Cllr Faye Purbrick is the Cabinet Member for Education and Transformation on Somerset County Council
Over recent months, as regular readers will be aware, the Government has been considering the future of local government in Somerset. It invited proposals for reform last December and conducted an extensive eight-week public consultation in the spring. We are delighted that the proposal for a single unitary authority in the county, One Somerset, has been selected by the Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, as the future structure and will now be formally ratified by Parliament in the coming months.
This is good news for the people of Somerset, local taxpayers, and businesses. The five existing councils, one county council and four district councils, will be replaced by a new single unitary authority serving the whole of Somerset and delivering all local government services, starting from April 2023.
The value of strong, unitary authorities to represent a local place has been widely written about, including on these pages. This new unitary council will boost both local democracy and drive innovation, delivering improved public services and local decision-making. It will join up local services, creating greater value for money and providing stronger strategic and local leadership with sustainable structures. One Somerset will free up £18.5m annually to direct toward front-line services including to Somerset’s most vulnerable. It will end the artificial and needless administrative boundaries and mean that Somerset can benefit from a single council approach that so many local authorities have already successfully adopted, including Cornwall, Buckinghamshire, and Wiltshire. During the last 18 months, in dealing with the pandemic, many services have come together to help tackle the outbreak, notably those delivered by the NHS and local government – now is the time to build on those successes.
We know from extensive consultation and conversations, that a single unitary council for Somerset is supported by a full range of stakeholders and residents, including from the NHS, police, voluntary sector, the Police and Crime Commissioner, a majority of Somerset MPs, and our business community. Indeed, many of our town and parish councils are enthused by the opportunities that a new approach in Somerset can bring and I can’t wait to work with them to make sure those ideas can become a reality that really starts to make a difference to the people of Somerset. Our residents overwhelmingly told us that they wish to end the confusion and duplication of the existing system, whilst prioritising services for our most vulnerable. A new council for Somerset will do exactly that, whilst delivering significant and tangible benefits to the entire county.
This decision means an opportunity to fundamentally enhance local decision-making and move genuine power and responsibility to local communities and their representatives. We will be creating between 15 and 20 Local Community Networks, reaching every part of the county, giving local people real power and real influence over the decisions that affect them most.
The 278 parish, city, and town councils (along with numerous parish meetings) in Somerset vary greatly in size and in the range of activity they undertake. Establishing our new council will enable innovation and look to enhance these relationships and to seek to devolve decision-making, services, and assets, in a way that benefits our communities.
Our single unitary will address the wider context around promoting economic recovery and growth across the whole county and contribute to the levelling up agenda of creating new opportunities and boosting skills, jobs, and community recovery following the pandemic. We also believe it creates the opportunity to devolve greater powers and responsibilities to address local needs and challenges. It is of course noticeable that in his first week in the job, the Prime Minister said in a speech in Manchester:
“We are going to give greater powers to council leaders and to communities. We are going to give more communities a greater say over changes to transport, housing, public services, and infrastructure that will benefit their areas and drive local growth. We want to extend devolution to the whole country so that all areas benefit from this. It should not just be the big urban areas, it should be shires too, working closely with local areas to establish solutions to local government reform.”
In his levelling up speech, the Prime Minister suggested greater powers for local communities in county areas with ‘the tools to make things happen.’ He commented:
“To do that we must take a more flexible approach to devolution in England. We need to rewrite the rulebook with new deals for the counties, and there is no reason why our great counties cannot benefit from the same powers we’ve devolved to city leaders.”
Of course, there is always resistance to change and there have been some in the county who have opposed the creation of the single unitary, notably the county’s Lib Dems, who have tried to undermine the process and will no doubt seek to challenge the Secretary of State’s decision. They opposed this to try to protect their own fiefdoms rather than putting the residents of Somerset first. For example, they spent hundreds of thousands of public monies on a poll that was fundamentally flawed, contained serious anomalies, and which seventy five percent of Somerset residents did not participate in. Coincidentally, a percentage similar to those who responded to a survey last year stating that they didn’t mind what the structure was, just that it was best placed to deliver the best services and value for money – something that Government have now judged the One Somerset proposal to do. Those involved in the mal-administered poll were warned that conducting such an exercise misunderstood the criteria for local government reform, given that it was never going to be decided on a simple show of public support but on a range of different factors based against a clear, published criteria. The same criteria used in every other area that has undergone local government reorganisation in recent years. They chose to ignore this.
It is an exciting time as we now move forward with the implementation of a single unitary authority. This means working with all of our partners in the county and the wider region, but equally importantly with local businesses and the residents we serve. This is a huge opportunity to bring radical and once in a generation change and improvement to the lives of our residents and communities. We must be ambitious, we must be innovative, and we must grasp it.