Somerset's new local community networks branded "talking shops"
By Daniel Mumby - Local Democracy Reporter
1st Feb 2023 | Local News
New organisations designed to bring big decisions closer to the people of Somerset have been branded "talking shops" by councillors.
Somerset County Council and the four district councils – Mendip, Sedgemoor, Somerset West & Taunton and South Somerset – will all officially cease to exist on April 1, being replaced by the new unitary Somerset Council.
As part of the transition period, 18 new local community networks (LCNs) will be created for £300,000, bringing elected councillors, public services and voluntary organisations together to shape local decisions.
But several councillors have claimed the new LCNs will not be a useful exercise, since they will lack the power to approve planning applications, grant licences or provide grants to local organisations.
The LCNs will be named and comprised as follows:
- Exmoor: the entire Dulverton and Exmoor division, including Brompton Regis, Porlock, Selworthy and the outskirts of Minehead
- Frome: the town of Frome and surrounding villages, including Beckington, Mells, Norton St. Philip, Nunney and Rode
- Shepton: Shepton Mallet and nearby villages – including Chilcompton, East Pennard, Evercreech, Leigh-upon-Mendip and Pilton
- Wells & Rural: Wells and the surrounding villages, such as Emborough, Godney, Priddy, Wookey and Westbury-sub-Mendip
- Cheddar & Axbridge: Axbridge and Cheddar along with the neighbouring villages – including Mark, Shipham and Wedmore
- Burnham: Burnham-on-Sea and Highbridge, plus the surrounding villages – including Berrow, Brean, Brent Knoll, Puriton, West Huntspill and Woolavington
- Taunton: Taunton and several villages to the north, west and south – including Bishop's Lydeard, Cothelstone, Cotford St. Luke, Norton Fitzwarren and Trull
- Bridgwater: Bridgwater on its own
- Yeovil: Yeovil and the surrounding villages, including Chilthorne Domer, East Coker, Ilchester, Marston Magna, Mudford, Stoke-sub-Hamdon, Tintinhull and West Coker
- Wincanton: the towns of Bruton, Castle Cary and Wincanton, plus numerous villages within or near the Blackmore Vale – including Henstridge, Milborne Port, Sparkford and Templecombe
- Crewkerne & Ilminster: the two towns plus the villages of Cricket St. Thomas, Donyatt, East Chinnock, Haselbury Plucknett, Norton-sub-Hamdon and South Petherton
- Wellington & Wiveliscombe: Wellington and Wiveliscombe along with the neighbouring villages, including Bradford-on-Tone, Milverton, Oake and West Buckland
- Minehead & Watchet: Minehead and Watchet plus the surrounding villages, including East Quantoxhead, Old Cleeve, West Quantoxhead and Williton
- Dowsborough: Villages to the west of Bridgwater, including Cannington, Kilve, Nether Stowey, Over Stowey, Stogursey and Wembdon
- Hestercombe: North Petherton and the villages north-east of Taunton, including Cheddon Fitzpaine, Creech St. Michael, Kingston St. Mary and West Monkton
- Levels & Moors: Somerton and Langport plus the surrounding villages, including Curry Rivel and Martock
- Avalon & Poldens: Glastonbury and the neigbouring villages, including Bawdrip, Keinton Mandeville, Meare, Shapwick, Street and West Pennard
- Chard & Blackdowns: Chard and the surrounding villages, including Combe St. Nicholas, Corfe, Hatch Beauchamp and Tatworth
Each LCN will comprise the elected unitary councillor(s) for the local division(s), as well as city, town or parish councillors, representatives from the NHS, police and fire services, and members of local churches, business or trade groups and voluntary organisations.
LCNs will meet at least six times a year and will be able to share ideas on how to deliver services, collaborate to agree local priorities for funding, draw up plans for how services may be delivered in the future, and escalate request to the council's executive.
However, LCNs will not be able to approve or reject applications, make decisions on licenses, scrutinise or challenge decisions made by the executive or full council, or – at least in the first 12 months – be able to award grants to local organisations.
Numerous councillors expressed their concerns about the LCNs when the county council's constitution and governance committee met in Taunton on Monday (January 30).
Councillor Barry Clarke (Conservative, Mendip Central & East) said: "It's important we get this membership [issue] right, and we get it done quickly.
"The fact that the executive can overturn their decisions – it doesn't mean to me that the LCNs have a lot of teeth."
The council has budgeted £300,000 to cover the administrative costs of running the LCNs in the first year – around a third of what had originally been requested by executive members.
Councillor Martin Wale (Conservative, Chard North) said: "The £300,000 allocated for this scheme is for officers' administration. How will things like community grants be funded? Is that another pot somewhere?
"Give them something to work on or they're going to become a talking shop.
"If you don't have victories or outcomes you can report, you're going to dwindle away."
Councillor Mandy Chilcott (Conservative, Minehead) concurred: "We need to be listening to our residents and influencing the decisions the council makes We need to move to that as quick as possible."
Councillor Leigh Redman (Labour, Bridgwater North & Central) added: "The best decisions are taken at the closest point to where the impact will be."
Other councillors said LCNs could drum up significant community activity if each organisation put a robust action plan in place.
Councillor Helen Kay (Green, Frome East) said: "I don't think just being a talking shop is a bad thing. If you've got a plan and are trying to move things forward, that will bring people in."
Councillor Steven Puglsey (Conservative, Dulverton & Exmoor) added: "This is a work in progress. Let's recognise that we're not setting something in stone now."
Councillor Sue Osborne (Conservative, Ilminster) said some of her constituents were unhappy about how the LCN boundaries had been drawn following the public consultation.
She said: "I know that some parishes are not too happy about where they've been placed – one of my parishes in the Ilminster division has been placed in the Chard LCN, and it has nothing in common with Chard."
Councillor Val Keitch, who represents the same division, responded: "We will talk to them and they may well get moved. Ashill is an anomaly."
The proposals will come before the full council for approval in February.