Background information, FAQ's and Myth-busting What is One Somerset?

The Future of Local Government in Somerset

For more than two years the Leaders and Chief Executives of all Somerset’s five local authorities have been discussing the future shape of local government in the county.

The Leader of Somerset County Council, Councillor David Fothergill, has underlined his view that One Somerset – a single, Unitary Authority – is the best way forward.

Frequently asked questions

Why do we need to change?
All the Councils agree on one thing – the current way of working must change. It is wasteful, costs too much and all the headquarters buildings are remote and difficult for people to get to.

A single Authority will remove the waste, cut costs and join up with smaller parish, town and city councils so it is easier for people to take part in the big decisions that matter in their local communities – things like setting parking charges, where to build new houses, sites for mobile phone masts and improving their local roads.

Why now?
We can’t go on with the current level of waste and inefficiency. Running five different councils with five separate management teams, five sets of back office teams, five sets of contracts, five call centres – it is duplication and wasteful.

A single Authority will keep all the current services running, but it will remove this duplication – why have five management teams when you could have one? Why have five call centres when you can have one? Why have five back office teams when you could have one? It just makes sense to change.

Where else can I see a single unitary council in action?
Single 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. And there are loads of others around the country.

A single Authority for Somerset will mean we will have a powerful voice when lobbying government for more funding for our residents. All the unitaries around us get extra money for major projects like roads – Somerset must not be left behind.

How does changing to Unitary work?
The decision is made by Government, not by the local councils. The Government sets out its own tests including the size of the unitary authority and asks if important partners support the idea. All five councils would then be scrapped, and a new Authority created with new councillors elected.

A single Authority for Somerset ticks off the boxes for the Government’s own tests. It is the right size, has the buy-in from key partners like the Police and Crime Commissioner.

Why can’t the Districts and County agree?
All the Councils agree on one thing – the current way of working must change. But they can’t agree on the next step. A single Authority for Somerset is widely accepted as the right step but sometimes the right decision needs community leaders to make brave and difficult choices.

Can I make a comment?
Yes, public opinion is important to this proposal. We have already started getting your views and will carry on until the autumn.

A single Authority for Somerset will give everyone the chance to have their say. We are sending a survey form to every household through the Your Somerset newspaper. It is freepost so costs nothing to fill in and send back. You can also fill in the survey on this website or use the contact form to ask a question.

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 is too high, and we don’t want to exaggerate so have carried out our own research.

We believe that a single Authority for Somerset will save £18.5m in the first year – and each and every year after that. This is money which can be reinvested into vital frontline services in your neighbourhood. We also know there will be costs in setting up the Authority – we estimate this will be a one off cost of £16.5m – a massive saving that we can spend on better services for you. We want to hear from you about where you think this unitary dividend should be spent – perhaps climate change, better transport, more social housing? Take part in our survey here or fill in our freepost survey in the Your Somerset newspaper – it will cost you nothing and your voice will be heard.

How will having one single council help improve local decision making?
At the moment key decisions which affect you are made in remote district and county council offices. The One Somerset model will end this by establishing 15 to 20 new Local Community Networks (LCNs) in every corner of Somerset to give local people the chance to shape their own communities. These will have real constitutional powers to scrutinise, impact and take decisions. There will also be an enhanced role for town, parish and district councils.

How many jobs will be lost through the process of forming a new single council?
The business case has identified a need for around 340 fewer posts; these may include roles such as executives, senior managers and some duplicated back-office functions. There will also be 200 fewer councillors in the new organisation.

This is well within the current annual staff turnover level of the Somerset councils, so any redundancies required would be managed through a targeted, voluntary approach. Compulsory redundancies would be kept to a minimum and redeployment and retraining for alternative roles would be prioritised. Working closely with trade union colleagues and other staff groups will enable this.

Why are you doing this when you should be focused on Covid-19?
Covid-19 remains our number one priority. Every day, 24-7. SCC has been rightly praised for the leading role it has taken alongside the NHS to combat Covid-19. But all councils across Somerset have been able to progress with other work too and for SCC that includes looking ahead too. The Government’s White Paper on devolution coming this autumn is expected to encourage more unitaries to help with the nation’s recovery from Covid-19. We need to ensure Somerset does not miss out.

Myth-busting

“New unitary councils never deliver the savings promised”
Unitary councils have a great record on delivering promised savings. Our detailed business case will spell out exactly where these savings will be found. In some instances, savings have exceeded forecasts – we are confident that will be the case here in Somerset too.

“Somerset County Council is only doing this to get more money for its own services”
Somerset County Council has just published its annual report with incredibly healthy finances. Savings reserves are high, and costs have been managed to within budget. In addition, some income dependant District Councils are really feeling the financial pinch following the unprecedented Covid19 pandemic and the County Council has already offered to assist with their ongoing cash flow challenges.

“This proposal will lead to more services being run out of Taunton”
At the moment, county and district council services are run from remote headquarters buildings in Taunton, Bridgwater, Shepton Mallet and out-of-town Yeovil. A single council for Somerset proposes ultra-local community involvement in decisions, with parish, town and city councils having more of a say and will free up funding for local people and local needs. It’s interesting to note that more Somerset County Council staff work in each district than the district councils themselves employ – not many people know that!

A single council will be too big”
A single council in Somerset would be similar in size to the many other county unitaries across the country and our neighbours Dorset and Wiltshire. The proposal for One Somerset is also the only option which meets the government criteria which states that any new unitary authority must be larger than 300-400,000 people. With a population of 560,000 it would not be possible to split Somerset into two unitaries. We will ensure decision making remains local using the LCN model set out above.

“The savings are aspirational and won’t be delivered”
The savings of £18.5m each and every year are consistent with the business case levels made by other county unitaries (Cornwall, Wiltshire, Dorset, Buckinghamshire). These include only the initial savings and not the significant savings of many millions pounds we believe is possible over the coming years.

“The costs of setting up a single council will be much higher”
The costs have been developed with experts from outside the council and are consistent with other unitaries formed from county and district councils.

“There will be a democratic deficit with less councillors”
The One Somerset model will remove an unnecessary layer of government and reduce the number of councillors, some of whom are both county and district councillors. There will still be similar levels of electors per elected member as in other unitary counties (4,302 electors per member).