Followers of my thoughts will know that I have long been a fan of the concept of unitary authorities. They offer a simplified means of access to services for residents; no more trying to figure out which council does what – a single point of contact. A unitary authority will have lower running costs as it requires just one Chief Executive, one Chief Planning Officer etc so some staffing costs can be saved. But before we assess the overall benefits of turning Somerset into a single unitary authority in 2020, we need to look at the background to today’s call from the County Council.
Make no mistake, today’s plea for a Somerset-wide single council by David Fothergill, leader of Somerset County Council, is one borne solely out of desperation. The County Council remains in an extremely shaky financial condition having almost gone bust in 2018. An unprecedented, mid-year emergency budget together with a series of one-off central government hand-outs prevented the county council from going under, Northamptonshire-style, but the fundamentals remain extremely weak. Mr Fothergill knows that he has maybe a couple of years before the wolf returns to his door and his plan is to gobble up the district’s resources to prop up his struggling council. I have every sympathy with the need to properly fund adult social care and children’s services but demolishing the important services provided by our district councils is not the way to do it. Take Somerset West & Taunton Council, whose resources Mr Fothergill seeks to subsume. Finally, after 10 years of drift and failure, we are putting the council back on its feet. The council has a clear plan to regenerate Taunton, through the redevelopment of Coal Orchard, Firepool and other sites across the town. We are building hundreds of new council houses, reforming the failed planning system that has delivered thousands of new homes with no supporting infrastructure. We are supporting Taunton’s Park & Rides following the county’s inability to keep them running. All this will be lost as the county council’s functions consume all of the district’s resources.
So, while I remain in favour of the concept of unitary authorities, the idea that we should be forced into one in order to bail out the mismanaged County Council is laughable. Let’s not forget that while some of the county council’s misfortune lies with central government cuts to the county council’s budget, much of the blame for its current state can be laid firmly at the feet of Mr Fothergill’s County Conservatives. They compounded the government cuts to its grant by freezing council tax for SIX YEARS. Had they raised council tax by just 2% a year during that period, the County Council would by £125m better off and not in its current state. Let’s have a look at the idea of a unitary authority once the county council’s finances are sustainable on a long-term basis.
One final thought. Mr Fothergill claims that his plan would save £47m a year. Where does he get this figure from? From a report produced by the same company that advised on the disastrous transformation programme that merged Taunton Deane Borough Council and West Somerset District Council. I think we can safely ignore that figure.