Posted: 19.04.21 at 12:56 by Daniel Mumby - Local Democracy Reporter
Plans to stage a referendum on the future of local government in Somerset have been put on hold following an angry letter from the secretary of state.
The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is in the closing stages of a public consultation on two rival proposals for Somerset’s future governance – One Somerset and Stronger Somerset.
Somerset’s four district councils – Mendip, Sedgemoor, Somerset West & Taunton and South Somerset – were expected to vote to hold a referendum on which of the two proposals should be taken forward by the government.
But this has been temporarily halted after communities secretary Robert Jenrick MP sent a strongly-worded letter to the district council leaders, warning them against such a course of action.
In a letter seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service dated April 12, Mr Jenrick warned that holding such a referendum risked “duplicating and detracting” from his department’s own consultation, and said: “It is hard to see how this can represent value for money for the people of Somerset.”
He also accused the councils of “having a fundamental misunderstanding” of how his department would decide between reorganising Somerset into a single unitary (One Somerset – backed by Somerset County Council) or two unitaries (Stronger Somerset - backed by the four districts).
He said: “My decision will not be made on the basis of which proposal has the most popular support as expressed simply through the number of representations received or the result of a poll.
“The support criterion is about local support generally, not only that of residents, but also support from the business community, the voluntary sector and other public service providers.
“I reject any suggestion that the consultation that I am carrying out is not fit for purpose or in some way flawed.”
Mr Jenrick also stated that there was a “risk of creating bias” in how the referendum was presented to Somerset residents, arguing that any attempt to unfairly favour one side or the other “must be scrupulously avoided”.
He said: “I would hope my comments give you cause to reconsider pursuing the exercise you are proposing.”
A poll on a previous unitary proposal, put forward by the county council in 2007, was managed by the Electoral Reform Services.
More than half the county voted, with 82 per cent of voters rejecting the planned unitary put forward by the then-Liberal Democrat administration.
The four district councils all held extraordinary full council meetings this week, where their final submissions to the consultation were agreed.
All four were also due to approve proposals for the referendum to go ahead – but all four, beginning with Sedgemoor on Tuesday (April 13), instead opted to postpone the matter until further legal advice had been sought.
In a joint statement, the four council leaders said: “We are now considering a short deferral of any decision to proceed with a local poll on the future of local government in Somerset in the light of the secretary of state’s letter.
“We will be seeking leading counsel’s opinion on the specific and detailed legal issues the letter raises.
"This will ensure that all councillors have full and thorough legal advice when reaching their decision on such a significant issue.”
Ian Liddell-Grainger, the MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, criticised Mr Jenrick’s actions in the House of Commons on Wednesday (April 14).
Mr Liddell-Grainger – a vocal critic of both One Somerset and the county council’s Conservative leader David Fothergill – said the online questionnaire MHCLG was employing was “a confidence trick” and said Mr Jenrick had “thrown a wobbly” when he wrote to the four district council leaders.
He said: “The referendum will go ahead and if he [Mr Jenrick] uses the law to stop it, then I am afraid lobbying has got a very much more sinister and nasty feel to it in this case.
“I urge anybody in Somerset to lobby to make sure that we have the voice of the people for the democracy they deserve.
“I say to the secretary of state: see you in court, or come up and sue me some time.”
Somerset County Council said the consultation was the only way that people could express their views on either proposal, and urged residents to get their views in before the deadline today (April 19).
A spokesman said: “The government’s consultation is open to all – and it’s incredibly important that everyone has their say to make sure their voice is heard.
“Responding is quick and easy and is the only formally recognised route people whereby can get across their views to the government, who will take the final decision on the future of local government in Somerset in the coming months.
“This decision is critical for the future of local democracy and public services in Somerset, particularly as we move into the post-pandemic recovery phase.
“Creating a fit for purpose local government structure in the county will be crucial to improving people’s lives, including in attracting future investment and jobs to our county.”
To take part in the government’s consultation, visit https://consult.communities.gov.uk/governance-reform-and-democracy/somerset/ before close of play today.
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