Why does local government need to change in Somerset?

Somerset has enormous potential, but it is falling behind other parts of the UK with lower levels of prosperity, poorer life chances for residents and a lagging economy. The current local government system is financially unsustainable, and, in some organisations, there is a lack of leadership and collaborative mindset which is needed to tackle this long-term underperformance. We recognise that there are significant challenges in Somerset from the economy, the environment and climate change, supporting older and vulnerable people to the provision of affordable housing, improving social mobility and alleviating poverty and giving business a voice. Addressing these challenges can only be achieved through significant reform and a fresh start for local government. The Stronger Somerset proposal offers a new model of local government that will revitalise services and improve wellbeing and prosperity across the county.

Who is involved in the Stronger Somerset bid?

Mendip District Council, Sedgemoor District Council, Somerset West & Taunton Council and South Somerset District Council worked with Somerset County Council on shaping these proposals. In January the County Council announced its plans for a single unitary council for Somerset. However, the districts have continued this innovative work while Somerset County Council chose to break away and pursue a more traditional option, although it is welcome to re-join the process at any time.

Why now?

All councils recognise the need for change, and we have tried to agree a way forward for many years, most recently through an all-council project in 2019 that looked at various options to reform. However, this approach broke down when Somerset County Council decided to go its own way and seek permission from the Government to create a single unitary council for Somerset under the ‘One Somerset’ banner. Since that time the government has indicated that in its Devolution White Paper; expected in the autumn, it will drive for all parts of England to remove the “two tier” system of county and district councils and that areas that want devolution of power and money from Whitehall and Westminster will need to do this. We really need a devolution deal in Somerset to help grow our economy, improve quality of life and tackle the big challenges our county and communities face.

What options did you consider?

We looked at four options:

  1. Do nothing and leave all the current arrangements in place.
  2. Do the minimum with the current councils in place and some joint working.
  3. Replace the current system with two unitary authorities driving forward a ‘reform and transform’ agenda.
  4. Replace the current system with a single, consolidated unitary council for Somerset.
We assessed all options carefully against how well they enable reform – not simply cutting costs and finding organisational efficiencies. Our research found that a two unitary council model is the best way to improve outcomes for Somerset’s people, places and businesses.

Why are two unitary councils better than one?

There are a number of reasons why we have taken this approach for a fresh start for local government all of which are captured in our prospectus.

Why are you proposing unitaries for the East and West of Somerset?

The West and the East of Somerset are characterised by distinct functional economic areas, travel to work areas and housing markets. Therefore, whilst there are some issues that cut across the county there are many features of the economy that are discrete to the East and in the West. These distinctions and natural links can be found in our supporting prospectus. Our two unitary council model also brings decision-making closer to the doorstep. We will work closely with the county’s hundreds of parish and town councils and other local organisations to connect our communities and improve lives. Stronger Somerset will forge new relationships with communities on the issues that really matter to them.

How will services be delivered by way of two unitary councils?

We’ll deliver services in the way that makes most sense so for some, such as digital services or HR, that might mean bringing the services together to be shared between the two new councils and possibly with others too. For others, such as strategic road and rail, it would make sense to work within a Combined Authority, possibly larger than the current county of Somerset. For social care, we have explored alternative delivery bodies such as those seen elsewhere in the country. For the many services though, they will be managed within each new unitary council.

Where will the two authorities be based?

In a post-Covid world, this feels like a less relevant question. We haven’t had any conversations about that, but we will find a solution that gives improved accessibility to our residents. More important than where staff are based, will be how they operate to ensure they are accessible to everyone in the county who needs their services and that decision-making is open and close to our communities.

Weren’t the district councils opposed to the concept of unitary authorities?

We are opposed to a single unitary authority for Somerset – this idea is based on an old concept that was considered and then rejected by the people of Somerset back in 2007. Somerset County Council’s ‘One Somerset’ proposal is based on making a short term saving by bringing services together. The people of Somerset deserve more than the cheapest possible form of local government - Stronger Somerset is based on reform to improve services and get better results for the people of Somerset. We have concluded that creating two new councils that can drive change and productivity is the best way to secure the reform needed and the benefits Somerset deserves.

Why can’t the district and county councils agree?

All the councils in Somerset recognise that current local government arrangements need to change but, despite considerable efforts, we have not been able to agree with the county council on a way forward. An all-council project in 2019 that looked at options to reform local government in Somerset broke down when Somerset County Council unilaterally decided to seek permission from the Government to create a single unitary council for Somerset despite our joint research showing this was not the right option. Stronger Somerset knows it can offer a better future for the people of Somerset that not only reforms local government but is ambitious for our communities and their quality of life. Somerset deserves the best local government and that is what we will offer with the help of our hard-working businesses, residents, and partners.

How does changing to a unitary system work?

Central Government will make the decision, not the local district or county councils. Government has its own process and set of tests that it uses to determine local government structure and the size of unitary authorities. If the Government approves the Stronger Somerset bid, after a period of public consultation, the existing four district councils and the county council would be abolished to be replaced by two new authorities created with new councillors elected.

How much money will it save?

£54.56m over the first five years. Over 10 years, once the investment in preventative services starts to pay off, it’s £202.4m. And it’s much more sustainable than the One Somerset solution, which is all about short-term savings. Our plans are about much more than just cutting costs and saving money. Somerset deserves so much more than a cut-price form of local government. We want a better, more integrated system of local government in Somerset that will improve quality of life for communities and make the system more efficient.

How will having two unitary authorities help improve local decision-making?

Our two unitary council proposal will bring decision-making closer to home. We will:

  • Design and develop comprehensive ‘Locality Agreements’ – agreements between the two councils and local communities that confirm the vision and ambition for each community and sets out what each party will do to achieve that vision.
  • Involve parishes and towns in deciding how services, functions and community assets are designed, run or transferred.
  • Work with a cross-section of parish and town councils to create a new ‘Charter for Somerset’ that sets out joint working, rights and responsibilities, mutual expectations and identifies new opportunities.
  • Create community networks of parishes and towns to work together and improve communications and engagement between these councils and the two new unitary councils.

How will these plans tackle the social care crisis?

Transforming our fragile and under-pressure care services will be central to the work of the two councils. Stronger Somerset’s plan for social care is a radical and ambitious reset that will greatly improve people’s lives and create financially sustainable services. We will help people in Somerset start, live and age well through:

  • Offering locally-run and integrated health and social care services.
  • Investing in new care packages to create independence for children and adults with disabilities.
  • Improving children’s social care practice and commissioning through family safeguarding and behavioural change delivered by expert multi-disciplinary teams.
  • Creating a ‘Children’s Trust’ as a fresh start for children’s services in the county with new leadership, governance and clear strategic direction.

How many jobs will be lost through the process of forming two unitary authorities?

Our business case assumes relatively few job losses, but most of these are in the leadership and management roles. In some areas, we’ll actually be recruiting additional staff to reflect our focus on investing in services, strengthening our community presence and improving social care.

Why are you doing this when you should be focused on Covid-19?

We have helped thousands of people and businesses during this crisis and we are confident the Government will fund us fairly for our extraordinary work to support communities and lost income. However, over recent months the Government has confirmed its support for the development of unitary councils in the future. For this reason, the timetable is now out of our hands. But, despite the distraction of this process, we will continue the excellent local work we are doing to help our communities and businesses recover from the pandemic. The district councils are in a strong financial position thanks to the extensive reform we have undertaken, unlike many other local authorities. And we have plans in place for our councils’ recovery alongside plans to continue to support our communities, businesses and the economy. We need to look collectively to the future and how we help Somerset recover from the impact of Covid-19 in the medium and longer term. We need a credible plan developed with our communities that will help us recover and address the genuine issues which are causing such a strain on public services.

When will the four district councils approve the Stronger Somerset business case?

The business cases will be debated by the Full Councils of the four district Councils from the week beginning 7th September.

Who will make the final decision?

The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government will make the final decision on behalf of the UK Government and then put it before Parliament. If he gives the Stronger Somerset proposal the go ahead, the existing four district councils and the county council would then be abolished to be replaced by two new authorities created with new councillors elected.

What are the timescales?

Somerset councils received an invitation to submit proposals on October 9. The timetable will include an public consultation with final business cases due to be submitted in early December; with the Government decision due in early 2021; and the councils to be established in April 2023. We are committed to extensive community consultation, so residents, businesses and other stakeholders have their say and ensure the changes proposed represent the needs of different communities.

Who will manage the public consultation process, what does this involve?

The final form of the consultation has not yet been agreed but we will prioritise the needs and best interests of communities and place this above individual organisational interests. We understand that the formal public consultation will be run by Government. We will be setting up stakeholder groups with all interested parties, including the vital town and parish councils of Somerset, to ensure we hear everyone’s views on our exciting plans.

Will there be a referendum?

There is no requirement to carry out a referendum. Due to the Coronavirus, the law prohibits a referendum taking place until at least May 2021. However, we want to hear from the residents and businesses of Somerset and take account of their views.

Can I give my opinion?

Yes, please! We welcome and encourage input and feedback from everyone in Somerset and we will consult widely on our proposals with communities, businesses and other interested groups across the county. We think any changes must place residents and communities at the heart of their design and not be designed around the needs and aspirations of the people in power.

How can I show my support for the Stronger Somerset proposal?

We appreciate you taking the time to visit and read our proposals. Thank you. You can show your support a number of ways, currently these include: Writing a letter to your MP to show your support and encourage him or her to do the same. Send us your comments via our contact form. Sign up to our newsletter, via the contact form.

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