Report for councillors: To consider Local Government Reorganisation
Issued to: Town Council 22/06/2020
Purpose of Report
To provide an overview of accompanying information on the current position with regards Local Government Reorganisation in order that the meeting can resolve whether to support this sector’s SALC commissioned report, and form an initial view on LGR from the perspective of this town council.
1.1 In 2018/19 Somerset County Council and the four district councils re-opened discussions on the prospect of local government reorganisation to explore together the best way to address the challenges they face. The five councils commissioned a report, the Future of Local Government in Somerset
- The report made a number of suggestions about the form reorganisation might take and predicted potential service delivery benefits and cost-savings.
1.2 The councils’ aim with the report was said not to be a simple cost-cutting exercise, but to find a way, through the better use of collective resources, to sustain vital services for the future. The report flagged up particular issues facing Somerset, including low social mobility and high numbers of troubled families, with increasing levels of child poverty and deprivation, as well as a lack of access to higher education and affordable housing; economic problems concerned with low skill and low wage & poor digital (IT) connectivity; increasing elderly population, which the report stated was expected to increase by 88% (people aged 85+). Issues raised had a significant focus on the need to provide quality education, health & social care, as well as tackling social isolation and loneliness.
Images supplied by Max Wide, consultant to Future of Local Govt. in Somerset (Frome TC workshop, March 2020)
1.3 The councils reached consensus on the need for change, as stated in the report:
“We are now convinced that staying purely to our own paths is not an option. We can collectively do better….Continuing ‘as is’ is not a sustainable long-term strategy. Service needs across Somerset are evolving, demand is increasing, and a new collaborative delivery strategy is needed.”
- The current position on LGR
2.1 Although the five councils agree some sort of change is needed, they have not agreed on what the new style of authority will look like. County has stated that it prefers a unitary model that reflects those neighbouring systems operating around Somerset. This year, Somerset County Council Leader David Fothergill wrote to Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, requesting an invitation to submit a business case advancing a unitary council for Somerset; the invitation was granted.
2.2 SCC has a completion date of 29th June 2020 for its business case; informal SCC briefing during the first week in July, with final scrutiny & cabinet in mid-July and a final decision expected at the end of July. SCC commenced
engagement and market research with residents and businesses on 2nd June and states it will include partners shortly. Districts
2.3 Although the districts have stated they do not support a unitary and prefer the option where they remain distinct from each other, but work more closely through a deeper level of collaboration at a strategic and service delivery level (option 2, see below), they have not advanced a business case.
2.4 The Leader of Sedgemoor District Council, Councillor Duncan McGinty, has taken a strong stance in a District Position Statement (circulated to members on 4th June 2020), where it is stated “that a unitary council for the county of Somerset would not serve our residents well and could mean cuts to services.” It states Cllr McGinty “has remained completely resolute in not continuing work on any bid to Government regarding future local authority structures at this time.”
2.5 South Somerset District Council is the only district authority known to be working on its positon under any LGR, but it is not doing do with the other councils. It is difficult to avoid concluding that this point alone undermines the concept of greater collaboration.
- The positon of the Somerset Association of Local Councils
3.1 On 5th March, the Somerset Association of Local Councils, working with Frome Town Council, invited clerks to a workshop to consider Local Government Reorganisation. The point of the event was to discuss issues from a clerk’s perspective and to consider impacts of LGR on parishes. The workshop started with the premise that, although any such review will take years rather than weeks, it is never too early to be thinking about the role of parishes in any new configuration.
3.2 Attendees included, Cllr David Fothergill, Leader of Somerset County Council, Cllr Val Keitch, Leader of South Somerset District Council, and Cllr Frederica Smith Roberts, Leader of Somerset West & Taunton Council.
3.3 Former Frome Councillor, Mel Usher, was commissioned by SALC & Frome Town Council to advance and co-ordinate a case to enable the voices of Somerset parishes to be clearly heard.
3.4 It was noted that previous reorganisations in other counties have tended to see parishes as peripheral in the debate between the districts and county. It was Mel Usher’s position that they have “concentrated on the division of the spoils and efficiencies rather than effectiveness and what is best for communities.”
3.5 At this workshop, six clerks to larger councils were invited by Somerset County Council’s Programme Director to engage on a panel in order to consider LGR in a local and operational context. I sit on that panel, but due to the recent public health priorities, the issue of LGR was temporarily taken off the table. However, on Friday 5th June, the Society of Local Council Clerks Somerset branch considered the final paper commissioned by SALC and the branch voted to endorse that report and take-up with our councils the issues raised within. The SALC paper is circulated with this report.
3.6 The main thrust of the SALC commissioned paper is about making good use of the opportunity to re-consider how services are managed, whilst maintaining choice for parishes; not forcing them to take on devolved functions if they don’t want them, but also, for those who want additional responsibility, to ensure that finance follows function and that they can hold principal councils to account on any promises made. The report is designed not to back a side; parishes should want to work positively with whichever form of authority follows.
3.7 SCC has accepted all of the recommendations in the SLCC endorsed, SALC commissioned, paper and stated they will be incorporated into SCC’s business case and new operating model.
- Town Council meeting on 22nd June 2020
4.1 As requested by SALC & the SLCC, the parishes report has been added to the Town Council meeting agenda for discussion on 22/06.
4.2 Cllr Fothergill had previously requested to attend a meeting of this TC to speak about SCC’s positon on LGR, but COVID 19 had led to our having to cancel his attendance. Cllr Fothergill will therefore attend the Council meeting on 22nd June to present the case for Somerset County Council and take questions.
4.3 Despite the recent SDC Position Statement noted above (2.4), I have extended an invitation to Sedgemoor DC to speak with this TC about SDC’s position. At the time of writing I have not yet received a response.
- Further information supplied by SCC 5.1 I have attached to the email accompanying this report, the Programme PID and summary presentation of where SCC is with its work on LGR. As stated, SCC is working toward a completed business case by the end of June, which will then go through the democratic process in July. 5.2 Cognisant Research, an independent market research company appointed by SCC, is seeking & collating the feedback from parish and town councils in preparation for its inclusion in the One Somerset Business Case. Following the TC meeting on 22/06, I will submit a corporate response. Should councillors wish to provide feedback in their own right, the link is here:
6.1 None of us know for sure what LGR will look like, but in light of the Government’s direction on devolution, in which LGR plays an important part, it is safer to presume there will be some sort of change.
6.2 For councils and clerks, the overriding consideration is about being confident that we are kept in the loop, are listened to and have some assurances that we can hold any principal council to promises it makes.
6.3 From the parish sector’s perspective, if unitary status is the final outcome, whatever that might look like, there is an imperative that Somerset’s LGR experience learns from the experiences of other LGRs. There have been instances where devolved services have been ‘dumped’ on parishes – this must not be allowed to happen in Somerset. Equally, decisions to take on functions should not be made due to a perception that it is politically expedient to do so, unless there has been sound consideration of the capabilities and resourcing of the parish.
6.4 Whilst districts are not holding discussions, parishes can’t know what services might be up for devolution, but parishes can learn from other authority areas and start considering what they want, ahead of the discussion.
6.5 The SALC report does not ask this TC to take a position on any preferred model, indeed this TC is well advised not to take one positon over another, but to consider what the parish sector would want to see under any LGR and to recognise that we will work collaboratively with any authority(ies) that result, as long as we are consulted, heard and supported. The Council is asked:
To receive information, including the SALC commissioned report on local government reorganisation, and resolve whether to support the points advanced in the report.
To form an initial view on potential threats & opportunities from LGR, from the perspective of this Town Council.
Report author: Sam Winter, Town Clerk
Report Date: 10th June 2020
- link to FoLGiS report
- SALC commissioned report
- SLCC Letter of endorsement – SALC report
- SDC Position Statement, 2nd June
- SCC One Somerset PID, April 2020
- SCC One Somerset PowerPoint, June 2020
- Link to Cognisant Research feedback form