PLANS to abolish all of Somerset's councils to replace them with a single authority puts local democracy 'at stake', says the opposition party.

Somerset County Council is spearheading the campaign to create a unitary authority in the county, which would replace all four district councils and the county council.

The Conservative-led council is hoping to make the changes as it claims it would save up to £47million a year, but the county's district authorities say a unitary authority would create a 'democratic deficit'. 

READ MORE: Row brewing as councils disagree over plans to abolish districts in favour of one authority

But the opposing Liberal Democrat Party within the county council says the county council will use the district authority's reserves to 'shore up' its own 'budget weaknesses'.

Jane Lock, leader of the Liberal Democrat group at SCC, said: "“We are not opposed to a change in the way Council services are delivered for the residents of Somerset.… if they can be provided in a better, more cost-effective way.

“However, we have a number of major concerns – not least the estimated cost efficiencies that will be achieved, how the County Council proposes to make use of District Council reserves and assets to shore up its own budget weaknesses, the fact that this will effectively be a hostile, undemocratic takeover of public services and the environmental impact of centralising services.”

A report published today (January 8) explains the seven options ahead of the councils as they try to find a way to improve local government across the county.

The report was commissioned by all five of the council's involved.

“The main elements of the report, by London-based Ignite Consulting Ltd, are now eighteen months old,” says Cllr Lock. “The extended work includes a range of alternative approaches with some vague estimates of costs and potential savings that may well prove over-optimistic.”

“This is a major change in which public services are overseen and delivered.

"What say will the people of Somerset have in this decision? Certainly, there is no evidence of a mandate: the last time a poll was undertaken, in 2007, 82 per cent of residents voted against the proposed change to a Unitary authority.

“Liberal Democrats on SCC do not believe that a ‘hostile takeover’ of local services by the Conservatives at County Hall will achieve positive outcomes and we are concerned that this action demonstrates the kind of toxic culture that currently prevails there.”

The four district councils in Somerset, Mendip, Sedgemoor, South Somerset, and Somerset West and Taunton, have all declared their opposition to a unitary authority, but accept change is needed and have pledged to work better together.

Cllr Lock added: “We appreciate that the district councils are already committed to providing their services differently, working together on services such as Building Control, Legal and other back office functions.

“We believe the districts to be closer to the communities they serve, unlike the increasingly remote county council which has had to reduce its expenditure by nearly a third over the past ten years.”

Cllr Lock also raises concerns about how a new Unitary Authority would use District Authority assets to support the increasing demand for adult social care and children’s services.

“The last two years have been challenging in the extreme, with Somerset featured in lists of the most vulnerable councils in England. While the County Council has been busy escaping bankruptcy by selling the county’s assets and using every accountancy trick in the book, the Districts have been able to keep their services intact.

“Part of the District Councils’ strategy has been to invest in a number of commercial opportunities, with a view to securing additional income to support local services. We can only presume that the leader of Somerset County Council has in mind the acquisition of District Council reserves and commercial investments, to use in bolstering the county council’s still vulnerable financial position.”

The Liberal Democrats also say they are concerned about the environmental impact of any centralisation of service.

Cllr Lock said: “Currently, a huge range of local services in Somerset are managed and delivered locally – all that will change if services are centralised and run from Taunton.

“The county council is currently spending £10million on refurbishing the main office block at County Hall. This suggests that SCC Conservatives intend their proposed new Council to stay in Taunton, creating a more remote service with yet more people driving from all over Somerset to Taunton, just at the time all Councils have declared a climate emergency.

“This is hardly enlightened thinking.

“We totally recognise the extent of the financial crisis Somerset County Council continues to face, albeit these are problems that are largely of their own making, and that innovative solutions need to be found. But the leader of the council needs to reach out to all the stakeholders – including district councils and other parties – to make this a collaborative approach and to provide reassurances that whatever solution is arrived at will best meet the needs of local people.

“Driving changes through without a partnership approach is not a long-term solution – it’s no exaggeration to say that local democracy is at stake here.”