Our FAQs

We are happy to answer any questions you may have around the Stronger Somerset proposal. We know that there is a lot of misinformation out there.

Answers to a number of the questions you’ve asked us already are below, but if there’s anything else you would like to know, please get in touch

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General

Why does local government need to change in Somerset?

The four district councils and the county council we have now are all working hard to do the best they can, especially in these difficult times. But we know many people are confused about who provides what, that money is tight and services are suffering.

Somerset lags behind the rest of the UK in a number of areas:

•             25% of children in Somerset live in poverty,

•             14,000 families are in need of urgent help

•             our education system does not do enough to create social mobility

•             on leaving school, too many people move away for better prospects or take up poorly paid jobs

•             as an increasing proportion of people live to a much older age, services for both young people and old people are struggling to cope.

We need a fresh start to turn this around.

Stronger Somerset proposes deep, fundamental reform that will transform the places and quality of life in Somerset and give residents excellent, value-for-money services. 

Who is involved in the Stronger Somerset bid?

Mendip District Council , Sedgemoor District Council, Somerset West and Taunton Council and South Somerset District Council have been working together to shape these proposals since January 2019. We continue to work together across the four districts to develop our ideas, in conjunction with our partners, to deliver improved life chances for all those who live and work in Somerset

Why now?

All councils in Somerset recognise the need for change and we have tried to agree a way forward for many years. More recently the government has indicated that, in its Devolution White Paper, expected some time in 2021, it will push for all parts of England to remove the two-tier system of County and district councils. It has also said that areas that want devolution of power and money from Whitehall and Westminster will need to do this. In late 2020 the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Right Honourable Robert Jenrick MP, invited Somerset along with two other areas to submit proposals for local government reform. We submitted our proposal to the Secretary of State in December 2020.

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 forwards 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?

Somerset's population will be more than 600,000 people within 10 years. Our County is also very large - 1331 square miles - which means our population is dispersed, with 48% of residents living in a rural area (compared to 18% for England at the last census). It takes people in Somerset 50% longer than average in England to access key services.

Western Somerset and Eastern Somerset are distinct from one another. The West has a coastline and has reasonably good strategic road links. The East, by contrast, relies upon a network of A roads and minor roads. In terms of our economy, Western Somerset and Eastern Somerset have different characteristics, comprising distinct functional economic areas, travel to work areas and housing markets.

There are also complex varying needs across our county by way of physical geography, climate, demographic divergence and connectivity. It would be impossible for a single unitary to do justice to the unique characteristics across our people, place and economy. Two unitaries will allow for local, regional and national priorities to come to fruition.

How is the proposal justified when it does not meet the government test of a minimum population size of 300-400,000 residents per unitary? Unitary councils of the size proposed are financially unsustainable. Is this needed now?

A single unitary for Somerset would serve an unusually large population, second only to Cornwall, and more than 600,000 people within a few years of being established. Whereas a two unitary solution would place each, in terms of size, just above mid-way in the range and over 300,000 people shortly after being set up.  If you look at the detailed economic case within our solution, you will see that is both affordable and sustainable - more affordable and sustainable than the One Somerset case in its long-term sustainability. In addition, size is only one of the criteria being talked about by Government.

How will services be delivered through two unitary councils?

We expect that the two unitaries will share some structures where this offers advantages but crucially, they will differ in other aspects, including the strategic priorities and specific responses as they respond to the challenges and opportunities of their area. For some services such as digital 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 roads and rail, it would make sense to work within a combined authority, possibly larger than the current County of Somerset. For the majority of services though, they will be managed within each unitary council.

However, it is important to say that the fresh start we propose is a genuine break from past, failed approaches. It is an opportunity to work in partnership with each other, with citizens, communities and business and with the wider public sector. We will be more outward facing at every level, working with communities to inform and shape approaches, working with partners across places on coordinated and integrated actions and working sub-regionally to influence the context in which we operate. This means that we need to organise and operate differently in Somerset.

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 the 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?

By cutting duplication and support costs and ensuring value for money in everything we do, we plan to save £52.76m over the first five years – more than the One Somerset proposal. And we will invest this in ways that will reduce the long-term cost of services even more. So that over 10 years we will save £214 .45m.

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 would improve quality of life for communities and make the system more efficient.

Are the financial projections realistic?

We have used independent, expert support to ensure our business case is robust and we are confident they are achievable.

All the financial projections have been put together with a large degree of caution and a 25% contingency (compared to only 10% contingency in the One Somerset business case).

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:

  • bring decision makers and decision making closer to local people and use better evidence and data to make the right decisions about where and how resources are used
  • 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
  • work closely with those providing other public services, such as primary care networks in the NHS, police and fire services, schools and colleges on joined-up approaches to improve health and wellbeing.
How many jobs will be lost through the process of forming two unitary authorities?

Our proposal assumes relatively few job losses, but most of these are in 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.

If you’re planning to join up services, isn’t this just the same as a single unitary?

No. The two new councils will provide and commission services based on the different needs of Eastern and Western Somerset.  Not all services will therefore be joined up. There will be different priorities in different places.

Where the needs of service users are the same, and where economies of scale can be realised, for example in care services and support services, they will be provided jointly. The Somerset Waste Partnership is a good example of this.

Creating two new organisations gives us greater scope for transformation than trying to integrate four councils in to one existing organisation. This gives us substantial scope not only for efficiency but also to creates the kind of support services reforming organisations need. Strong on digital to change the way people work, and strong on data to enable us to understand our county better, and target resources where we need them most.

If this is the government’s chosen solution, does this mean that the district councils will merge?

No, this isn’t a merger of existing councils. Two wholly new organisations will be formed, taking over the current responsibilities of the County Council and the four Districts. Although the administrative boundaries of the two new councils will be based on the current boundaries of Sedgemoor and SWT in the west and Mendip and South Somerset in the east, they will be two new organisations and incorporate the budgets and responsibilities of the County Council as well.

Who will make the final decision?

The Secretary of State of Housing, Communities and Local Government is assessing the proposals. He will consider the proposals, the responses from the recent consultation, all representations he receives and all other relevant information, and assess the proposals against the criteria below before reaching his decision on which proposals, if any, to implement.  

a. Is it likely to improve local government and service delivery across the area of the proposal, giving greater value for money, generating savings, providing stronger strategic and local leadership, and more sustainable structures;  

b. Does it command a good deal of local support as assessed in the round overall across the whole area of the proposal; and 

c. is it a credible geography consisting of one or more existing local government areas with an aggregate population which is either within the range 300,000 to 600,000, or such other figure that, having regard to the circumstances of the authority, including local identity and geography, could be considered substantial. 

The Secretary of State may decide, subject to Parliamentary approval, to implement a proposal with or without modification, or to not implement any proposal for an area. He may also seek advice from the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. If any proposals are to be implemented, we would expect new unitary councils to take on full council role from April 2023, with the transitional arrangements in 2022-23 to support a smooth implementation. 

What are the timescales?

Somerset councils received an invitation to submit proposals by 9 December 2020. The Secretary of State is expected to consult with MPs, neighbouring councils, businesses, police, fire and health services and selected during February and March 2021, before making a decision due in early summer 2021. New councils would be established in April 2023.

We will continue to work with local councils, partners, businesses and other stakeholders to ensure the changes represent the needs of different communities.

Why is there now a local poll?

A local poll has been commissioned by each of the four Somerset District Councils who agreed that holding a poll would “give residents a voice in the debate and help the Secretary of State in understanding and determining the level of support amongst residents for each of the options.”  

The poll, which will be independently run and verified by Civica Electoral Services, will take place from 18 May to 4 June.  

Every elector will be issued with a ballot paper and invited to vote by post or online.   

The District Councils approached Somerset County Council to take part in the poll. Somerset County Council has informed the District Council Leaders that it will not be participating in or endorsing the poll. 

The District Council Leaders have written to the Secretary of State to inform him of the poll and its dates and ask that the result of the poll be properly considered as part of the decision-making process on the future of local government in Somerset. 

  Stronger services

How will you ensure that children and families on one side get the same level of resources that those on the other side do?

The overall management of children’s services will be through the proposed alternative standalone organisation, however, services would be delivered on a very local basis, making sure that they are well connected to local communities and providers (and especially schools and colleges). This will promote consistency of approach and high practice standards, making sure that there is no ‘postcode lottery’ in the services offered to families.

What do the districts know about children’s services and adults’ services and how can they propose to do this better?

We know these services need to change, that’s why reform is the keystone of the Stronger Somerset case. Without it the county will go broke.

Savings from reorganisation would soon be eaten up by spiralling costs of adults’ and children’s services, if they continue to be run as they are. The One Somerset proposal would simply mean the county would go broke in 5 years instead of 3 years. Only the Stronger Somerset business case sets out the ideas, fresh thinking and evidence to show how reform can be achieved and sustain excellent services right across our communities.

Key to this is reform of adult care and services for children and young people. We will use the savings we will make in reducing five councils to two, cutting out duplication in administrative and support services, to invest in the reform of these key services – making them better and affordable into the future.

For children’s services we intend to create a new organisation that would be fully accountable to the two unitary councils, whilst having the freedom and flexibility to deliver the very best practice. 

Evidence highlights how too many children in Somerset cannot access the opportunities and support that they need to achieve their very best and to live well.  Stronger Somerset proposals will make sure that the needs of children, young people and families are given stronger and more effective focus. 

We will make sure that children and families will better benefit from knowledge and expertise about children’s services from across Somerset, better connecting local authority services with schools, colleges, voluntary sector and other statutory sector providers.

For adult’s services, Stronger Somerset has a clear improvement plan based on a local place-led approach. Stronger Somerset will deliver enhanced, less remote, bespoke services that meet the needs of local populations as they change. The Stronger Somerset bid is best placed to help keep people healthy and independent for longer.

We will consolidate and extend strengths based social care and public health practice and activities, align adult social work teams to primary care and GPs to create a one stop shop, increase co-location of social care and community health services and use innovative technology solutions to reduce need for formal care.

The strategic approach covers the whole spectrum of council health and wellbeing support across all ages from prevention to complex care and makes sure that all council activities are considered through the lens of health and wellbeing.

As the population grows and ages, the pressure on social care will increase. Somerset County Council is not delivering high-quality adults services and performance has declined over several years. Stronger Somerset will deliver enhanced, less remote, bespoke services that meet the needs of local populations as they change. 

What is an Alternative Delivery Model and why is it better than the current system?

The Stronger Somerset proposal is to establish a separate and new ‘arms length’ organisation (sometimes referred to as an alternative delivery model). This will give children’s services in Somerset the fresh start that is very needed to deliver positive changes at pace.

The proposed new body would be a standalone social enterprise. This would be jointly owned by the two unitary authorities. Very importantly, accountability for children’s services in the area would remain with the individual unitary authority, with responsibility for the day to day running of these services delegated to the new body. Evidence from elsewhere highlights the very considerable benefits for children and families that could be secured through strengthening locality working (for example with schools) and securing consistently good outcomes for children.

Where do the cost savings in respect of children’s social care come from?

Our ambitious approach to children’s services includes strong commitment to giving children looked after the very best start in life.  We will make sure that children looked after live as close as possible to their families and communities, so that they can achieve well and have happy and fulfilling lives.  This will enable work to address the currently relatively high costs of placements for children looked after so that, over time, significant financial benefits could be realised.

Why do we need two Directors of Adults’ Services, isn’t this just unnecessary additional cost?

We have proposed two Directors of Adults Services due to the statutory requirements that each council will have to fulfil and the need for a focus on local integration, local need and transformation coupled with the capacity to respond to the national reform agenda when it arrives. The additional cost has been budgeted for in the rationalisation of back office services across both councils.

Won’t two Councils just duplicate services?

We recognise and provide a way to deliver services both at scale and locally: what needs to be done once will only be done once.  Stronger Somerset gives a more sophisticated range of options to maximise local capacity and strengths. Our proposal presents an opportunity to capitalise on the community mobilisation seen during the pandemic, by accepting that every community and local area is different and will have similar and vastly different needs. So, for example, our proposal retains one safeguarding adults board and one public health service to deliver a consistent and compliant focus across both unitary councils. Local services will be commissioned, and delivered locally, using primary care and GPs as the building blocks, and using the unique skills of the community and voluntary sector. 

How will things change for vulnerable adults under the Stronger Somerset proposal?

Vulnerable people will continue to be protected under the new proposal as this is a statutory duty. Keeping one adults safeguarding board across the two councils will make sure that safeguarding is undertaken in a consistent way and in line with the law whilst making sure that responses to safeguarding are local and easily accessible for people.

What about joining up with the NHS?

Our proposals align with the new Somerset Integrated Care System (ICS) vision Fit for my Future. The development of the ICS and Integrated Care Partnership (ICP) is an opportunity to run in parallel the development of two new unitary authorities with the local NHS and to link with the 13 recently formed Primary Care Networks (PCNs) as building blocks. In addition, the proposal for two unitary councils puts us in a good position to respond to the LGA’s recent consultation response to ‘Integrating care: Next steps to building strong and effective integrated care systems’ and lays the foundations for strong collaborative leadership, a commitment to devolving to decision making and development to communities and a focus on improving population health outcomes.

If you’re planning to join up services, isn’t this just the same as a single unitary?

No. The two new councils will provide and commission services based on the different needs of Eastern and Western Somerset.  Not all services will therefore be joined up. There will be different priorities in different places.

Where the needs of service users are the same, and where economies of scale can be realised, for example in care services and support services, they will be provided jointly. The Somerset Waste Partnership is a good example of this.

Creating two new organisations gives us greater scope for transformation than trying to integrate four councils in to one existing organisation. This gives us substantial scope not only for efficiency but also to creates the kind of support services reforming organisations need. Strong on digital to change the way people work, and strong on data to enable us to understand our county better, and target resources where we need them most.

Isn't the Shared Enabling Services Organisation just recreating South West One which let Somerset down so badly?

No. A shared delivery organisation is a company that will be owned by the councils and is a progression of a shared services model. An excellent example is the very successful Somerset Waste Partnership.

  Stronger communities

Are you planning to pass lots of responsibilities to parish councils? We just don’t have the resource to cope with it.

No, parish councils will not be asked to do anything that they do not want to do. We do recognise the potential that exists within our towns and parishes for creating more prosperous and inclusive communities. The experience of working through the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the strength of close-knit communities. We will invest in the creation of community networks that bring town and parish councils together so they can work with each other. We will provide, through a community and devolution team, help to develop the capability of local councils.  For those towns and parishes that want to and can do more, we will create a framework for local agreements that could see funds and services devolved to create better outcomes, but it should be stressed that these agreements will be voluntary and funded.

  Stronger partnerships

How will you develop better system working across organisations, not just councils, including the NHS, police, voluntary sector and more?

The foundation of this is a culture of collaborative and practical data across public service organisations. The new councils will need to work together with partners across the area to safely share the right data, ensuring collective understanding, learning and the joint targeting of resources.

We want to create a world-class approach for Somerset co-owned and developed with our police, health, town, parish, and other partners.

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  Stronger economy

How will Stronger Somerset’s plan for growth help tackle climate change?

There are a number of factors which are important here. Stronger Somerset will help unlock funding which will help support the extensive work and action plans already in place after councils declared or recognised the climate emergency.  

A shared Climate Emergency Strategy is being adopted by councils in Somerset and this work will continue, enhanced by greater collaboration and focus. 

And built into our proposal are key reform objectives that will ensure the interventions and work we undertake will create and maintain quality local environments; reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and support our journey towards carbon neutrality.

What is a combined authority?

Combined authorities are created voluntarily and allow a group of local authorities to pool appropriate responsibility and receive certain delegated functions from central government.

So, while aware and alive to local differences, we know we also need to operate at a higher level, with one voice for our historic county, drawing in the investment and powers we need to make a real difference – a Combined Authority would be the way to achieve this.

We envisage a Combined Authority ready to deliver a themed devolution deal to include Bath and North East Somerset and North Somerset.

This would open door to, for example, a step change in digital connectivity that will support a different environment for business, relationship with government, and reduce the need for travel.

Reaction to Local Government Secretary's decision

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