Cllr Duncan McGinty is the Leader of Sedgemoor District Council.
If you’re a Conservative Home reader who doesn’t live in Somerset, you may be tempted to look away now. You may consider this a little local dispute between Conservative councillors, unworthy of your attention. But you’d be wrong. The competing bids for local government reorganisation in Somerset are about far more than boundaries and bureaucrats – they speak to what modern Conservatism means for local communities.
My colleague Faye Purbrick, a Conservative Somerset county councillor, set out the county council case for the bid known as ‘One Somerset’ here. We agree on many things: we share a love of the ancient county of Somerset, and its traditions, landscape, and people; we concur that the current two-tier system, with one county council and district councils underneath, is no longer an acceptable way to deliver services; we want what is best for all the people of Somerset, from the hoteliers of Minehead to the aerospace engineers of Yeovil.
Where we differ is on the question of ambition. Our bid – Stronger Somerset – is ambitious for Somerset. Crucially, it is imbued with Conservative values, especially on the questions of economic growth, increasing revenues, and reducing the need for government handouts.
Under our proposals, people living throughout the county would have one seamless level of unitary government. Importantly, though, our bid recognises that there are marked economic differences between the western and eastern parts of Somerset. We cannot ignore these differences, nor wish them away, nor impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution from on-high.
Instead, our Stronger Somerset bid proposes a smarter solution: we want two unitary authorities, taking into account, not ignoring, regional differences within Somerset. The areas covered by Sedgemoor and Somerset West and Taunton to the west, and Mendip and South Somerset to the east form distinct sub-regions, with different local economies. For example, the economies of Glastonbury, Wells, and Yeovil are very different to Minehead, Bridgwater, and Taunton.
A western Somerset unitary would be able to focus on economic opportunities from Hinkley Point, and tourism to our beautiful coastline, once the pandemic is beaten. The eastern unitary would be able to capitalise on aerospace and hi-tech manufacturing around Yeovil. By recognising the realities of the local economy, each unitary would be able to play to its strengths and level up local communities.
A remote county-level authority would risk excluding communities from wealth, growth, and new opportunities, and that would be a tragedy. We believe that our Stronger Somerset bid will deliver the post-pandemic growth that means we become a net contributor to the Exchequer, paying our own way, and contributing to UK Plc. You don’t get much more Conservative than that. Using the Treasury model, we calculate £204 million of financial benefits resulting from our proposal, £35 million more than the other one.
Our proposal takes Somerset from five councils, with their duplicated costs, to two. And local people will pay their Council Tax to one Somerset council and receive services from one Somerset Council. Simpler, more efficient, cheaper. No wonder that the Stronger Somerset bid is more popular with local people. The latest Ipsos Mori poll shows clear support for Stronger Somerset over all other possibilities.
The other bid has resorted to some bizarre name-calling about our ambitious plans. For example, the claim that Stronger Somerset involves a ‘Berlin Wall’ across the county. That wins the prize for Trumpian spin, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Of course, there will be no physical divide between east and west Somerset, any more than there is between east and west Sussex or the east and west Midlands. The only place the ‘Berlin Wall across Somerset’ exists is in the minds of the spin doctors who concocted it to scare people. Under the Stronger Somerset plans, people will still proudly live in Somerset, regardless of the name of the local authority providing their services.
Indeed, our Stronger Somerset bid goes further in recognising and bolstering this traditional county identity. Unlike the other bid, we are ambitious that our proposal sets us on a path to a combined authority for Somerset as part of a package of real devolution to local people. This could encapsulate the borders, not just the current administrative unit, but the traditional historic borders of Somerset. The other bid, with its lack of ambition, is silent on the devolution agenda.
The most important thing is that we deliver value-for-money services to local people. That’s the bedrock of successful Conservative local government. That’s why we propose innovative cost-efficient services such as a Community-Interest Company (CIC) under a single Director of Children’s Services delivering across both unitary council areas. We have seen how this works well in Kingston-upon-Thames and Richmond councils. For adult social care, what will work best is adult services run by each unitary. The point is that we can flexible, responsive and innovative.
We mustn’t lose sight of the democratic element. The other bid promises all kinds of baubles to town and parish councils, but then caveats it with the weasel words ‘if appropriate’. We all know what that means. What Stronger Somerset offers instead is a real partnership with town and parish councils, backed by a new Charter of rights, to reverse decades of over-centralisation.
We are ambitious for Somerset, and we embrace the ways it will change. We understand that post-pandemic and with the tech revolution, more households and businesses will want to move away from cities, and more British people will want to enjoy the British seaside and countryside instead of flying abroad. That means that Somerset’s population will grow, something the other ‘off-the-shelf’ bid fails to acknowledge.
We believe that Stronger Somerset delivers better services, more democracy, stronger regional identity, and best of all it delivers a Somerset that pays its way, like London or the South East. Why create ‘one Somerset’ that ends up weaker, poorer and divided, when we could be united, prosperous and stronger?