Working together for the future of Somerset: A joint statement from Somerset's district councils
Joint statement from the Leaders of Mendip District Council, Sedgemoor District Council, Somerset West & Taunton Council, and South Somerset District Council:
The Leaders of Somerset's four District councils have announced they are moving forward with plans to fundamentally change the way local government works in Somerset. The plans involve unprecedented and deep rooted collaboration to deliver a better system of local Government in the county that will be more integrated, efficient and work better for communities.
Over the past 18 months, Mendip District Council, Sedgemoor District Council, Somerset West & Taunton Council and South Somerset District Council, together with Somerset County Council, have been exploring together the future options for delivering vital services and supporting communities in the county.
Change is necessary to not only deal with the financial challenges within the County Council but also to meet increasing demands on services and in particular, to deal with the big challenges facing our communities including child poverty, older people living in isolation, the climate crisis, housing and infrastructure.
Our aim therefore is not to simply cut costs. Our intention has been to find a way, through the better use of our resources and working with our residents, to sustain vital services now and for the future to help secure a better quality of life for communities in Somerset.
Following high level research into the options for change, which has been evaluated to ensure the benefits and implications of any possible changes are understood, the Leaders of the District councils have agreed a way forward for Somerset.
The District Councils of Somerset have already effected massive change successfully over the past few years to ensure efficiency and protect services in the face of unprecedented cuts in funding and growing demand.
Building on these changes, the Councils have agreed to collaborate and integrate in a number of new and innovative ways.
Reports will be delivered to each District council in early 2020 which will set a path forward for fundamental change to local government. This will include discussion with residents, businesses and partners, invited to share their views on the proposals in the following months. We want to ensure that we strengthen the voice of the communities of Somerset and devolve decision making so that the people of Somerset can take the decisions that affect their lives and their futures.
Questions and answers have been provided for a more detailed look at what is proposed.
Working together for the communities of Somerset
Why are changes to Local Government in Somerset being considered?
All the councils in Somerset recognise the need for change in local government in Somerset and committed to work together on a joint review of this.
The County Council is struggling to meet the demands on both its adult and childrens' services and has had to make cuts in important areas which have impacted on communities and, particularly, the most vulnerable in society.
The District Councils recognise that there are significant challenges in Somerset in terms of economy, the environment, supporting older and vulnerable people, the provision of affordable housing, improving social mobility and alleviating poverty. Addressing these challenges can be best achieved by the Councils working together and better engaging with our communities.
Who is involved?
Mendip District Council, Sedgemoor District Council, South Somerset District Council, and Somerset West & Taunton Council have all been part of the initial conversation with both North Somerset Council and Bath & North East Somerset Council also playing a part in the discussion. Somerset County Council has played a role in the work to date and, although it has chosen not to be part of this collaboration, it will be welcome to rejoin the process at any time.
What has happened to date?
The four District councils and Somerset County Council worked together to assess Local Government delivery in Somerset and undertake high level, preliminary research into a range of options for change. Our residents and business are at the heart of that conversation and this is about creating a system of Local Government that works more efficiently for them, and is capable of dealing with the big challenges facing Somerset.
The options for change looked at a range of scenarios for how services can be transformed in different ways of working and in some cases, different structures of local government in Somerset.
The work does not represent a business case for any of the options. The research was high level and based on limited data and some assumptions. As such, in pursuing any of the options, more detailed research is required to develop a robust business case.
Therefore, all of the financial savings and costs projected in the options report need to be treated with caution until further research and more detailed business cases are undertaken.
A consortium involving Ignite - together with Collaborate, Pixel Financial Management and De Montfort University - was selected to undertake research into this broad range of options for the future of local government in Somerset from a variety of perspectives including community benefits and financial efficiency. Following their initial research, an internal team drawn from the five councils of Somerset has been undertaking further work on the options to help finalise the research.
What does the option preferred by the Districts mean for communities?
There are a wide range of benefits which can be realised through greater collaboration between the councils.
It will entail, for example:
- One set of strategies and strategic outcomes
- Integration of leadership and management
- Shared internal support services
- Integrated teams providing support to communities as part of a joined-up approach
- A single commercial strategy to provide financial security and increased funding for projects in our region
Is this different to the creation of a unitary authority in Somerset?
Yes. The district councils do not believe a unitary council is right for Somerset because a Unitary Council would lead to:
- Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money being spent on changing structures and paying for redundancies
- Staff unable to focus on the task of delivering for communities and instead dividing attention to new structures and whether they have got a role
- A "one size fits all" approach to services, with everything centralised in Taunton and decisions not taken by local communities with the knowledge of what is best for local communities
- The running down and closing of district services to fund the endless growth in costs of adult and childrens' services
- And then, in a few years' time, there will still be financial problems and poor levels of service because the real community issues that cause demand on services have not been tackled.
There is no evidence that the unitary councils that have been created have produced the financial savings they were forecast to save and many have left a "democratic deficit" being distant from the communities they are meant to serve.
Instead, comparable savings and benefits can be achieved through efficient collaborative working and more community benefit can be achieved this way than could ever be achieved by a Unitary.
A big Unitary council, distant from communities, will not be able to deal with the big challenges facing our communities. A more collaborative and devolved approach to local services is needed if the different needs of communities from Porlock to Frome and Chard to Cheddar are to be met.
Through collaboration and integration of the councils, the time it will take to realise the benefits and financial savings is much faster with savings starting to be delivered within a year.
In contrast, the experience of other Unitary councils shows that it takes years for savings to be achieved, (typically five to ten years) if they are achieved at all.
But the Councils recognise this is also not the easy option. The Districts are committed to extensive change and reform, and there will need to be sustained, unified, determined and consistent political and senior managerial leadership to deliver the benefits.
Councils from Greater Manchester, to Oxfordshire and from the West Midlands to South Hampshire have shown that collaboration by councils can work and bring efficiencies and real improvements for communities. There is no reason why it should not work in Somerset.
The collaboration will build on the many examples of how the councils of Somerset are already working together to save cost and produce benefits for our communities.
The Districts have demonstrated that they can deliver change effectively as they have transformed how they work over the past few years. They are the best placed in Somerset to deliver the changes necessary.
How long is it going to take?
A precise timeline for the changes cannot be given at this time until the scope and details of the possible options have been agreed. In principle, the councils have agreed to work to achieving changes by 2022 and this work will start immediately, with a target of ensuring that benefits arise within the first year.
The next step will be to develop a business case for the collaborative work with public reports going before the councils in February.
There will also be extensive community consultation so residents, businesses and other stakeholders have their say and ensure the changes proposed represent the needs of different communities.
How much has the high level options review cost?
The review was taken forward as a piece of work jointly commissioned and paid for by all councils in Somerset. The cost of the work with the consortium was £167,000 split evenly between the five councils of Somerset.
Will there be a referendum?
There is no requirement to undertake a referendum should the councils be minded to propose changes to local government in Somerset. However, in taking forward the review, there is a commitment to consult with, and take account of, the views of the residents and businesses of Somerset. What form the consultation takes has not yet been agreed. All the councils, in taking forward the review, will seek to prioritise the needs and best interests of communities and place this above individual organisational interests.
The review and its findings will take account of the geography of Somerset and the diversity in quality of life and needs. Somerset CCG, other health bodies, and Avon & Somerset Police will be invited to work with and as part of the review. Stakeholder consultation groups will be established including with the town and parish councils of Somerset, whom any proposals for change will undoubtedly impact.
The councils have also jointly committed to full and effective consultation with the communities of Somerset including residents and businesses, through the review process and on the outcomes of the review.