Somerset suspends democracy to save money?

Image by Volker Lekies from Pixabay

After an afternoon of unedifying verbal wrangling, the conservative-controlled County Council of Somerset voted to request a postponement of county elections until such time as a unitary authority was constituted. This could save £1m, it was claimed, and taxpayers always like to save money.

Hang on. What price democracy? Surely that cost is budgeted? It’s not like taxpayers would be getting a refund, is it? Digging deeper, one could be forgiven for suspecting this was yet more Tory political manoeuvering – a mere ruse for the Tories to ride out the disruption of the end of Brexit transition and avoid a whipping at the polls on 6 May 2021, when the chaos and shortages unleashed by central government’s ideologically-driven and wholly impractical policy decisions are unlikely to have subsided.

That election date is set in law – in the Coronavirus Act 2020 to be precise, which contains all sorts of emergency measures necessary to counter the pandemic, including the postponement of local elections. The re-scheduling of local elections until 2021 means that in some county and district councils, councillors would serve for five instead of four years. The next local elections after that would then be for a term of three years, so that councils could return to their normal four-year cycle. (It would not apply to all councillors as some are elected by thirds, meaning a third of the council is elected one election year for a four-year term, another third the following election year, and so on.)

As it happens, Somerset wasn’t due for its next round of local elections until 2021 anyway, but it is mulling reorganisation at local government level. Unitary authorities are back in vogue. There are 56 of them across England, set up in three waves in the 1990s, 2009 and from 2016 on. In this latest wave, Oxford City Council rejected the idea in 2017, so no further progress was made. Dorset’s 2017 proposal was accepted and in April 2019 two unitary authorities were created: one consisting of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, and the other of the rest of the county. This occurred ahead of local elections in May of that year. Buckinghamshire local government was reorganised into two unitary authorities in April this year: Milton Keynes forms one and the rest of Buckinghamshire the other. Northamptonshire is next on the list, with the county council and seven district councils due to be replaced by two unitary authorities in April next year.

David Fothergill, conservative, leader of the Somerset County Council, may have been inspired by Oxford. The conservatives there, who still cherish the aim of a unitary authority, put forward a motion to delay the 2021 elections until 2022. The motion was withdrawn before the meeting in July this year because opponents saw it for what it was, and there is still a lot of opposition to a unitary authority. Meanwhile, Buckinghamshire district council local elections due in 2019 were delayed until 2020 due to the reorganisation into a unitary authority. The 2020 elections were again delayed until 2021, due to coronavirus.

What all this means for Somerset is that there is a precedent to delay local elections, if need be, once the decision to merge has been taken. The problem is, no such decision has yet been taken. Somerset was invited to submit proposals to Westminster by 9 November, but there are two competing proposals. Mr Fothergill backs the ‘One Somerset’ proposal, advanced by Somerset County Council, but – plot-twist! – one of Somerset’s most senior conservative MPs, Ian Liddell-Grainger (member for Bridgwater) supports the ‘Stronger Somerset’ proposal put forward by the four district authorities (three of which are LibDem controlled).

Liddell-Grainger has the advantage, in that he can use his parliamentary platform to promote his views, as he did on 8 October when he called for a debate on the future of local government in Somerset. He finds the ‘One Somerset’ proposal misleading – although the language he used to describe it is far more flamboyant than that.

“Will my right honourable friend join me in celebrating the anniversary of the battle of Carhampton, which is in my constituency in Somersetshire? Carhampton was of course the scene of the historic clash between the Danish invaders and King Egbert of Wessex, grandad of the creator of Britain, King Alfred. Our county – our great county – is once again under threat from the divisive plans put forward by the so-called county council, God help us, which does not represent the county at all and has mounted an invasion against common sense. King Egbert and his son King Aethelwulf, and the great King Alfred himself, would have fought against it. Can we have government time to stand with our great kings and fight this rubbish before it is too late?”

He was addressing the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg (member for North East Somerset) and, as you can imagine, the Tory grandee nicknamed ‘the member for the nineteenth century’ was tickled by the historical references, particularly as they touched upon his own county. He answered:

“Egbert is one of the great kings of Wessex who extended the borders of Wessex and became the bretwalda – that is to say, the high king – of the Anglo-Saxons and put Mercia in its place, at least briefly. That is worth remembering, because Gloucestershire is Mercian territory, so Somerset got one up on Gloucestershire, which we always quite like. With regard to my honourable friend’s key message, it is worth bearing in mind that he is right to say ‘the so-called county council’, because the county council does not cover the county of Somerset but an administrative district of the historic county, and people should remember that.”

Both Mr Liddell-Grainger and Mr Rees-Mogg are correct, of course. Despite the name, ‘One Somerset’, the proposed unitary authority does not cover the whole of Somerset. Somerset’s two other unitary authorities, North Somerset Council and Bath and North East Somerset (BANES) Council were invited to comment on the proposals, but both declined to do so, and there was no question of them merging into one or other of the new bodies to be created.

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The Chard and Illminster News reported that Mr Liddell-Grainger disparaged ‘One Somerset’ by calling it a “dotty idea based on a lie”. He said he was dead against the proposal and that the county council had a rock-bottom reputation for “hopeless management and regular financial crises”. He suspects this is merely a plot to get their hands on the cash reserves of the district councils, which have been far more prudent. “Somerset County Council is a thieving magpie,” he said. “They are never to be trusted.” He urged the public not to be fooled.

However, it is not just disdain for Somerset County Council that drives him. It is his genuine belief that what the ‘Stronger Somerset’ bid offers is better. It creates two unitary authorities, West (Sedgemoor joining with Somerset West and Taunton) and East (Mendip and South Somerset), with three pan-county bodies for: a children’s trust; a combined authority with elected mayor; and a shareholder-owned shared service delivery organization. Liddell-Grainger says this is “a far more intelligent scheme that moves much nearer my belief that the whole of Somerset should be included in any new reform. ‘Stronger Somerset’ will work to establish greater links with all the councils in the county to provide far better cost-effective services.”

Mr Fothergill fears the ‘Stronger Somerset’ bid may lead to duplicate costs, even though its business case is stronger, projecting £204m in savings over ten years, versus £18.5m in savings per year from the ‘One Somerset’ model. He also thinks it may be too complex for the public to understand. (Now if a Remainer were to make a remark like that about the electorate, there would be hell to pay …)

Leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition group at County Hall, Jane Lock, says the ‘Stronger Somerset’ bid better addresses the needs of residents, given 25 per cent of children in the county live in poverty, services for young people with special needs are falling, and much more could be done for communities that feel disconnected and left behind. She sees Fothergill’s call to delay the elections as an attempt to hold on to power, as the conservatives run scared of the electorate’s verdict on “Boris’s reign of error”.

It’s not just the friction of the two opposing camps that caused problems in the debate. The way the debate itself was conducted was also cause for concern. Former Wells MP, and now a Liberal Democrat councillor for the city, Tessa Munt, said, “It’s outrageous that Somerset’s conservatives have acted in such a high-handed fashion. It’s really important that local people in Somerset choose their representatives on the County Council. I was listed to ask a question about this, but the Tories seemed so scared about how the debate was going that they panicked, cut the question session short and stopped councillors from making any contribution to the discussion.”

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This will all sound depressingly familiar to anybody who spends any time watching debates in parliament on TV, where these same ploys and discourtesies, which do a great disservice to democracy, are played out at national level.

The decision will be made around Christmas time. The Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government will let us know if he is ‘minded’ to accept one or other of the proposals, or to reject both of them. If he gives the go-ahead, there will be an act of parliament to create the new unitary authority, or authorities, and a timetable will be set out, including for local elections. That may sound simple enough, but bear in mind the timeframes involved. From Dorset’s experience, we know it takes at least two years from request to implementation. Indeed, Somerset’s new local government structure is not expected to be in place until 2023!

Also of concern is the decision-maker. The current Minister for Housing, etc., is one Robert Jenrick, a millennial minister who has become the poster-boy for the elitism, corruption and cronyism that is the hallmark of Boris Johnson’s government. West Country Bylines’ readers will be familiar with baby-faced Robert Jenrick from various articles we’ve published. ‘All good things no longer come in threes’ describes how he broke lockdown but refused to resign, claimed £100,000 parliamentary expenses in respect of his third home and became involved in cash-for-favours sleaze over the Westferry and Quinn developments. ‘Anyone for tea and class war?’ details how he used the Towns Fund to help deliver a conservative victory in December 2019 by awarding the bulk of the sixty £25m grants he controlled to Tory marginals (all of which they went on to win) instead of to deprived areas. ‘Land of bronchoscope and lorry’ discusses his land-grab in the counties of the south west to build ‘Farage Garages’ – lorry parks needed because of the government’s incompetent handling of the Brexit process.

With Jenrick in charge, we might normally expect the worst to happen. Hopefully, the passionate engagement of local MP Ian Liddell-Grainger will count for something. Even so, it is likely the transition to a unitary authority of one kind or another will mean democratic expression is delayed once more for the residents of Somerset. More’s the pity. The precedent of Buckinghamshire notwithstanding, six years is a long time to go without getting a say over who represents you.