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Eastern Somerset district councillors come together to discuss next steps towards unitary council

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Leaders, Cabinet and Executive members and Chief Executives of South Somerset and Mendip District Councils have come together to discuss next steps in the preparations for an Eastern Somerset unitary council.

It is now one month since the clear preference of Somerset voters was revealed in the result of the local poll, with voters choosing Stronger Somerset over One Somerset by 65% to 35%.

It is the third time in recent history that Somerset has decisively rejected proposals for a single unitary. In a 2007 referendum, 82% rejected a single unitary council for Somerset. In an independent, representative Ipsos MORI opinion poll in 2020, 29% preferred the Stronger Somerset proposal compared with 27% who preferred more collaboration between councils and 23% who preferred no change at all – just 15% said they preferred the creation of a new single unitary council for the whole of Somerset.

While the Local Government Secretary, Robert Jenrick, MP is yet to announce his decision on the future of local government in Somerset, it is evident he will need to take account of the expressed views of local people. With that decision expected by 22 July, district councils are keen to have arrangements in place to move quickly to begin the transition to the new unitary councils.

Leader of South Somerset District Council Cllr Val Keitch said: “The voters of Somerset have decisively backed our proposal for two unitary councils for Somerset – one for Eastern Somerset and one for Western Somerset. The Local Government Secretary wants unitary local government in Somerset and ours is a proposal that has public support. All he needs to do is make the decision to green light our proposal and we are ready to crack on and make it work for the people of Eastern Somerset.”

Leader of Mendip District Council, Cllr Ros Wyke said: “Mendip and South Somerset district councils have a proud track record of achievement for our local communities and this must be built upon in any new arrangement for local government in our areas. We have come together to support our businesses and communities through Covid, worked well together on economic development and skills issues – these are real examples that show a new Eastern Somerset council will be able to hit the ground running and quickly deliver benefits to our communities.”

Meeting together for the first time since the local poll, Cabinet and Executive members, Leaders and Chief Executives of South Somerset and Mendip District Councils discussed a number of issues of pressing concern that will be crucial for a new Eastern Somerset unitary council to address. These included:

  • Levelling up across the economies of Eastern Somerset: making the case that levelling up is not just an issue for northern areas, but there are real challenges across Somerset. Setting out a case for levelling up building on aerospace and high-tech manufacturing around Yeovil and the developments in agri-tech, focusing on hospitality and tourism and creating opportunities for more green jobs. Councillors also pointed to strong examples from current district council practice, for example recruiting business advisors to help business to be more agile and innovative, supporting town investment funds and high street recovery.
  • Housing delivery: the opportunities for the new unitary council to build on the strong performance of districts in Eastern Somerset who have exceeded housing development targets, worked together to bring brownfield sites into use and identified opportunities to develop green skills in the workforce to aid retrofitting housing to improve energy efficiency.
  • Covid-19 recovery plans: councillors reflected on the success of the districts work to support businesses through Covid, for example by creating a consistent scheme to access business grants and working closely with the NHS to deliver vaccinations.
  • Health and wellbeing: councillors discussed how the new council will work with NHS leaders and organisations in the new Integrated Care System (ICS) and how the successful work of districts on improving wider determinants of health and wellbeing will stand the new unitary council in good stead. They highlighted how the Stronger Somerset business case is strongly aligned with the recently published ICS Design Framework, how the localist approach of Stronger Somerset supports place-led initiatives to improve health and wellbeing and called for an independent chair of the ICS following national good practice.
  • Regional partnerships: working in partnership with neighbouring councils in the historic Somerset area to deliver a regional devolution deal from Government. Councillors noted how two unitary councils in Somerset would be able to work as partners of similar size and influence with Bath and North East Somerset and North Somerset councils in a partnership that represented the historic Somerset boundary.

Following the Local Government Secretary’s decision, the joint leadership teams will invite partners, including the County Council, to an inaugural meeting to begin formal transition planning.

The Leaders, Cabinet and Executive members and Chief Executives of Somerset West and Taunton Council and Sedgemoor District Council are due to come together for a similar initial discussion next Tuesday 13 July.

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