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‘One Somerset’ gets government approval – but decision comes under fire

Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick, MP, has decided to implement the proposal for a single unitary council for Somerset – subject to Parliamentary approval. 

 The decision, announced in a ministerial statement to Parliament means that a single unitary council for Somerset will be formed on 1st April 2023 to replace the county’s five existing county and district councils. 

 The decision has been criticised by the leaders of Somerset’s four District Councils, who supported the Stronger Somerset proposal, which proposed the creation of two new unitary councils for Somerset.  

 They have said that the decision rides “roughshod” over the results of a recent poll, which saw the people of Somerset vote in the majority for the Stronger Somerset plan. 

 The leader of Somerset County Council – which championed the ‘One Somerset’ plan – has welcomed the decision. 

 However, Somerset County Councillor for Frome East, Martin Dimery, has warned that the decision will “severely marginalise” Frome and the north east corner of Somerset and will “diminish” local democracy. 

 “While I have no objection to smaller single unitary authorities like BANES,” said cllr Dimery, “this decision will severely marginalise Frome and the north east corner of Somerset even more than it is now.  

 “A single authority incorporating 560,000 people stretching from the Wiltshire border to the edge of Dartmoor, is geographically and demographically too large. Effectively this is a power grab by Somerset County Council, abolishing the district councils and severely diminishing more localised democracy.  

 “Frome must not be reduced to becoming a dominion of Taunton, over 50 miles away. Only the most dedicated candidates should consider standing in the first election of 2022.” 

 The decision follows a government-run consultation from 22 February to 19 April, with a reported 5,500 responses, and a local poll organised by the district councils that took place from 18 May to 4 June, that saw more than 111,000 people voting, with 65% preferring the Stronger Somerset proposal.  

In a joint statement, the Leaders of Somerset’s four District Councils said, “The Secretary of State is riding roughshod over the people of Somerset who voted 65% to 35% in favour of the Stronger Somerset plan over the other scheme chosen by the Secretary of State.  

“That vote was the third time in recent history that the people of Somerset have decisively rejected proposal for a single unitary – following the referendum in 2007 and the Ipsos MORI survey in 2020. 

“By ignoring the will of the people, the Secretary of State is breaking the bond of trust between elected representatives and those they represent. The opportunities to address the real challenges our county faces – how to reduce demand on expensive crisis services, to break the cycle of inequality and under-achievement, to invest in local solutions to local issues – risk being squandered by foisting a manifestly unpopular new local government on our residents. 

“We are duty bound to represent the interests of our constituents to our fullest ability. We will continue to seek to ensure that their voices are heard. There is still chance for Parliament to see sense and force a rethink. We just cannot understand why the wishes of the people of Somerset are being ignored.” 

 Leader of Somerset County Council, cllr David Fothergill, said, “We’re delighted the Secretary of State has backed our ambitious plans to give Somerset the resilient, unified, and dynamic system of local government it deserves.  

“The success of partnership work throughout the pandemic to support our most vulnerable and rollout the vaccination programme has clearly demonstrated what we can achieve in Somerset when we work together.  

“One Somerset is simple, it is clear, and it delivers what our residents want – better services, better value for money, decisions made locally, and an end to the confusion and bureaucracy of having multiple overlapping councils.  

“We are now calling on everyone to get behind One Somerset – and we look forward to working with our district councils, partners and everyone who lives or works in Somerset to deliver our vision of improved services for all.” 

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