In the wake of last week’s decision at South Somerset’s virtual full council meeting at which 38 of the 51 councillors present voted in favour of the Stronger Somerset business case put forward by the four district councils, I have been reflecting on the debate that took place.
Although the proposal was presented to us as a joint proposal from all four district councils, it is clear that South Somerset was very much in the driving seat. Given the short timescale involved, we should all be grateful that at least one local authority took the initiative.
Whilst across the districts the figure of 84% of councillors voting to support the proposal may well be true, in South Somerset it was just under 75%, and we must not forget that 9 out of 60 councillors chose not to attend the meeting, admittedly several due to ill health. All political parties did not express approval for a Stronger Somerset. In South Somerset, all Conservative councillors voted against. Apparently, the proposal is also receiving the backing of residents, but no evidence of this, or community engagement, was provided.
In putting people, businesses, and the environment first, whilst investing in Somerset, and remaining close to our communities is something to be applauded, in this ‘high level business case’ there was a palpable lack of specifics. If the proposal is actually the result of ‘extensive research and expert advice’, where was the evidence to demonstrate this?
When the named vote was taken, I was concerned that during the course of the meeting, which lasted for almost 90 minutes, at least 5 councillors seemed to be absent for part of the debate. I have always felt that if a person is not present for the entire proceedings then they should abstain from voting.
Although present at the meeting myself, it is not always easy to take in the full measure of an event when actively involved in proceedings. Now that we are all using technology to replace face-to-face meetings, I welcomed the opportunity to take advantage of viewing the Youtube video in full afterwards.
As much as we may want to re-assure the electorate that politics does not come into play when discussing the future of local government in Somerset, and whilst I do agree that we all want the best possible outcomes for those we represent, political divisions were very much present at the meeting.
At least we all agreed on two things; that in both cases there was a lack of detail and substance in the two business cases presented to us in recent weeks, and that there is a need for change. What has come into play is deciding exactly what form any change should take. Where many of my fellow South Somerset colleagues had, at the beginning of this year, been adamant that pursuing the case for a unitary authority was not the way forward, it was heartening to hear one key member state at this meeting that ‘a unitary authority, whether one or two, is one of only two practical solutions’. Even if this paucity of choice has been forced upon us by central government.
If part of the reasoning is that a one unitary authority is far too large, then there was little mention of why a north/south split of the county was considered unviable when compared with the east/west proposal put before us. Perhaps it was because that to suggest the main route for business and social travel for South Somerset was along the A37 towards Bath is nonsense. I have been travelling that route three times a week for the last 2 years, and it is a nightmare.
Whilst promising the delivery of this ‘bold new plan’, and real change in the way that services are provided for residents and businesses across Somerset, what it seems we will end up with is two councils and three other bodies, all with associated administrative costs. If that is the case, surely we may as well retain the status quo.
Much has been made of the ‘democratic deficit’ should the choice be for one single unitary authority. As I argued at the time, is not about geography but how actively engaged one’s political representatives are. Figures bandied around concerning population numbers seem to have become confused. Although the population of Somerset is around 560,000, the electorate is just 430,000, which I assume is where the figure of 100 councillors each representing 4,300 people comes from. The argument that this is too many flies in the face of the large number of councillors who are not only elected at district level but also serve as county councillors. By and large they seem to manage OK whilst at present representing on average over 7,000 electors, so even if the higher figure were taken, representation would still be significantly better than at present.
What disappointed me most was the paucity of the debate that took place. When any proposal is put forward, we should all expect there to be robust challenge and enquiry to ensure the right outcome. Last Thursday evening just 14 out of the total of 51 councillors present chose to take an active part. Of these, we were treated to repeat performances from some, which is to be expected; we all like the sound of our own voices from time to time. I counted what can only be described as statements, from just 7 councillors, all in favour. Even so, I would have expected there to be some effort at seeking clarification of some points produced in the 100+ page document. It was left to seven of us opposed to the proposal to ask a total of 12 questions. With such a lack of engagement, I worry that we are not truly serving our democratic purpose.