It was not a shock but it’s still shocking.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has decided to impose a single unitary authority on the people of Somerset when there is clear evidence that local residents would have preferred the alternative two-council solution.
To add insult to injury he added
“I would like to reiterate that Government will not impose top-down government solutions.”
If he thinks this is not a top down solution he doesn’t know which way is up.
A quick recap on the details. In October 2020 the government invited proposals for a reorganisation of the two-tier structure of local government in Somerset. Currently there is a county council and four district councils. The county council produced a proposal for a single new authority under the slogan ‘One Somerset’. The district councils worked together to develop an alternative plan based on two new unitary authorities which they called ‘Stronger Somerset’. Although the choice between the two alternatives would be determined nationally, both sides worked hard to promote their vision to local people.
All the evidence suggests that the people of Somerset preferred the Stronger Somerset proposals. It was backed by four out of the five elected authorities with cross party support. It was backed by two thirds of the 111,000 residents who voted in a locally-organised poll. All Somerset MPs are Conservatives but even they were not united in their view with Ian Liddell-Grainger arguing powerfully for the two-authority solution.
Although the government and county council tried first to stop and subsequently to discredit the local poll it remains by far the clearest expression of local opinion. The government prefers to emphasise its own on-line consultation which closed on the 19 April 2021. Despite having had the data for three months the government has not as yet published any analysis of the 5000 responses received. It has simply said that it will deposit a summary of the consultation responses in the libraries of Parliament without giving any date.
It is clear from the overall numbers however that it was a far less representative exercise than the one conducted locally.
The government has also failed to respond to diligent questioning by Mr Liddell-Grainger who has repeatedly asked how many of the respondents to the on-line consultation lived in Somerset and what steps had been taken to verify the identity of those submitting comments. It appears that not only was the consultation open to those outside Somerset but potentially to those outside the UK. Indeed, it is not clear whether it can be said with certainty that all respondents were real people.
In a joint statement, the leaders of Somerset’s four district councils have 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”
One might have expected Mr Jenrick to have some compelling reason or evidence for deliberately overriding the wishes of local people in this way . If he does, he has not bothered to tell us what it is. In a cursory announcement held back until the very end of the parliamentary session he simply stated
“I considered that this proposal met all three of the criteria, strongly meeting the improving local government and service delivery criterion.”
In other words, “I know best. Your views don’t count”.
This arrogance and barely concealed contempt for the views of ordinary people is deeply corrosive of public trust and highly damaging to our democracy. It is bound to increase cynicism about politics and lead to more people thinking that voting makes no difference. Indeed, given the character of Jenrick it is quite possible that he deliberately wants to discourage democratic engagement.
After all this is the man who denied Somerset residents the right to vote for their county councillors in 2021. This is the man who rushed through a dodgy planning decision in order to put £40 million in a Tory donor’s pocket. And if more evidence were needed of cynical intent why else would he round off his statement with a bare-faced, flat-out, copper-bottomed lie.
“When considering reform, those in an area will know what is best, and as my Rt Hon Friend the Prime Minister set out in his speech on 15 July we remain committed to devolving power to people and places across the UK.”
How about being honest, Mr Jenrick…you mean local people know best unless you disagree.