Released On 15th Oct 2020
Cllr Val Keitch on why she is backing the Stronger Somerset campaign
The Government will soon make a decision on how council services are delivered in Somerset which will have a significant impact for decades for every resident. Cllr Val Keitch is one of four council Leaders in Somerset supporting Stronger Somerset, an innovative proposal which will deliver a better future for the county. Here, the South Somerset District Council Leader writes an open letter to Somerset about why she believes Stronger Somerset is the right solution and why a campaign of misinformation from Somerset County Council must stop.
When the Leader of Somerset County Council said in 2018 “I’m going bust and want to take over the districts to balance my books” that was potentially the most honest he has been during this unitary debate.
Of course, Cllr David Fothergill conveniently cannot recall the conversation he had with Bridgwater MP Ian Liddell-Grainger but his quote is part of Parliament's permanent record.
Yet it really seems to encapsulate the focus of his plan for a single council for Somerset and why he is spending so much of his time making up information about the progressive alternative. His plan for a single council is so focused on money and so far from what the people of Somerset need that instead of promoting his plan he is instead knowingly and deliberately stating things that are untrue about what we believe is the much better alternative plan known as Stronger Somerset.
Let us be clear. Change is coming to Somerset that affects everyone, the services they receive and their quality of life. It will affect the vibrancy of our towns and villages, the strength of our economy, the opportunities for our young people and much more.
If a plan for real change is adopted, Somerset’s future could be really bright. However, if the wrong decision is made it could mean the prospects for our services and our quality of life are damaged for decades.
The Secretary of State for Local Government has confirmed that Westminster wants to move ahead with change in Somerset and it is important that your views are heard. So let’s talk about Stronger Somerset.
Stronger Somerset will create two new councils for Somerset, replacing the county council and the four district councils. But it is more than two councils. Stronger Somerset represents a fresh start with a new approach that is more suited to the challenges we face and will deliver better for our communities. We will have a more joined up system of local government to ensure every person - young and old - lives well, our economy thrives and the needs of the climate emergency are met.
My only reason for being in local politics is to do the best for residents and communities of a county I was born in and am passionate about. I'm hugely excited about what Stronger Somerset has to offer and I would not be putting my name to it if I did not strongly believe it offered the best choice for my residents.
I'm sure Cllr Fothergill believes in his plan but he seems unwilling to talk about his proposal. Instead, he's using taxpayers' money to push fiction about Stronger Somerset through the letterbox of every resident and misleading parish and town councils, businesses and more. Why is he afraid of the truth and why is he deliberately trying to mislead the people of Somerset?
He's forgotten this isn't about politics. It's not county versus districts. It's not Conservatives versus Liberal Democrats. Far from it. Stronger Somerset has the backing of all major political parties and independent councillors. We need to change local government and in doing so it is about doing the best thing for our communities to ensure they can have the best possible future.
The political tactics being deployed by Cllr Fothergill have to stop. He needs to focus on his own plan while we focus on ours. I would love it if we could work together on a progressive agenda but, time and time again, he's made it clear he wants no part of that.
So let me be clear on the facts about Stronger Somerset.
The districts have always agreed there needs to be extensive change. While my council and the other district councils have made significant efforts to transform the way we provide services, the county council - through no fault of its hard-working staff but due to the financial situation is faces – is stuck in a culture of cuts which is unsustainable. We have always maintained, as Somerset County Council’s leadership agreed in 2019 before suddenly walking away from our collaborative work, that no change and a single council for Somerset were not viable options.
Stronger Somerset is a complex plan but you would not expect a comprehensive plan that offers a fresh start for Somerset to be simple, given the complex challenges we face. Local people, together with leading experts from around the country have contributed to our innovative proposals which will mean Somerset has more control over its future, more power and more money.
We’ll provide services in the way that makes most sense. That might mean bringing some services together to be shared between the two new councils and possibly with others too where this makes most sense, is efficient or gets a better result.
For other services, 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 the many services though, they will be managed within either the new Western Somerset council or the new Eastern Somerset council.
This is not about mergers. There will be two brand new councils, working together to run key services while staying close to their communities and sharing genuine power at a local level so communities can take forward their priorities.
It's not about breaking Somerset into two. It's about creating a better connected form of local government that preserves local democracy and delivers better outcomes for everyone.
I know we're in the middle of a pandemic and there are those that question whether this is the right time for this debate at all. I personally guarantee that the district councils remain on the frontline supporting Somerset through this crisis and will lead the recovery. But we also are doing all we can to ensure the voices of our communities are protected as the Government looks for a better system of providing essential public services.
Government has stated it wants a unitary solution for Somerset. And there is a clear choice emerging – on the one hand, a single council distant from the people it serves, delivering an old fashioned form of local government and focussed only on saving money.
On the other hand, Stronger Somerset – two councils working in a modern way, efficient, effective, close to the people they serve and focussed on delivering the best outcomes and improving quality of life in Somerset.
We’re receiving a huge level of support from so many people. Stronger Somerset will help us build the county we deserve. And it's a plan that will be developed with our communities.
We're engaging extensively with communities across Somerset as we need your views to shape our final submission to Government. Please let us know what you think.
You can read the full case, and we suggest Cllr Fothergill finally does the same, at www.strongersomerset.co.uk and see what is really on offer.
I hope you will trust my fellow Leaders and myself to do the best for you and Somerset. That is our pledge to you. Some people in this debate are motivated by the fear of “going bust” and the anxiety of losing their power. We are not. We are only motivated by the desire to see a stronger future for Somerset.
Please find out more at www.strongersomerset.co.uk
The Government consultation on our plan closed on Monday 19 April.
Thank you to everyone who took part and made their views known.READ OUR CONSULTATION RESPONSE
A local poll will now take place from 18 May to 4 June.
Look out for voter packs in the post.