The Liberal Democrat Group at Somerset County Council has released the following statement in response to the Conservative Leader of the Council’s statement of intent to actively pursue the creation of a Unitary Authority for Somerset.
Jane Lock, Leader of the Liberal Democrat group at Somerset County Council, said today: “We are not opposed to a change in the way Council services are delivered for the residents of Somerset.… if they can be provided in a better, more cost-effective way.
“However, we have a number of major concerns – not least the estimated cost efficiencies that will be achieved, how the County Council proposes to make use of District Council reserves and assets to shore up its own budget weaknesses, the fact that this will effectively be a hostile, undemocratic takeover of public services and the environmental impact of centralising services.”
Cllr Fothergill’s statement follows many months of work by external consultants, commissioned by the County Council, exploring different ways of delivering services for the residents of Somerset.
“The main elements of the report, by London-based Ignite Consulting Ltd, are now eighteen months old,” says Cllr Lock. “The extended work includes a range of alternative approaches with some vague estimates of costs and potential savings that may well prove over-optimistic.”
The Liberal Democrats are also concerned about the undemocratic way in which the Conservatives are seeking to create a unitary authority.
“This is a major change in which public services are overseen and delivered,” says Cllr Lock. What say will the people of Somerset have in this decision? Certainly, there is no evidence of a mandate: the last time a poll was undertaken, in 2007, 82% of residents voted against the proposed change to a Unitary authority.
“Liberal Democrats on SCC do not believe that a ‘hostile takeover’ of local services by the Conservatives at County Hall will achieve positive outcomes and we are concerned that this action demonstrates the kind of toxic culture that currently prevails there.”
With regard to the response from the four District Councils in Somerset (Somerset West & Taunton, Sedgemoor, Mendip and South Somerset), Cllr Lock said: “We appreciate that the District Councils are already committed to providing their services differently, working together on services such as Building Control, Legal and other back office functions.
“We believe the Districts to be closer to the communities they serve, unlike the increasingly remote County Council which has had to reduce its expenditure by nearly a third over the past ten years.”
Cllr Lock also raises concerns about how a new Unitary Authority would use District Authority assets to support the increasing demand for adult social care and children’s services.
“The last two years have been challenging in the extreme, with Somerset featured in lists of the most vulnerable Councils in England. While the County Council has been busy escaping bankruptcy by selling the County’s assets and using every accountancy trick in the book, the Districts have been able to keep their services intact.
“Part of the District Councils’ strategy has been to invest in a number of commercial opportunities, with a view to securing additional income to support local services. We can only presume that the Leader of Somerset County Council has in mind the acquisition of District Council reserves and commercial investments, to use in bolstering the County Council’s still vulnerable financial position.”
Finally, says Cllr Lock, her party has major concerns about the environmental impact of any centralisation of service.
“Currently, a huge range of local services in Somerset are managed and delivered locally – all that will change if services are centralised and run from Taunton.
“The County Council is currently spending £10million on refurbishing the main office block at County Hall. This suggests that SCC Conservatives intend their proposed new Council to stay in Taunton, creating a more remote service with yet more people driving from all over Somerset to Taunton, just at the time all Councils have declared a Climate Emergency.
“This is hardly enlightened thinking.
“We totally recognise the extent of the financial crisis Somerset County Council continues to face, albeit these are problems that are largely of their own making, and that innovative solutions need to be found. But the Leader of the Council needs to reach out to all the stakeholders – including district councils and other parties – to make this a collaborative approach and to provide reassurances that whatever solution is arrived at will best meet the needs of local people.
“Driving changes through without a partnership approach is not a long-term solution – it’s no exaggeration to say that local democracy is at stake here.”