Cllr Duncan McGinty is the Leader of Sedgemoor District Council.
We are now at the end of a long journey to decide what kind of local government we want in Somerset. It boils down to whether there should be a unitary authority covering most of Somerset (the ‘One Somerset’ proposal), or two unitary authorities covering the east and west of the county, reflecting local needs, economies and geography (‘the Stronger Somerset’ proposal).
When given the chance to have their say over the years, the people of Somerset have made their views very clear. In 2007, a referendum resulted in 82 per cent voting against a single unitary council, and the then-Secretary of State rejected the idea. A MORI poll late last year showed a single unitary was the last option people wanted – and our recent referendum showed a clear majority for a Stronger Somerset.
The results showed that 65.3 per cent wanted two unitaries delivering services close to the communities of Eastern and Western Somerset. Just 34.7 per cent supported the other scheme. With a turnout of over 111,000, more people in Somerset voted in this poll than in the recent Police and Crime Commissioner elections. This latest result is no one-off. There is consistent, longstanding, and deeply-felt opposition, to a County Council unitary, expressed several times over many years. Each time the people of Somerset are asked, they repeat exactly the same answer. They do not want a single County Council unitary.
The Government’s goal in moving towards unitary authorities is to deliver better services more efficiently, with savings to the taxpayer. As a Conservative, I fully support this goal, which is why I support the Stronger Somerset proposal. On this model, Somerset is set to become a net contributor to the Exchequer rather than a drain on the nation’s resources. We stand ready to play our part in the ‘levelling up’ agenda, delivering a key plank of the Conservative Party manifesto.
However, there is another criterion which the Government says is vital: that the proposal adopted must ‘command a good deal of local support in the round’. As a democrat, I fully support this goal too. We want the new structures to succeed, and a broad base of local support is the best foundation for success.
Somerset has so many strengths, from its beautiful countryside and coastline, to its vibrant towns and villages, to its innovative businesses, schools and colleges, to its brilliant and resilient people. But for too long the old county council has been a drag on our success. When the Government offered local people the chance for something new, different, and better, we leapt at the opportunity. When the options were presented, we chose two unitarities to reflect our own special geographical and economic circumstances, and we did so loudly and clearly.
Now, at the final stage of the journey, all we are waiting for is the decision of the Secretary of State. We are fortunate that he is both a Conservative, and a democrat, and will listen to the voice of local people. The People’s Government will listen to the people. Then the hard work begins.