Earlier this year the 4 districts of Somerset along with the county council put out a statement that local government re-organisation had to come and they would work together to decide whether or not a Unitary position would be suitable for Somerset and if so in what format. However these discussions went on the back burner when the Covid emergency burst on the scene and became the focus of all Local Authorities. Now, Somerset County Council has broken ranks and is making its case for a ONE SOMERSET unitary authority with the submission of a business plan by the end of July at the same time the united front of the District Councils is also shaking as 3 of the 4 districts are refusing to engage ‘at this time’ whilst South Somerset is looking at ‘other options’ and are engaging with Town and Parish Councils. While Sedgemoor District Council has stated categorically that it won’t engage with this debate, at it’s first public ‘online’ meeting, Bridgwater Town Council not only agreed that it WOULD engage but it made the case for a third way based on more power at the most local levels by backing a joint position put forward by towns and parishes across Somerset.
Town Council Leader Brian Smedley said “Bridgwater Town Council agrees that it is not the right time to be looking at this project but at the same time we cannot refuse to engage otherwise the important third position will be overlooked and we believe that it is the most important part of any local government reform.”
At the Town Council meeting of 18th June Bridgwater Town Council voted 9-5 to support the basic position laid out in the 7 recommendations from SALC which switches the focus to Town and Parish council level. The 5 Tories voted against the proposal. SALC is the Somerset Association of Local Councils which represents the 260 Town and Parish Councils across Somerset.
The 7 SALC Recommendations
- We support the idea of a Charter for Somerset that includes rights and responsibilities, mutual expectations and identifies new possibilities, procedures, and ways of working.
- We insist that Towns and Parishes are involved in determining the methodology behind the devolution of assets, how services and functions are to be transferred.
- We support the principle of Localism as the best philosophy to address the significance of local solutions, local innovations and local community groups in tackling isolation, vulnerability, environmental concerns and the local economy.
- We believe that the 278 parishes in Somerset will have to be communicated with and that the best method for this is to cluster parishes in Community Networks.
- We recognise the need for any new unitary to have a dedicated and supported senior staff presence based locally in each Community Network.
- We agree that to build trust, a 5 year joint cultural and development programme for staff and members be established to create a unique road map showing genuine possibilities for greater engagement, localism, resilience and innovative solutions.
- We agree that parishes need to work together to run a concerted campaign, establish a dedicated steering group of representative councils and find sufficient resources to ensure that their voices are heard loud and clear in the run up to, implementation and subsequent working of the new unitary.
The Bridgwater Position
Cllr Smedley added “The Bridgwater Position specifically focuses on the proposed role of the Local Community Networks which accepts a strategic body for regionwide services but devolves power to the correct sized local authorities based on smaller town and parish clusters rather than the current ‘district’ structures. This allows people to see their council in action within their community and importantly know who it is!”
Mayor of Bridgwater Cllr Tony Heywood (Eastover,Labour) said “We can’t see Somerset County Council acting as a joined-up authority and has a record of failure at a strategic level however, this review presents an opportunity to take more responsibility locally. Locally we can do better.”
Cllr Mick Lerry (Victoria, Labour) said “We are excited by the possibility of restoring the maximum power to the most local level,- To this end we see the proposed LCN (Local Community Networks) as a way of creating local hubs for service delivery at the correct size. We recognise that whichever authority/authorities will be in place once Local Government Reform has concluded we will want greater local decision making in strong and relevant community networks. “
Cllr Kathy Pearce (Westover, Labour) said “We are worried at the speed that this is being rushed though and that this might all be about saving money and not about improving local services and democracy. We would also be concerned that the One Somerset position might just be a green light for a new unitary authority to just do statutory stuff and leave the rest to be picked up randomly.”
Cllr Leigh Redman (Hamp, Labour) said “Bridgwater Town Council would like to engage in this process and also be involved in the development of the business case. Towns and Parishes should work together.”
Cllr Glen Burrows (Eastover, Labour) said “Towns and Parishes should determine which services should be delivered, which assets should be transferred, and which resources should be managed, and which decisions should be taken where and by who and therefore effectively taking control of every element to the lowest level.”
Brian Smedley (Westover, Labour) concluded “We believe that the creation of ‘District Councils’ during the 1974 Local Government review reduced the powers of successful and progressive Borough councils, such as here in Bridgwater and the decline of towns such as ours has been as a result of those geographical changes. It’s time to look at how we take back control at the level closest to the people.”
The map below shows proposed Local Community Networks which can bring towns and parishes together in hubs to determine what they want to take responsibility for in their area and what they want to spend on it.
For a short film about the Bridgwater proposals and the Unitary debate click here
Town Councils in Somerset
You may be surprised to know that Taunton DOESN’T have a Town Council -maybe that’s something the review could take on board? However, these are the 22 current Town Councils around the county
SEDGEMOOR – Axbridge, Bridgwater, Burnham & Highbridge, North Petherton
MENDIP – Frome, Glastonbury, Shepton Mallet, Wells
SWaT – Dulverton, Minehead, Watchet, Wellington, Williton,
SOUTH SOMERSET- Bruton, Castle Cary, Chard, Crewkerne, Ilminster, Langport, Somerton, Wincanton, Yeovil