Sedgemoor District Council’s Joint Scrutiny Committee today forensically took apart the Stronger Somerset unitary case for 2 authorities as opposed to the One Somerset and passed it unanimously with a single abstention whilst adding 5 key areas of concern that needed work on to prove it wasn’t just a distant chaser as both bids hurtled towards the winning post. The Committee was chaired by Bridgwater Labour Group Leader Cllr Brian Smedley (Bridgwater Westover) who said afterwards “The Stronger Somerset case needs to be on the table alongside the One Somerset bid because it clearly offers an outcome that is closer to the communities that Local Government is meant to serve whereas the One Somerset bid is dangerously destructive to accountability, jobs and services and far too remote. However, it has to be a robust case and so members of all parties were determined to highlight the shortcomings and what needed to be done before this case is deemed fit to go to the Secretary of State.”
The business case can be found here.
The Labour position was led by Cllr Leigh Redman (Labour, Bridgwater Hamp) who said “It will be no secret to most of you that I think Somerset is too big, and too often we don’t listen to the people in our communities, and at times Somerset is its own worst enemy by taking decisions without considering those we serve. We need a council that is big enough to matter and small enough to care. However, I am concerned about the plan to introduce a Children’s Trust and how the Stronger Together business case plans to protect children and their interests in the proposed new authorities. What structure will this Trust take? ‘Arms length? Wholly owned’, ‘Employee owned’ ‘Non profit making charity? or another option? What will be the Governance procedures so that we be sure that money put into the trust will be spent where? Why is a children trust right for Somerset? And where will Education fit into all this whatever the future brings?”
Areas of Concern Scrutinised
Councillor Bill Revans (North Petherton, Lib Dem) also asked a series of probing questions listing areas of concern “Are the proposals for social care capable of delivering improved services? I’m suspicious of children’s trusts. Do the financial benefits really stack up? How will localism work? More of the same isn’t good enough in a larger authority. What is the thinking regarding Combined Authorities? A larger WECA or a Greater Somerset?”
Councillor Paul Fineran (Cheddar, Independent) asked “How will services be improved in the boundary areas like Cheddar and Ashcott which may identify with areas outside of the new Western Somerset”
Council Leader Duncan McGinty (Con, East Polden) and Chief Executive Allison Griffin alongside Corporate Director Bob Brown answered all the points, admitting where work needed doing and taking on board members concerns.
Councillor Smedley summed up “This is a spectacularly bad time to be considering local Government reorganisation. It’s as if it was a light year in an otherwise successful and uncontroversial government programme and not the middle of a global pandemic with a no deal Brexit staring us in the face. But saying ‘no! not just now, we’ve got better things to talk about ‘ doesn’t seem to be an option..as this council found out. The fact is that we’re doing this because whilst there was indeed some co-operation to start with as all Districts worked with the County on the FOLGIS report it was in fact County that broke rank and forced their own agenda on the rest of us at the expense of that common working. This is exactly why we have to now welcome the Stronger Somerset bid here today for scrutiny. If this was a genuine local government review we would be starting from the success of the Towns, the Parishes and the District’s, and investigating how any new network of authorities could be properly funded, more accountable and could share power at an even more local level with the communities that they exist to represent and not just plug the yawning chasm in the county’s Spartan treasury . It gives us the opportunity to decide exactly where best community leadership should sit. So we do have to welcome the stronger somerset model. It’s not what we,d necessarily all have wanted if we,d thought about it, but its main strength can be evidenced if it can be proved to be closer to the people and that it has the best hope of achieving much needed cross party support. Our decision today was to support the Stronger Somerset bid after much scrutiny and then slap it onto the table of government alongside the One Somerset bid as a preferred option by the councils -Towns, Parishes, Districts, that are closer to the people .”
The motion to support with 5 highlighted areas of concern was moved by Cllr Kathy Pearce (Labour, Westover) and seconded by Cllr Bill Revans (Lib Dem, North Petherton) and passed 15 -0 with 1 abstention.
Members are recommended to
1 Endorse the Business Case for the reform of local government including the creation of 2 unitary Councils within Somerset, and recommend its approval to full Council, at the next meeting on 9th September 2020.
2 Delegate authority to the Leader of the Council and the Chief Executive, in consultation with the other Somerset District Leaders and Chief Executives, to make minor amendments to the Business Case as necessary and / or appropriate, ahead of its submission to the Secretary of State.
3 Support the continuing consultation with local stakeholders, above and beyond any 2 programme of consultation that may be required by the Government in due course.
4 Note that in the best interests of the communities and residents of Sedgemoor, the Council will continue to work with colleagues across all tiers of local government and public service in Somerset.
5 Whilst the joint scrutiny committee supports the Stronger Somerset business case as a better way to meet the challenges of local government reform in Somerset than the more remote and less democratic ‘One Somerset’ position of the county council, we would wish the Executive to take into account the following considerations……
- That there is a genuine commitment to localism in this approach which is demonstrated by a clear offer of devolution of income generating services with the appropriate funding formula to town and parish level in line with the SALC principles.
- That ward boundaries be designed to be relevant and local with the smallest practical representation negotiated to avoid any democratic deficit.
- That the Governance, funding and accountability of Childrens Services and Adult Social Care are clarified to show that these proposals are capable of delivering improved public services and that in house options are not ruled out.
- That arrangements to facilitate existing provision of health and care services in neighbouring authority areas are safeguarded for residents in border areas of the new authorities
- That frontline services are protected and are democratically accountable. Recognising that maintaining and enhancing high quality services depends on skilled, motivated, rewarded and supported staff that the new authority actively recruits