Tens of millions of pounds more could be spent on frontline services like bus routes, new schools and climate change work if Somerset changes the way its councils operate, an independent report says.
The report was commissioned from external consultants by all four district councils and Somerset County Council as part of discussions over the future shape of local government in the county.
It suggests a variety of options that would save money, cut waste and reduce duplication, ranging from councils simply working closer together to the abolition of all the authorities and the creation of one new ‘unitary’ Authority – as seen in places such as North Somerset, B&NES, Dorset and Wiltshire. Key findings were:
· All Councils working more closely together – a predicted saving of £10m-£32m
· Creating a single “unitary” authority – a predicted saving of £35m-47m
County Council Leader, Councillor David Fothergill, has welcomed the publication of the report and has underlined his view that a single, unitary Authority for Somerset would be the best way forward.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We can no longer stay quiet on a report that offers so much potential investment for our residents, businesses and communities. Extra money, from new schools, better roads, investing in climate change, more buses; there’s so much we could do with funding on this scale.”
Cllr Fothergill said: “All the options have merit, but I have said many times I believe the way forward is a single authority for Somerset. Even if it only saves half of what the report suggests, that’s more than £23m extra to spend on residents, every year. Just imagine what we could do to improve lives across Somerset with that sort of investment - to me it’s a no brainer.
“It makes sense for our residents to deal with just one authority, it makes sense to our businesses who will find it easier to grow the economy, and makes sense for councillors to speak with one voice to Government.
“Just look at our neighbours – North Somerset is a Unitary; BANES is a Unitary; Wiltshire is a Unitary; Dorset is a Unitary; Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, a Unitary, Torbay, Plymouth, Cornwall, they are all Unitary and they are all benefitting from huge savings. Somerset’s residents deserve to have the same.”
“I know there will be differences of opinion but I am more than happy to work with my district colleagues where we have common ground. It would be easier to keep the status quo and leave this report but I want to do what I believe is best for this county and its residents.
As set out in the report, the creation of a single Authority in Somerset would mean one new council replacing the existing County Council and the four district councils, with a reduction in elected members from current levels of around 300 to a slimmed down number of councillors of around 100-125. Town and Parish councillors would remain outside the reorganisation.
However, four district councils, Sedgemoor, Mendip, South Somerset and Somerset West and Taunton - don't agree that creating one new council is the way forward.
In a joint statement they say their aim, "is not simply to cut costs".
"Our intention has been to find a way through the better use of our resources and working with our residents, to sustain vital services now and for the future to help secure a better quality of life for communities in Somerset."