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What a difference a week makes. Barely seven days ago Somerset CC’s floating of unitary reorganisation was greeted with a harrumph audible from Minehead to Mendip as districts objected in injured tones.
Yet this week, the five districts have suddenly discovered that there might be something to discuss given – although they didn’t quite put it like this – the impact on their residents of the appalling state of the county’s finances.
When county leader David Fothergill (Con) “set the ball rolling” (in his words) on reorganisation last week the districts united in outrage. “Unfortunately, many of our staff learned about this via the media on their way in to work,” (Mendip DC); “surprised and disappointed” (Sedgemoor DC); “disappointed” (South Somerset DC); and “we are willing to discuss further joint working with other councils” (Taunton Deane BC and West Somerset DC). It was hard to assume anything other than that ‘joint working’ would constitute something less than reorganisation.
The councils face a financial mismatch. Somerset – burdened with social care and children’s services – appears to be in the process of exhausting its reserves, while the districts all claim to be in rude financial health, with South Somerset leader Ric Pallister (Lib Dem) even saying: “Our financial future is looking increasingly optimistic”, words not heard in local government for a decade or so.
The problem with reorganisation is that no obvious permutation apart from a county unitary would cross the 300,000 population threshold set by the government for new unitaries, while the districts do not want to lose their independence because of the county council’s rocky finances.
To complicate things further, Taunton Deane BC and West Somerset DC are in the process of an extremely protracted merger.
This started in 2012 when the latter gained the unwanted distinction of being the only council deemed unviable by the Local Government Association.
Their stately courtship dance is due to end in May 2019 with elections to a single district. Could that really be either called off at the 11th hour, or set up and rapidly abolished in a reorganisation?
Districts have though moderated their tone and in this week’s joint statement – amid assorted rude remarks about the county’s finances – said: “The districts intend to work with Somerset County Council and other partners to examine all the options for reform in Somerset local government. This conversation could include unitary councils but all other options should be objectively assessed as well.”
It’s hard though to see what reorganisation option there is other than a county unitary, but maybe there will be others short of that.
Mark Smulian, reporter, LGC