The debate about a unitary council or councils in Somerset.
If it goes ahead, local government reorganisation (LGR) in Somerset, will have a massive impact on the way public services are delivered for years to come. There is an opportunity to influence this process now and thereby help to shape these services. Whatever form LGR takes, the role of the parish sector and local communities should be embedded into new structures.
Early in 2020, Somerset Association of Local Councils (SALC), Society of Local Council Clerks (SLCC), Frome Town Council and Glastonbury Town Council, commissioned Mel Usher to explore lessons learnt from other unitary projects from the perspective of parish councils and to recommend a future role that they could play in meeting the needs of the community. The Final Report.
LGR provides a once in a generation opportunity to rethink local government service provision in Somerset. As Usher’s report says, “any real gains from LGR will come from rethinking how multiple community issues are addressed in the future. If the same services and functions end up being managed in the same way with the same outcomes then a real opportunity will be missed. And that’s where parishes can help (para 5.2)”.
Bridgwater Town Council supports the seven recommendations that any new arrangement in Somerset should adopt.
The LGR process
There are three stages in moving from the current arrangement in Somerset. First, principal councils will submit a business case for re-organising local government to the Secretary of State.
Somerset County Council has a Business Plan proposing one new unitary based on the current county boundary. They have submitted this to Government. You can view the ‘One Somerset’ business case website for more information.
The four district councils have jointly released and voted on their own business case for two unitary councils. The ‘Stronger Somerset’ business case can be viewed on the Stronger Somerset website.
Second, the Secretary of State will then “be minded” to approve one or none of the Business Plans submitted. Once one has been chosen, a more detailed transition plan will be drafted. This will be a large and expensive process and probably involve many heated discussions between the county and districts and, we expect, the parish sector.
If the preferred plan meets with Ministerial approval for a second time, the third stage will start with a transitional period with a ‘shadow authority’ and end with the new unitary council(s) going live and the abolishing of the existing county and district councils. There will be the need for election of unitary councillors. Both business cases indicate a timetable indicates that these would be held in April 2022, although this is a moving target.