Cllr Faye Purbrick is the Cabinet Member for Local Government Reorganisation and Transformation on Somerset County Council
On March 18th 2022, the statutory change orders (SCO) that represent the final piece of the puzzle in creating a new unitary council for Somerset passed through the House of Commons and the House of Lords. With the legal boxes ticked, Somerset (along with colleagues in North Yorkshire and Cumbria) will see local government structures from 1974 fall away on the 1st April 2023 as we make a once in a generation step change in the way that services are delivered and decisions made across our county. Some may ask “what’s the big deal?”; others will have been living in unitary areas for years and will not see what the fuss is about – but for us, in Somerset, 2023 marks a new beginning.
It aligns with government policy and ambition around levelling up (West Somerset was the second-lowest area for social mobility when opportunity areas were rolled out last decade), builds on the opportunities of devolution (enabling economic development and inward investment to be driven from the heart of Somerset, not the heart of government) building on the successes of Hinkley C and the Gravity Smart Campus; and it provides a platform for the whole area to build back better as we recover from the pandemic with our communities at the heart of decisions, delivery, and ambition.
A 2019 report titled The Future of Local Government in Somerset (FOLGIS) highlighted key challenges for the county: challenges for disadvantaged children; an underperforming economy marred by high housing costs; poor connectivity and low productivity, skills and wages; environmental challenges from flooding to the drive to carbon-neutral; education, housing and wellbeing challenges for young adults; and a growing older population with health, care, and isolation issues. Now most councillors I know across the country will say they face the same challenges in their area; ever more so as we slowly emerge from the COVID pandemic – but what Somerset had before it was a solution. A solution that could free-up millions of pounds to invest in frontline services and improvements that could work to address these challenges. A solution that could bring services and support together in a way that was logical for residents and businesses, not civil servants, starting from a place of what is possible, not what have we always done. And finally, a solution that could build on the strengths of our communities that had become so apparent during COVID and support those communities in a way that best meets their needs, their ambitions, and their resources. Not a one size fits all, but a one council solution that was large enough to manage strategically, whilst being hyper-local to adapt to community needs.
When we sat down in February 2020 to build our case for a new Somerset, our communities were at the heart of our ambition. Addressing those challenges identified in FOLGIS was essential but we knew it was time to look at things differently. Looking at colleagues who have preceded us on the journey from two-tier to unitary, a number of opportunities and risks became apparent, but the biggest opportunity lay in an ability to take a county-wide ambition and strategy and deliver it in the right way, with the right priorities in our communities. We saw amazing examples of this work in other counties, known as Area Boards in Wiltshire and Community Networks in Cornwall – we weren’t looking to reinvent the wheel, but we were going to customise it, for Somerset, for our community needs and for the best possible solution to deliver levelling up across our county.
We called these utopian entities Local Community Networks (LCNs). And, in the best examples of doing what it says on the tin, these were imagined to be networks of communities across Somerset bundled into local groups. These LCNs will remain part of the unitary council but be spread out across the county in communities, driving the conversation about what a place needs and drawing on the services of the council alongside town and parish councils, health, education, police, and voluntary sector partners. They will act as a voice for the community into these organisations and a conduit for support, services, and enablement back into those communities to address the wider FOLGIS challenges and their local nuances.
Some remain uncomfortable that, with 12 months to go until the new council is formed, these LCNs are not fully formed and mandated. For me, this is the essence of them. When we were writing the business case for a unitary Somerset, it was clear that we must work together to address the challenges and opportunities ahead. I ask you this: if a community voice is key is shaping and delivering services in a new council, how can that voice not be a part of shaping how these LCNs will work? Don’t get me wrong, this is the South West not the wild west, so there are clear principals and a vision for what they will deliver, as I’m often heard to say “it’s in the business case”, but their boundaries and operating models will be set in conjunction with the people of Somerset.
Our new advisory board are already starting to help that shape and ambition. And no, the advisory board is not just another group of councillors tasked to find solutions – it’s open to everyone from our partners in the voluntary sector, health, education, police, town and parish councils and every business and member of the public in Somerset – all views are valid, all views are welcome, and I invite anyone from Somerset reading this piece to get involved with shaping the future of our Somerset Council. There is no doubt that there are challenges to be faced in the coming decade; there is no doubt that there are amazing opportunities for our county to drive our ambition and level up across Somerset; and there is no doubt that the future starts now.
Elections to town, parish, city, and the new unitary council (following a year of sitting as county councillors) take place on May 5th. All those elected will serve a five-year term overseeing and implementing the new local government structures and ambitions for Somerset. Everyone, from parish councillors to the unitary leader, has a key role to play in shaping Somerset for a generation. So, take a look at the business case, think about how you want to be involved, and step into this once in a lifetime chance to deliver real change, real vision, and real success.