Posted: 30.07.20 at 09:39 by Daniel Mumby - Local Democracy Reporter
A majority of Somerset county councillors have voted to abolish themselves and create a new unitary authority for the whole county.
Council leader David Fothergill has put forward the One Somerset business case, which would see Somerset’s five existing councils abolished and replaced by May 2022.
The proposals came before a virtual full council meeting on Wednesday (July 29), where opposition councillors criticised the timing of the plans, the lack of detail and the financial implications it would have.
But the business case was still approved by a clear majority – meaning central government will now decide whether to formally set the unitary wheels in motion.
Mr Fothergill described this as “one of the most important votes in Somerset County Council’s history”, and said he would be willing to work with the four district councils going forward – despite none of them supporting his proposals.
He said: “I really do welcome other bodies coming forward with other ideas.
“I’ve always tried to engage and encourage debate, and I would like to see that continue even if this business case is approved today. There are alternatives that need to be discussed.”
He also promised there would be “a far-reaching programme of consultation and engagement” over the autumn to ensure people’s voices were heard as the fine details of the new unitary authority were worked out.
He added: “Local people should have the chance to run local services.
“It is not about the money, or one council taking over others – it is about putting something into place that will last for a generation.
“It’s not just about reducing waste and duplication – it’s about having a single, powerful voice to lobby government. We need to get it right for Somerset.”
A number of opposition councillors criticised the proposals, citing examples of other recently-formed unitary authorities on Somerset’s doorstep.
Councillor Jane Lock (who leads the Liberal Democrat group) said: “We want to ensure local democracy and transparency thrives.
“I fear what you’re going to do is to find towns and cities competing against each other – what if Wells decided to charge for parking, but Street did not?
“The only lesson you seem to have learned from Buckinghamshire, Wiltshire and Dorset is to be less prescriptive. The business case is riddled with flaws.”
Councillor Hazel Prior-Sankey said the timing was wrong given the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing upheaval that came with the creation of Somerset West and Taunton Council – which Mr Fothergill described as “a complete dog’s breakfast”.
She said: “I don’t think this is the right time, given that we’re in the middle of a pandemic which is not going away.
“Staff at our district council are still trying to cope with the aftermath of the merger with West Somerset, which has cost millions of pounds to implement.”
Councillor Tony Lock reiterated his call for a referendum, which he originally made as a district councillor in February.
He said: “With something this important, it should be all the people in Somerset who make this decision, whether through a referendum or what have you.”
Councillor Martin Dimery added: “Somerset is simply too big geographically to operate all services evenly, fairly and effectively.
“The limited powers of local community networks and planning boards won’t necessary compensate for that. What works for Bristol or Swindon doesn’t work in large areas of countryside.”
Other councillors – including those outside of the ruling Conservative group – said the plans should be supported and the districts’ preferred path was not sustainable in the long term.
Councillor Rod Williams: “We’re working with one hand tied behind our back. The two-tier system of districts and county is divisive, confusing and wasteful.
“It is a system that is not understood by most of the residents we represent. It wastes millions of pounds a year which could go on better services. And it fragments Somerset‘s voice, and weakens it in the south west and London.
“Having no structural change but ‘working closer together’ is a psychological evasion and a piece of self-delusion.”
Councillor Andrew Govier added: “I’ve heard no real objections to the idea of a unitary authority – only ideas about delaying it or pushing it down the road, and I don’t see any point in that.”
After several hours of debate, the full council voted in favour of taking forward the One Somerset business case.
The council voted in favour by 33 votes to 14, with four abstentions. Four division members were absent for part or all of the meeting.
Several members of the ruling Conservative group voted to abstain from the vote – all of which also sit on Sedgemoor District Council, which is opposed to the One Somerset plans.
All the Liberal Democrats present voted against the plans, as did the two Green councillors, while two out of three Labour councillors voted in favour and one abstained.
Here’s a breakdown of how the councillors voted:
Neil Bloomfield (no party affiliation, Martock)
Ann Bown (Conservative, Bridgwater West)
Mandy Chilcott (Conservative, Minehead)
David Fothergill (Conservative, Monkton & North Curry)
Giuseppe Fraschini (Conservative, Taunton North)
Andrew Govier (Labour, Wellington)
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)
John Hunt (Independent, Bishop’s Hull and Taunton West)
David Huxtable (Conservative, King Alfred)
Mark Keating (Conservative, Coker)
Christine Lawrence (Conservative, Dunster)
Mike Lewis (Conservative, Castle Cary)
Dave Loveridge (Labour, Bridgwater North & Central)
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)
Nigel Taylor (Conservative, Cheddar)
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)
Mike Best (Lib Dem, Crewkerne)
John Clarke (Green, Frome West)
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)
Tony Lock (Lib Dem, Yeovil East)
Tessa Munt (Lib Dem, Wells)
Hazel Prior-Sankey (Lib Dem, Taunton South)
Bill Revans (Lib Dem, North Petherton)
Dean Ruddle (Lib Dem, Somerton)
Alan Wedderkopp (Lib Dem, Comeytrowe & Trull)
Michael Caswell (Conservative, Cannington)
Peter Clayton (Conservative, Burnham-on-Sea)
Bob Filmer (Conservative, Brent)
Leigh Redman (Labour, Bridgwater South)
Amanda Broom (Lib Dem, Chard North)
Hugh Davies (Independent, Watchet & Stogursey)
Mike Rigby (Lib Dem, Lydeard)
Terry Napper (Conservative, Glastonbury & Street – left before the vote)
The business case will now be submitted to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which will decide whether or not Somerset can formally proceed towards a new unitary authority.
If the government approves the business case, a new ‘shadow authority’ will go live in April 2021, comprising members of all existing councils, to oversee the transition of powers to the new council.
Regardless of what happens with the 2021 elections, the elections for the new unitary authority would be held in May 2022 if the One Somerset plans are implemented as intended.