I make no apologies for an overtly political column this week. But I do need to put on record what is happening with local government in Somerset.
As a reminder, the transition from five councils in Somerset to one, was not of your District Council’s making.
When the COVID legislation was lifted on May 5th this year, the four District Councils commissioned a people’s poll, to ensure communities had a voice. Some 65% of Somerset residents, and more than 70% of Mendip residents, rejected the idea of a single unitary authority for Somerset. A decision to go with One Somerset was made by government in July, flying in the face of the wishes of our residents.
The challenges, the costs and tight timelines before us, cannot be overstated.
For five councils to become one, we need to merge very different IT systems, terms of employment and council tax rates, to name a few. We must find ongoing savings of £18 million per year – an ambitious sum that can’t be achieved from simply reducing the management headcount, or indeed the number of councillors.
Efficiencies may be found in merging or reducing services. But still more savings will be needed year-on-year – paid for by your council taxes. Perhaps Councils will sell-off assets (for many years County has been selling-off their farms). Dipping into the reserves of our prudent District Councils seems inevitable.
In addition to the ongoing savings, councils will need to find one-off monies to cover the expense of transition; redundancy payments, external consultants, new branding, and the back-filling of council staff. And all these savings and efficiencies are to be found after almost a decade of austerity and significant cost reductions which has seen local government income from Whitehall reduced by a massive 40%.
For me, the most disturbing aspect of one council for Somerset is the impact this will have on democracy.
With no external boundary review in place, it seems we are being used as a pilot to test just how extreme you can go in the reduction of councillors from 269, to a possible 85. The government thinks one councillor per 5,000+ voters is good enough for Somerset, while neighbouring BANES has one councillor for 2,000 voters and a recent boundary commission review gave Wiltshire voters one councillor for 4,300 voters.
Our county’s unique rural geography, combined with necessary travel to daytime meetings, means this new council could be the preserve of the wealthy and retired, with fewer independents and smaller parties councillors.
Against this backdrop, your current councillors will of course continue to help their local residents. Council staff will deliver uninterrupted services. And Mendip District Council will remain a legal entity until April 2023 with potential elections for the new unitary council in May 2022.
Mendip has joined the other three District Councils and the County Council to consider formally agreeing to create a ‘joint committee’ so that we can work together to deliver services to our residents, and provide assurances to our staff and their families during this unsettling time.
I have been in politics for many years, and I recognise the need for change, but one always hopes it’s change for the better. So, you’ll forgive me as I place on the record my genuine, heartfelt fears for local government and democracy in Somerset. I will commit to working hard for the success of this local government reorganisation – but with considerable worries that we will see local democracy wither.
As ever, if you have any questions or suggestions for me, then do get in touch on email [email protected] or on my Facebook page: @Ros.Wyke.
Written by Cllr Ros Wyke, Leader of Mendip District Council
Please get in touch either on my Facebook page @Ros.Wyke or you can send me an email: [email protected].