THE debate rages on over the future of local government in Somerset.

Somerset County Council (SCC) believes a single unitary authority is the best way forward for local government.

They have put forward a plan called 'One Somerset' which would see the county council and four district councils ( Sedgemoor District Council, South Somerset District Council, Somerset West and Taunton Council and Mendip District Council) abolished, and a single authority take over.

But the four district councils have put forward their own plan, 'Stronger Somerset', which would still see the current councils removed and two large councils formed - one for east Somerset and the other for the west.

The plans have continued to divide opinion across the county. We spoke to Bridgwater and West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger and leader of SCC, Cllr David Fothergill, about their views on the future of local government in Somerset.

Yeovil Express:

Bridgwater and West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger

Bridgwater and West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger has hit out at SCC's plan to create a single unitary authority, branding it ‘a forgery’.

The county council’s One Somerset plan would see the county and four district councils abolished, and a single authority take over.

But the leaders of the Sedgemoor District Council, South Somerset District Council, Somerset West and Taunton Council and Mendip District Council have their own proposal, titled Stronger Somerset.

This would still see the current councils removed, but instead of a single new authority there would be two large councils - one for east Somerset and the other for the west.

Mr Liddell-Grainger has openly criticised the county council’s One Somerset plan, instead siding with the district council’s plan for Stronger Somerset, as he claims SCC’s plan is ‘a dotty idea based on a giant lie’.

“The leader of Somerset County Council wants us to get behind his plan for a single unitary authority. It would scrap four districts, abolish the existing county council and create a new monster body called One Somerset,” he said.

“This is a dotty idea based on a giant lie. One Somerset will not be in control of North Somerset, or Bath and Wells. It is deliberately misusing the name of our traditional county to create a false impression. It is NOT a single unitary for the whole of Somerset. If this idea gets approval in Westminster Somerset will end up with THREE unitary councils!

“I am dead against the proposal. It comes from a county council notorious for hopeless management and regular financial crises.

“They have tried the trick before, 13 years ago, and were defeated when the district councils staged a full referendum and the people voted to leave us alone.

“This time, like last time, they want to get their hands on the cash reserves that the districts have built up. Somerset County Council is a thieving magpie. They are never to be trusted.

“By contrast, Sedgemoor Council and three other districts have come up with a far more intelligent scheme that moves much nearer my belief that the whole of Somerset should be included in any new reform.

“Stronger Somerset will work to establish greater links with all the councils in the county to provide far better cost-effective services.

“Does it matter? Do we care? The truth is that successful councils are almost invisible. We rarely notice what they do until the roads are pitted with potholes and the bins begin to overflow.

“We all hate inefficiency and resent unnecessary hikes in council tax. These very things help to explain Somerset County Council’s rock-bottom public reputation.

“That is why I will never support their opportunist plan to reform local government. One Somerset is a forgery. Do not be fooled.”

Yeovil Express:

Cllr David Fothergill, leader of Somerset County Council

But the leader of Somerset County Council said he is ‘convinced’ a unitary authority is the best way forward for Somerset.

Somerset County Council has proposed creating a unitary authority for Somerset, abolishing the districts (and the county council itself) to be replaced by one, overarching authority to look after everything.

The council says it would be cheaper and easier for people to understand.

In addition to that overarching authority, they say they would create 15 to 20 LCNs (Local Community Networks) in the county to act as that ‘middle man’.

The county council has been invited by the Secretary of Stat, Priti Patel, to submit a business case for their ‘One Somerset’ plan.

And Cllr David Fothergill, leader of Somerset County Council, said having a unitary authority will ‘reduce duplication, deliver significant savings and improve lives for residents.’

Cllr Fothergill, said: “I am delighted that the Secretary of State has invited us to submit a business case for local government reform in Somerset.

“I have long campaigned for a single unitary approach for our county which will reduce duplication, deliver significant savings and most importantly improve lives for residents in our county.

“From investing in climate change to reducing inequalities, we are convinced a single unitary approach is the right way forward.”

He clapped back at Mr Liddell-Grainger’s claims that the council is ‘a thieving magpie’ and said his remarks are ‘confused’.

“As for Mr Liddell-Grainger’s remarks, it is hard to take them seriously when they are so confused, lacking any real substance and littered with inaccuracies even referring to Bath and Wells which is the Church diocese not a local authority

“I think public services in Somerset really do matter and I would ask Mr Liddell-Grainger to work together with us in the best interests of our communities, residents and businesses.”

The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) has formally invited local authorities in Somerset, Cumbria and North Yorkshire to put forward proposals for reorganising its existing councils into new unitary authorities.

Local government secretary Robert Jenrick MP said: “Where there is local support, changing the structure of local government can offer better value for money and improved services for residents.

“We have always been clear that any restructuring of local government must continue to be locally-led, and will not involve top-down solutions from government.”

Both the One Somerset and Stronger Somerset proposals will be put forward, with the government deciding which one should be taken in the coming months and years.

So what will change if the business cases are accepted ?

Somerset will move from a three-tier system (comprising county, district and town/ parish councils) to a two-tier one (unitary and town/parish councils).

Currently, major services are split between the county council (which takes care of adult social care, education and transport) and the district council (which handles planning, environmental health and licensing). Under a unitary, these services would all be available from the same council – though opinion is split over how much money would be saved.

Additional duties could be devolved out to town and parish councils, giving people more control in theory over how their money is spent.

When will the changes come into effect?

The existing councils have until November 9 to put their business cases to the government, with a response expected around Christmas.

The The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has stated that any new unitary authorities should be in place in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset by April 2023 – which would coincide with the next district council elections in Somerset.

The next county council elections are set for May 6, 2021 – though these could be delayed by parliament if a unitary could be in place soon after this date (with fresh elections for the new council). The Lib Dems – which control three of the four district councils in Somerset – have warned the ruling Conservative group not to “use an election delay to hang onto power”.