A NEW unitary authority in Somerset could deliver “eye-watering” savings of “tens of millions of pounds”, the county council leader has claimed.

David Fothergill has been working with Somerset’s four district councils to see whether local government in the county should be reorganised to ensure a better and more cost-effective delivery of key services.

Mr Fothergill first announced his intention to explore the options in May 2018, with a view to a new structure being in place before the next county council elections in May 2021.

He reiterated his desire for a new authority on Wednesday (May 15) and said he would be looking to progress such proposals over the coming months.

Speaking at a full council meeting at Shire Hall in Taunton, Mr Fothergill said: “The recent district elections have brought significant change.

“We can achieve a lot more by working together.

“I am still convinced that unitary is absolutely the right way to go.

“I will seek to meet new and existing council leaders over the coming days and weeks to see if this can be progressed.

“The potential savings are in the tens of millions of pounds – they are eye-watering.

“We owe it to the people of Somerset to investigate these possibilities.”

The local elections saw the Conservatives lose control of three of Somerset’s district councils, with Mendip moving to no overall control and the new Somerset West and Taunton Council becoming governed by the Liberal Democrats.

The Lib Dems also increased their majority in South Somerset, while the Conservatives’ majority in Sedgemoor was reduced.

Mr Fothergill said after Wednesday’s meeting he remained confident that the new council leaders could agree on a way forward.

He said: “I think I was fairly confident before the elections, but where we’re moving to now is that I need to understand where the new leaders are at, and whether they want to be involved in this debate, and where they want to take it from here.

“It’s very difficult when you’ve had the work done and the report produced under one set of leaders, and now you’ve got a new set of leaders.

“I think we’ve got to give them time to understand what’s in there and see whether they’ve got the appetite to continue the conversation.”

A draft report on possible future models of local government in Somerset was produced on the councils’ behalf in February – but to date it remains unpublished.

Mr Fothergill had originally hoped a new authority would be in place before the county council held its next elections in May 2021 – but he refused to state categorically whether this could still be achieved.

He said: “I am confident that at some point something has to be done.

“I will keep pushing the case for what I think is the right thing for people in Somerset.

“Whether that actually is achieved by 2021 or 2023 [the next district elections], I don’t know – but I will keep pushing the case, because I fundamentally believe that we need to do something different to deliver sustainable, long-term services to people in Somerset.”

If a new authority were to come into being before the 2021 election, it would mean Somerset West and Taunton Council – formed from two district councils merging – would cease to exist after just two years, making it one of the shortest-lived local authorities in history.

Mr Fothergill declined to comment on the potential costs associated with a new authority, but said all district councils should engage in the discussions.

He said: “I think it’s incumbent upon all leaders to lift every stone and look under every carpet, really.

“What we’ve got here is a situation where, I believe, local government in Somerset can be delivered in a much more cost-effective way.

“A year ago, the county council were saying we were in financial difficulties – we’re far more stable now, we’re building our foundations in terms of finance.

“This is not about the county council – this has got to be about the public and how they receive joined-up services across the county.

“If the new district leaders don’t want to be involved in that, I understand that, but we do need to explain to the public why we wouldn’t want to go down this route of keeping talking and keeping exploring.”