There is no end in sight to the continued reduction of central government grant to local authorities. It is expected that by 2018, this funding, which once provided up to 75% of council income may disappear altogether. While there are some opportunities to increase revenue from other sources, there is no chance that the gap can be filled. Council Tax increases are effectively capped at 1.99% p.a. Frontline services are already being harmed and the damage will intensify as Councils struggle to make ends meet. We all know that rural councils get a raw deal with urban councils receiving 50% more government grant per head and rural residents paying an additional £100 each in Council Tax. Somerset County Council expects to have a deficit of £100m per year over the period 2013-17 and on the current trajectory, that sort of money can only be saved by cutting frontline services and abandoning some services altogether.
Cornwall, which has a similar population to that of Somerset, now has one Council in place of the 7 that previously provided district and county council functions. Cornwall has a different cultural status to that of Somerset and there may be a stronger case there for having one Council than there is in Somerset, where two may work better. There may also be a case for bringing in Bath & North East Somerset and North Somerset into the picture, creating 2 or three unitary authorities in place of the 8 that currently operate in the ceremonial county of Somerset. In Cornwall, the Council says that £15m was saved in the first year following re-organisation and I don’t see why similar could not be achieved here in Somerset. It becomes more difficult to estimate ongoing savings as, by definition, the previous Councils no longer exist as a means of comparison. However, it is clear that ongoing savings are made. For example, Cornwall now has 123 councillors compared with Somerset’s 333 despite our county having a slightly smaller population.
This process has already begun in Somerset although by the back-door with Taunton Deane Borough and West Somerset District Councils effectively combining their officer corps to work across both Councils. But it’s only half the solution as there have not been the necessary political changes with almost 100 councillors still in place between the two.
I do not have the means to estimate what the savings would be in Somerset but I firmly believe that the time has come to initiate a comprehensive examination of just how much money could be saved and how much service delivery could be improved by making a fairly straightforward and well-trialled change to the organisation of our Councils.
Previous opportunities to do this have been lost, largely through political infighting. What we now need are clear-heads and the burying of party loyalties in favour of providing the best possible services to Somerset residents. These changes, if implemented, may of course cost me my Council seat as boundaries are redrawn. So be it. The prize of significant efficiencies is too great to let personal or party advantage obstruct it. I call on Somerset councils and councillors to back my call for the process to begin and for Eric Pickles not to stand in our way.