Posted: 25.02.21 at 06:00 by Daniel Mumby - Local Democracy Reporter
The Somerset County Council elections due to take place in May have been formally postponed as the government begins a public consultation on proposals for new unitary authorities.
Voters had been due to go to the polls on May 6 to vote for county councillors who could represent their interests for the next four years.
But the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has now confirmed these elections will be postponed until May 2022 to allow for consultations on the future of local government in Somerset.
This follows the submission of two rivalling proposals in December 2020, detailing how the county should be governed in the decades to come.
Here’s everything you need to know about the postponed elections:
Why have the elections been postponed?
Normally, county councillors are elected for four-year terms, with the most recent election having taken place in 2017.
However, the ruling Conservative group in Somerset formally asked the government in November 2020 to delay the elections by 12 months to allow a decision on the proposed reorganisation of local government.
Council leader David Fothergill argued at the time that holding an election in May 2021 “would be a disservice to the people of Somerset and the transitional period towards any new unitary.”
Opposition councillors, meanwhile, accused the Tories of “running scared” and branded the move “undemocratic”.
The MHCLG has now confirmed the elections will be postponed to allow for the consultation to take place – meaning that all 55 existing councillors will remain in office for a further 12 months.
A spokesman said: “Rescheduling local elections avoids the possibility of the electorate being asked to vote for councils while at the same time they are being given the opportunity to express their views on the possible abolition of those councils.
“It also avoids members potentially being elected to serve short terms.”
What changes are being consulted upon?
Currently, Somerset has three tiers of local government:
The county council (which is responsible for children’s services, adult social care, highways, rights of way and other similar duties)
The four district councils (which cover planning, environmental health, licensing and similar matters)
Town and parish councils (which cover low-level local matters such as provision of benches, bins and hanging baskets)
The government formally invited councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset in October 2020 to submit proposals for reorganisation.
Two separate proposals have been received for Somerset – One Somerset and Stronger Somerset – and both will be consulted upon.
The One Somerset proposal – backed by the county council – will see the five existing councils abolished and replaced with a single unitary authority.
This will have all powers currently shared between the county and district councils, but some responsibilities will be devolved down to town or parish level.
The Stronger Somerset proposal – backed by the four district councils – will see the five existing councils replaced with two unitary authorities representing the east and west of the county.
Will there be a referendum on these proposals?
No – voters will not be able to express their preference for either proposal in the form of a referendum.
Instead, people should give their views to the official MHCLG consultation, which runs for the next eight weeks.
The consultation asks a number of questions about each proposal, including:
Whether the proposal will provide greater value for money
Views on the proposed geography of the council
Whether the proposal will impact local police, fire and rescue, and health services
The ultimate decision on which of the two proposals (if either) will be implemented will be taken by local government secretary Robert Jenrick MP – who had promised to listen to local opinion.
He said: “I have always been clear that any restructuring of local government must be locally led and will not involve top-down solutions from government.
“Moving to unitary structures can improve an area’s local government, streamline decision-making, providing greater value for money and savings which can be invested in services, enabling better and more integrated service delivery, and establishing more sustainable and accountable local institutions.
“I am pleased that residents, businesses and service providers in Somerset will have the opportunity to have their say on which proposal, if any, will be most suitable for their area.”
What are the key dates for the next 12 months?
The official consultation will run until Monday, April 19.
After this date, the government will consider the responses and announce by the end of the year which (if either) proposal will be implemented.
If the existing system is retained, elections will be held on May 6, 2022 for county councillors, who will then serve a normal, four-year term.
If either One Somerset or Stronger Somerset is selected, elections will still take place on that date.
However, these elections will be for a new ‘shadow authority’, which will oversee the transfer of powers to the new council(s) over the following year.
These transitional arrangements will probably include staff consultations and redundancies – as happened during the merger of Taunton Deane Borough Council and West Somerset Council in 2019.
Any new council(s) can expect to be fully operational by April 2023.
There would subsequently be a review of ward or division boundaries by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE), which may lead to a reduction in the number of councillors by the following elections in April 2026.
So, will any elections be taking place this May at all?
While the county council elections have been delayed, voters will still go to the polls on May 6 to elect their new police and crime commissioner, whose election was delayed by a year due to the coronavirus.
Elections for town and parish councils will also take place on the same date.
How have local politicians reacted?
Mr Fothergill has welcomed the announcement of the consultation and has urged residents to take part.
He said: “This is a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to improve public services for everyone in Somerset.
“No more waste and duplication, no more confusion over who does what, just one strong, modern council, listening to the needs of Somerset’s residents and delivering what matters most for them.
“It is now clear that staying the same is not an option. This means a simple choice between our ambitious vision or the Stronger Somerset idea, which would see the county split in half with two rival halves competing for the same resources. They want to add additional layers of bureaucracy and keep the waste and confusion.
“I strongly encourage all residents, organisations and businesses to get behind One Somerset and make sure the government hears your voice.”
The four district council leaders have also issued statements arguing in favour of their proposal.
Sedgemoor leader Duncan McGinty – also a Conservative – said: “We need reform – 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.
“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.”
What about Somerset’s MPs?
Three of Somerset’s five MPs have already declared themselves for the One Somerset proposals.
Taunton Deane MP Rebecca Pow said: “Having one council responsible for all local government services would end the current confusion, waste and duplication of a two-tier system.
“It would build on lessons learned over the last year in dealing with the pandemic where it was clearly demonstrated that better aligning public services ultimately delivers better services and value for money, something that is important for my constituents.”
David Warburton, MP for Somerton and Frome, stated: “A single unitary authority will ensure that local people can engage directly with those making decisions on their behalf and hold them accountable.
“Precedents from elsewhere (including neighbouring Wiltshire) show that engagement with individual communities will remain an indispensable part of the new unitary authority, and I’ll continue to work with the county council and ministers to ensure these proposals reflect the best interests of all my constituents.”
Yeovil MP Marcus Fysh added: “I strongly believe that a single unitary authority to replace the county council and the four district councils in the county is the best option for the future.”
Ian Liddell-Grainger, MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, has declared his support for the Stronger Somerset proposals on numerous occasions during speeches in the House of Commons.
Speaking in December 2020, he said: “There are two plans for local government reform in Somerset.
“One of them, from the districts, is an extremely good plan and it will restore our wonderful county back to its grandeur.
“The other one, from the county council, just does not cut the mustard and is rubbish.”
Wells MP James Heappey has yet to publicly declare his support for either of the proposals.
How do I take part in the consultation?
There are three ways to take part in the consultation:
Complete the consultation online here: https://consult.communities.gov.uk/governance-reform-and-democracy/somerset
Email your views to [email protected]
Post your views to Governance Reform and Democracy, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, 2 Marsham Street, London, SW1P 4DF
All the information about the One Somerset and Stronger Somerset proposals are available via the consultation link.
All responses must reach the government by Monday, April 19 – so don’t delay.