1st August 2021

Leader looks to explore unitary options

A bold decision to explore options for changing the way local government is organised in Somerset has been taken by the Leader of the County Council.

In a move to protect frontline services at a time of unprecedented financial pressures for all local councils, Councillor David Fothergill has asked for work to begin to look at how a unitary arrangement could work in the county.

This would see the abolition of all six local authorities in the county – including the county council – and replacing them with a smaller number of single-tier authorities, or potentially just one authority.

It is thought that bringing together responsibilities and reducing duplication could save between £18m and £28m a year across the county. It would allow services and functions to work together in a more joined-up way and provide a far more powerful voice for the county to speak up for Somerset at Government level.

Cllr Fothergill said: “At a time of unprecedented financial pressures on all councils we are all looking at different ways to be more efficient, make savings and protect the frontline services that our residents value so much.

“I believe that we owe it to our residents to look at this option too. I want start the ball rolling on work to establish the benefits and costs of such a change so that we can all make an informed decision as to whether a unitary model is the right way to go.

“This is only the start of a conversation and what would be a long process. At this stage we don’t have all the answers, but I believe that in these difficult times we have to be bold enough to start asking the questions.”

A unitary model does not necessarily mean creating one single council for the entire county. However, to give an idea of potential benefits, indicative research using examples such as Dorset and Cornwall suggests a single-authority model could mean:

  • Savings of £500k per year by moving from five Chief Executives to one.
  • Savings of around £1m per year by reducing the number of councillors covering the county by around 50 per cent from the current 300.
  • Moving from multiple back office teams such as HR, Customer Services and Finance to create a more efficient and slimmed down system – likely savings in the millions of pounds.
  • Moving from multiple contracts such as IT systems, utilities, and transport costs – likely savings in the millions of pounds

There could also be significant improvements to the current system of six councils working independently, including:

  • Residents only having to tell their story once to get the help and support they need.
  • Freeing up some council owned buildings to enable investment in frontline services.
  • The opportunity to work more strategically on key issues such as planning, housing and infrastructure that currently straddle county and district council responsibilities.
  • Giving Somerset a more powerful voice with which to lobby and work with Government

The last time the idea of a unitary council for Somerset was discussed in 2007, a poll of residents found a majority in favour of keeping the current two-tier arrangements.

“This hasn’t been looked at for ten years and the circumstances for local government have changed dramatically since then,” said Cllr Fothergill. “The time is right to look at this again.

“No-one can deny that a unitary model has huge potential for efficiencies, savings and reduction in duplication and bureaucracy. There will be arguments against this idea but I want to open up the discussion and see what options can come forward.”