challenges facing our communities. A more collaborative and devolved approach to local services is needed if the different needs of communities from Porlock to Frome and Chard to Cheddar are to be met.

“Through collaboration and integration of the councils, the time it will take to realise the benefits and financial savings is much faster with savings starting to be delivered within a year.

“In contrast, the experience of other unitary councils shows that it takes years for savings to be achieved, typically five to ten years, if they are achieved at all.”

So what happens next?

For a unitary authority to be created, approval is needed from central government, and the decision won’t necessarily go to a public referendum.

The councils will now put business cases together to illustrate their preferred options.

These documents will start going through the district councils in February when scrutiny will begin in the coming months, and community consultation has also been promised.