Posted: 19.11.20 at 11:44 by Daniel Mumby - Local Democracy Reporter
The Conservatives have been accused of “running scared” from Somerset’s voters after the party voted to ask the government to delay next year’s local elections.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is currently assessing whether Somerset’s five existing local councils should be reorganised into either one or two new authorities.
As things currently stand, voters will go to the polls on May 6 2021 to vote in the local elections for Somerset County Council, electing representatives for the next four years.
But these elections could be significantly delayed following a vote by the full council – a decision opposition councillors have branded “undemocratic”.
Two separate proposals have been submitted to the government which would see the five existing Somerset councils abolished and replaced.
The One Somerset case, backed by the county council, favours replacing the existing councils with a single new authority.
The other case, dubbed Stronger Somerset, is backed by the four district councils and would see two new unitaries created instead – Somerset West (combining Sedgemoor with Somerset West & Taunton) and Somerset East (joining Mendip with South Somerset).
Neither North Somerset Council nor Bath and North East Somerset Council (BANES) wish to join up with any new authority – meaning North East Somerset MP Jacob Rees-Mogg’s preference to redraw Somerset’s political map with the “cricket county” boundaries will not happen.
The government currently intends to formally consult on the two sets of proposals in February and March, with a final decision being made in June or July.
Communities secretary Robert Jenrick MP stated on October 13 that he would “carefully consider” any request to postpone local elections in areas which would be transitioning towards unitary status.
Council leader David Fothergill told the full council yesterday morning (November 18) that the power to delay the elections lay solely with the government.
He said: “I must stress this is not us voting to defer the election.
"That is not within our power. The earliest that any election could be held if it was deferred would be May 2022.
“To hold an election in May 2021 would be a disservice to the people of Somerset and the transitional period towards any new unitary.”
Councillor Jane Lock, who leads the Liberal Democrat opposition group, said the ruling Conservative group was “running scared” from voters and would suffer as a result of Boris Johnson’s “reign of error”.
She said: “I cannot support this. I believe it is undemocratic and creates uncertainty at this difficult time.
“I think you are underestimating the electorate. Is there nothing you won’t stoop to in order to hang on to power?”
Councillor Bill Revans said the council should use the election to both renew its mandate with Somerset voters and give the public a vote on the different unitary proposals.
He said: “We were elected with a democratic mandate which expires after four years.
“On May 4 it runs out, like a pint of milk in the fridge. I wouldn’t want to drink a pint of milk after a further two years.
“If we don’t ask the secretary of state, we can go to the electorate, renew our democratic mandate.
"If Mr Fothergill is so confident about his One Somerset case, we can have a vote in May about the future of local government.”
Councillor Simon Coles said: “I’m at a loss as to why it is so important for Mr Fothergill to ask the secretary of state to interfere with the election?
“We should hold the election as planned. The consultation on unitary can come afterwards. This is a nonsense and I cannot support it.”
Other councillors said the delay would avoid spending £1 million on holding elections for an authority which may later be abolished.
Councillor Neil Bloomfield said: “The council was criticised for starting this process during Covid, and we’d currently be having an election during Covid. To me this seems eminently sensible.”
The Lib Dems put forward a proposal to ask MHCLG to defer its consultation until after the elections – but this was defeated after the Conservatives voted against it.
The council ultimately voted to formally ask for the government to delay the 2021 elections by 34 votes to 12, with nine abstentions.
Here’s a breakdown of how your local councillors voted:
Neil Bloomfield (no party affiliation, Martock)
Ann Bown (Conservative, Bridgwater West)
Michael Caswell (Conservative, Cannington)
Mandy Chilcott (Conservative, Minehead)
Peter Clayton (Conservative, Burnham-on-Sea North)
Hugh Davies (Independent, Watchet & Stogursey)
Bob Filmer (Conservative, Brent)
David Fothergill (Conservative, Monkton & North Curry)
Giuseppe Fraschini (Conservative, Taunton North)
Anna Groskop (Conservative, Wincanton & Bruton)
David Hall (Conservative, Bridgwater East & Bawdrip)
Philip Ham (Conservative, Mendip Central & East)
Mark Healey (Conservative, Huntspill)
Nigel Hewitt-Cooper (Conservative, Mendip South)
James Hunt (Conservative, Upper Tone)
David Huxtable (Conservative, King Alfred)
Mark Keating (Conservative, Coker)
Christine Lawrence (Conservative, Dunster)
Mike Lewis (Conservative, Castle Cary)
Terry Napper (Conservative, Glastonbury & Street)
Frances Nicholson (Dulverton & Exmoor)
Graham Noel (Conservative, Mendip West)
Linda Oliver (Conservative, Frome North)
John Parham (Conservative, Shepton Mallet)
Clare Paul (Conservative, Curry Rivel & Langport)
Mike Pullen (Conservative, Mendip Hills)
Faye Purbrick (Conservative, Yeovil South)
John Thorne (Conservative, Blackdown & Neroche)
Gemma Verdon (Conservative, Chard South)
Linda Vijeh (Conservative, Ilminster)
William Wallace (Conservative, Blackmore Vale)
Josh Williams (Conservative, Brympton)
Rod Williams (Conservative, Rowbarton & Staplegrove)
John Woodman (Conservative, Highbridge & Burnham South)
Amanda Broom (Lib Dem, Chard North)
Simon Coles (Lib Dem, Taunton East)
Adam Dance (Lib Dem, South Petherton & Islemoor)
Martin Dimery (Green, Frome East)
Andy Kendall (Lib Dem, Yeovil Central)
Liz Leyshon (Lib Dem, Glastonbury & Street)
Jane Lock (Lib Dem, Yeovil West)
Tessa Munt (Lib Dem, Wells)
Hazel Prior-Sankey (Lib Dem, Taunton South)
Bill Revans (Lib Dem, North Petherton)
Mike Rigby (Lib Dem, Lydeard)
Alan Wedderkopp (Lib Dem, Comeytrowe & Trull)
Mike Best (Lib Dem, Crewkerne)
John Clarke (Green, Frome West)
Andrew Govier (Labour, Wellington)
John Hunt (Independent, Bishop’s Hull and Taunton West)
Tony Lock (Lib Dem, Yeovil East)
Dave Loveridge (Labour, Bridgwater North & Central)
Leigh Redman (Labour, Bridgwater South)
Dean Ruddle (Lib Dem, Somerton)
Nigel Taylor (Conservative, Cheddar)