Experts argue plans for a single council for Somerset will “damage democracy” and pan report which is based on a series of misconceptions

05 November 2020

A partisan report which was released to suggest that the creation of old-fashioned single unitary authorities in counties like Somerset was the “best way forward” has been pulled apart by local government experts.

The paper, “Making Counties Count”, which was released by the County Councils Network (CNN) is “based on misconceptions” and the model it advocates will be “unsustainable” and “damage local democracy” according to Professors Steve Leach and Colin Copus of De Montfort University who have co-authored an article for The MJ.

It can be viewed in full here - https://www.themj.co.uk/Making-Counties-Count-Dont-they-Already/219020

In the article, the authors state: “There is no subtlety about Making Counties Count, which demands across-the-board establishment of unitary authorities based on existing county councils, whatever their geographical configuration or size.

 

“The arguments made in the report involve a series of misconceptions, which must be highlighted before decisions are made about the future of local government in the shire counties.”

They reveal that the CCN incorrectly labelled a wide variety of authorities as “single unitary” when, in reality, they are successfully operating with the model similar to that advocated by Stronger Somerset – authorities of an appropriate size working collaboratively with a combined authority.

They add: “The resilience of a tiered system reflects an eminently sensible division of labour: certain strategic functions (public transport, highways planning, economic development) can be run at a city regional level, while personal and environmental services can be delivered at another tier sensitive to local needs and preferences.”

The article argues that a central argument being made in the CCN and the One Somerset campaign, that the current system is “confusing to the public” is overly simplistic.

They also say proposals to simply transfer a number of county and district functions to town and parish councils will “simply recreate a two-tier system, albeit one with much more complex administration problems”.

They argue that simply creating a single council with no fundamental reform of the way services are delivered is unlikely to be successful. They conclude: “In our review of 300 research papers and reports, we found no consistent or conclusive results suggesting that increases in council size are a guarantee of improvements in efficiency, effectiveness, performance or cost reduction. But plenty of evidence to show the bigger councils become the greater the damage to local democracy.

“A move to county-based unitaries would draw local government away from recognisable communities and increase the drift to meaningless conglomerates. Local government, as we have always understood it, would cease to exist.”

This is why we believe Stronger Somerset should be backed by the Government as a much more progressive solution for a better future.

Stronger Somerset will ensure:

  • Every child starts well - currently 25% of children in Somerset live in poverty and more communities are experiencing deprivation

  • Every young person believes they can live well – many young adults leave the county to find opportunities elsewhere

  • Our older population ages well – there is a growing older population and we will ensure they are supported to live happy, healthy, independent lives

  • Our economy levels up and contributes nationally – we need to close the productivity gap and improves skills, wages and opportunities for green growth that everyone can benefit from as well as ensuring that our residents have a decent and affordable home.

  • Our transition to net zero carbon – reducing the effects of Somerset on climate change and protecting our communities from the effects of climate change such as flooding

  • Vital services are protected – we will create a model for local government where we can invest in services including arts & entertainment and our communities so that they can survive and thrive

We will achieve this by:

  • Strengthening relationships with local communities – ensuring councils are created that are close to the people they serve

  • Stronger communities with greater power –allowing Council members, town and parish councils, and communities to be more involved in local decision-making processes; using new and existing mechanisms to give communities the tools they need to deliver local social, environmental and economic improvements; and ensuring Council services and partners within an area work closely together to make maximum use of the resources available

  • A fresh start in Care - Transformation of Children’s and Adults’ Social Care adopting the best of what works elsewhere

  • Two new councils for Somerset, to replace the four districts and the county council – ensuring people and communities are well represented in our large county

  • A Somerset West Council and a Somerset East Council will ensure a focus on the differing challenges, community identities and economic areas that exist in what is a large count; but which work together for the benefit of all of Somerset

  • Modern economy with new skills, higher wages to “level-up” society and ensuring housing genuinely affordable for local people

  • Devolution of powers and resources from Westminster – ensuring Somerset makes decisions for our economy and communities and can Level Up in Somerset, drive our economy forward and improve quality of life

Somerset deserves the best form of local government, not the cheapest and only Stronger Somerset will deliver this. The Stronger Somerset proposal is for a fresh start for local government in the county that will ensure better services, an improved economy and better quality of life.

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