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'Unviable' council doubts minister's suggestions

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The leader of a district council considered ‘unviable’ has questioned whether the shared services solution put forward by ministers will prove feasible.

A special meeting of West Somerset DC’s full council on Wednesday was set to discuss its strategy following a series of meetings with ministers and a damning assessment of its long-term viability by the LGA.

The sector body described the council in Ocober as unviable as a democratic unit in the long term in a report which recommended a boundary review. Local government minister Brandon Lewis has however advised the council that it should remain a democratic unit and commission services from other providers.

Councillors were due to consider two options on Wednesday: become a “commissioning council” by  retaining a small number of staff to manage service contracts or taking a “collaborative sharing” approach. Under this latter option, the authority would have no directly employed staff; all services would be provided by another council, likely to be Sedgemoor DC.

Speaking after a meeting with Mr Lewis, West Somerset leader Tim Taylor (Con) questioned whether either solution would solve the authorities finance difficulties.

“As I said to Brandon, I am not convinced with either of those models that we will have enough finance to pay our share,” he said.

“I don’t think he has got any answer to this other than sharing of services,” he added. “That is an easy answer to give but the reality is [by 2015-16] we have only £2.5m a year to fund all our services other than waste. I don’t know if any other council would be able to afford to take on West Somerset services with us putting in £2.5m. If it can happen then great.”

If councillors agree to investigate the possibility of commissioning or sharing services, Sedgemoor would work with West Somerset to draw up a business case. This could be prepared for late January or early February.

West Somerset already shares a number of services with Taunton Deane and Sedgemoor, although discussions held more than a year ago about deeper joint working- including shared management-were abandoned.

Following this week’s meeting between Somerset council leaders and Mr Lewis, Taunton Deane leader said the aim was to create “economies of scale by commissioning services together”.

However, he warned the business case would have to work. “Taxpayers in adjacent areas cannot be expected to subsidise West Somerset,” he said.

Cllr Taylor said that if no business case could be made for West Somerset sharing or commissioning services, a Boundary Commission review would have to be reconsidered, an option he described as being currently opposed by both ministers and councils neighbouring West Somerset.




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