Why do we need to change?
Our current arrangements were identified as the least effective model of local government in an independent report that was jointly commissioned and published with our district council colleagues. This compelling evidence means we need to change to provide better services and improve people’s lives.
All councils agree that we cannot go on as we are. This is the first time that such agreement has been reached. We have all published the independent report that gives clear reasons to change the way local councils are structured and work in Somerset. The report highlights where we can work better together, where we are inefficient, and also the duplication of running five different councils with five separate management teams, five sets of back office teams, five sets of contracts and so on. We believe that it would be negligent if we did not act on the findings of this report and deliver a Unitary bonus that we can then invest in frontline services for all the residents of Somerset.
Where else can I see a unitary council in action?
Unitary councils are everywhere. Just look around the borders of Somerset and you will see Dorset, Wiltshire, Bath and North East Somerset, North Somerset, Bristol, Torbay, Plymouth and Cornwall. That’s before you take into account that all London councils are unitary, as are all metropolitan councils in areas, such as Manchester and Leeds. All Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Councils are unitary, as are many towns in England, such as Swindon and Peterborough. Many counties have moved to a unitary model, such as Shropshire and Cheshire, with Buckinghamshire becoming a unitary in April 2020, and plans for similar arrangements in Northamptonshire taking shape. Somerset looks like it is missing out.
Why can’t the Districts and County agree?
All councils have agreed that the existing arrangements are not working well, and that we cannot continue without change. This is good news. It is the future shape that we disagree on. We have tried to work together before and it has not worked. Our view now is that we should not repeat previous mistakes and waste time. Abolish all councils and push for a unitary council for Somerset.
What is the process?
To start with, the Secretary of State needs to invite us to submit a business cases looking at the benefits of Unitary for Somerset. We expect this process to be complete by July 2020, and the business case submitted to government before the summer break. Then the process, timetable and decision sits with government and we await more advice on this stage.
So, is the decision made locally?
No, the decision is made by the Secretary of State and likely by Parliament. In this way you can be sure that an objective view is taken, and anything included within a business case will be verified as accurate.
When will it happen?
This depends on many factors that are yet to be determined. We would hope that the process is relatively quick. However, we would not expect any new council, if approved, becoming operational until April 2022 at the very earliest.
Do residents get a say?
Yes, public opinion is important to this proposal and Somerset County Council has pledged to carry out extensive public, business and stakeholder engagement over the spring and summer of 2020.
What will businesses think?
Businesses will find it easier to work with a single point of contact, a single council. Easier for planning issues, easier for travel issues, consistent advice.
What about strategic partners like the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP)?
The LEP will continue as before, working with local councils and businesses in Somerset and Devon, and making the case to government for more business facing investment in the Heart of the South West.
I think we should have one county based on the Cricket team, including Bath and Weston-Super-Mare
We are very proud of our heritage and of the fact that we are a big part of the ceremonial county of Somerset. However, our proposal will not revisit decisions made previously, and will not therefore include the reunification of the old ceremonial county. Indeed, our friends in the two existing Somerset unitary councils have indicated that they do not wish to participate in this process.
How much money will it save?
The initial independent report suggested that savings in the region of over £40m a year are achievable. We believe that this may be high, given experiences elsewhere in the country with similar arrangements. However, we would expect annual savings of around £20m to 25m to reinvest in front line services. All of this will be confirmed in our business case that will be completed by July 2020.
How much money will it cost?
We know that changes will cost money to implement in the short-term, but these initial costs will be repaid by savings very quickly. The initial report suggested that total costs could be £80m. We believe that this is very high, given experiences elsewhere in the country with similar arrangements. The real figure will be confirmed in our business case that will be completed by July 2020.
Will there be job losses if a new unitary council replaces existing councils?
With five chief executives, five sets of directors and management teams, five sets of back office staffing, there is a lot of duplication. Many jobs disappear each year anyway across the councils, through natural wastage and any unitary proposal will keep running ALL the services that currently exist. So, there will be an impact on senior level, management and back office positions in order to protect frontline services.
Will I notice any difference in services?
On day one, probably not, in the longer term we would expect you to see an improvement in services. By delivering a Unitary bonus, we would look to boost spending in areas important to our local communities.
What is the role of Parish, Town and City Councils?
Our proposal includes an enhanced role for local councils working closely with the Unitary Council. Delivering as many services as possible as locally as possible, in tune with the needs of our towns and other communities is key to our unitary proposal. We will work with these councils to see what they would like to see from a Unitary Council.
Is this politically driven?
It is about providing better services, being as cost effective as possible and eliminating duplication and waste. This is good business sense, good common sense and good for our residents. However, councils are political organisations and strong political debate on your behalf is essential in coming to the right conclusion.
Will anyone listen if I have a concern or an opinion?
Yes, we certainly will. There will be a real mix of opinion and we pledge to listen to and consider it all. Please come along to our roadshows (dates to be announced shortly). In due course we will be sharing our proposals. We will be delighted to hear your views, whether or not you support them and we will make it easy for you to make your views known. After all, the more we learn from you the better our proposals will be. Watch this space for more opportunities to participate.
How do I find out more information?
As the work develops, Somerset County Council have pledged to keep you up-to-date and to publish any material that we generate. You can access this by visiting our dedicated microsite at onesomerset.org.uk We are also planning a series of public engagement events, which will be coming to a town near you soon. These are currently being planned and watch the website for more news.