This week Somerset County Council will submit a blueprint to Government for great local public services, value for money and an end to the confusion of service delivery in the county. It will create a coherent, strong and recognisable entity and voice for our county, better able to represent it on the national stage and better able to deliver on what the people of Somerset want.
The plans will make sure that Somerset is able to play a leading role as we emerge from the effects of the pandemic, particularly in creating and attracting jobs and businesses with the long-term investment and infrastructure that we will need. The events of the last year in tackling COVID 19 have illustrated that local government has a key role to play in supporting local communities. But they’ve also shown the limitations of the current system with unnecessary boundaries, duplication and inefficiencies.
Let’s be very clear, this is not about district versus county. Indeed, the county council and the four districts are agreed on one thing; that the current two-tier structure has run its path and is no longer fit for purpose.
The proposal that we are submitting to the Secretary of State this week would create a single council for Somerset and is supported by the county council, the majority of MPs, local businesses, the Police and Crime Commissioner and, as extensive consultations have shown, a majority of people in Somerset who favour an end to confusion, duplication and the generation of savings to reinvest in frontline public services.
The alternative proposal would split the council into two small east/west unitaries, create a separate Alternative Delivery Model for children’s services, a shared services company, and an elected mayor/combined authority sitting over the top. It would replace the existing five authorities with five separate organisations. Such artificial constructs would fail to tackle the current confusion over service delivery, would not provide a sustainable financial future either in economies of scale or from the realisation of savings and would, of course, disrupt and split those services such as transport, adults’ and childrens’ care already delivered at the county level.
A single unitary model has worked well in those areas that have adopted it in recent years including Cornwall, Wiltshire, Durham and Buckinghamshire. It is favoured by partners in the police, probation and health service who care little about local government boundaries. It would of course, with our partners, allow us to join up, design and deliver services that reflect the needs of our communities and people, unrestricted by artificial boundaries.
It would also deliver a boost to local democracy by creating a network of local community networks working with local parish and town councils at the heart of our neighbourhoods and communities. People identify with their local village or town and their county and want to see services delivered at those levels. And that’s what the One Somerset proposal would give them.
A single council for Somerset is the best option for our county. On every test, it delivers over the alternative five organisation approach. It meets the Government’s criteria, commanding strong support from local communities and residents, and would create a blueprint for better services, better value for money, reduced bureaucracy and a strong coherent entity that Somerset needs as we recover from the events of 2020. We are ready to deliver this vision.
Cllr David Fothergill is the Leader of Somerset County Council