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Somerset West and Taunton (Local Government Changes) Order 2018

Volume 791: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2018

Somerset West and Taunton (Modification of Boundary Change Enactments) Regulations 2018

Motions to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Order and Regulations laid before the House on 29 March be approved.

Relevant document: 26th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, let us see what trouble we have with these. In moving the draft Somerset West and Taunton (Local Government Changes) Order 2018, I will also speak to the draft Somerset West and Taunton (Modification of Boundary Change Enactments) Regulations 2018. These instruments, if approved by Parliament and made, will establish on 1 April 2019 the new local government area of Somerset West and Taunton, together with a new district council for that area, and will abolish the existing local government areas of West Somerset district and Taunton Deane borough, together with their councils.

The instruments also provide for elections to this new council to be held in May 2019 and each fourth year thereafter. This includes providing electoral arrangements—that is, the warding arrangements that would be used for the first elections should the Local Government Boundary Commission for England be unable to conclude in time the electoral review which it is expected to undertake. In addition the instruments make transitional provision, including for a shadow authority and shadow executive, to prepare for the new council during the period from when the order is in force until April 2020.

We have brought forward these instruments in response to a locally led proposal from the area concerned. Both the existing principal councils in the area which submitted the joint proposal continue to support it and, as statute requires, have given their formal consent to the regulations. In line with the Government’s 2017 manifesto, we are committed to consider any locally led proposals for district mergers and, as we told Parliament in November 2017, we will assess proposals we receive on the basis that they will improve local government and service delivery, create structures with a credible geography, and command a good deal of local support. The Government are satisfied that this merger proposal fully meets these criteria.

First, the merger will improve local government in the area. It will secure the current shared service partnership and the £2.6 million in savings that come as a result, as well as generating further savings of £0.5 million. This would improve service delivery across the whole area. The area of the new Somerset West and Taunton district and council is a coherent geography with a population of around 147,000.

Finally, we are satisfied that the evidence shows that there is strong local support for this proposal from the democratically elected representatives of the population as well as the county council, the district and borough councils, and a majority of public authorities, town and parish councils, and voluntary and business organisations which made representations to the Secretary of State.

It may assist noble Lords if I say something about the processes followed by the councils and the Government, which have led us to conclude that this proposal meets the criteria and should be implemented. In bringing forward their proposal to merge, the two councils undertook an engagement programme with residents and stakeholders from December 2016 until February 2017. This included an independent, demographically representative phone poll; a dedicated website with background information and an online questionnaire; a series of eight public roadshow events throughout the whole area; a series of nine consultation events, involving groups of parish and town councillors and representatives of community groups; and various meetings with key stakeholders including businesses, partners, and other local public bodies.

The councils submitted their proposal to the Government in March 2017. Following careful consideration, my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State announced on 30 November 2017 that he was minded to implement the proposal. There then followed a period for representations until 19 January 2018. The Secretary of State received a total of 251 representations.

Somerset County Council supports the merger and all public bodies are either supportive or raised no objections. A strong majority of businesses and voluntary sector organisations were supportive or raised no objections. The majority of parishes were supportive or neutral. As to representations from members of the public, 53 were supportive of the proposed merger and 99 did not support it. Although most of these members of the public did not provide any reasons, the most common reasons cited were the perceived reduction in democratic representation for West Somerset following the merger and the concern that Taunton Deane would be financially detrimentally affected. We believe that both these concerns can be addressed.

The first, of democratic accountability, is something we all take seriously. We have had discussions with the Local Government Boundary Commission and understand that, should Parliament approve and we make these instruments, then the commission will carry out a full electoral review of the area of the proposed new district, which will ensure that all people are equally represented on the proposed new council. We also consider that the second concern expressed is addressed by the fact that Taunton Deane also stands to benefit from savings generated by the merger. I will say a little more on this later.

Having considered the proposal and all of the representations carefully, the Secretary of State announced on 22 March this year that he intended to seek parliamentary approval of the secondary legislation to implement this proposal, and the instruments that we are considering today were laid on 29 March.

Noble Lords will be aware that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has drawn these instruments to the special attention of the House as it believes there were inadequacies in the consultation carried out by the councils. That is not a view we share. I have already outlined the extensive nature of the engagement carried out by the councils, including a demographically representative phone poll, an online questionnaire and a number of roadshows, events and meetings.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee also mentioned that a number of representations to the Secretary of State from Taunton Deane residents outlined unwillingness to take on West Somerset as a financially unsustainable council. As we explained to the committee, both the councils and the Government consider that Taunton Deane is likely to enjoy financial and other benefits resulting from this proposed merger. The two councils already benefit from shared services and a senior management team and staff team, and considerable savings of £2.6 million per annum have already been generated through the current partnership.

These savings and improvements in service delivery would be safeguarded by the proposed merger being implemented. Should the merger not be implemented, the financial unsustainability of West Somerset District Council is considered to jeopardise the financial benefits of the current partnership, thus forcing Taunton Deane Borough Council to remove itself from the partnership agreement, which for both councils would risk the savings already generated.

The councils’ medium-term financial forecast remains challenging, with both councils needing to reduce annual expenditure: West Somerset by £0.8 million and Taunton Deane by £2.3 million by 2021. The independent auditor notes that,

“if the ‘One Council’ was not to go ahead and TDBC sought to unwind the collaboration the financial gap would be exacerbated”.

I think this helps to demonstrate that the continuation of the joint working arrangements and the additional benefits that a merger could provide will benefit not only residents in West Somerset but those in Taunton Deane. That may be why both councils remain in favour of the merger, consented to the instruments we are considering today and continue to urge us to progress as quickly as possible so that implementation can begin.

Turning briefly to the detail of the two instruments before us today, the regulations modify the provisions of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 in its application to the case concerned. The regulations are made under provisions of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. These regulations modify the 2007 Act provisions to enable a locally led and supported merger proposal to be implemented without the need for a time-consuming boundary review, which can be undertaken only at the discretion of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England.

The order is to be made under the modified provisions of the 2007 Act which provide for: abolishing the existing local government areas for West Somerset and Taunton Deane; establishing a new district coterminous with the previous areas of West Somerset and Taunton Deane named Somerset West and Taunton; winding up and dissolving the district council of West Somerset and the borough council of Taunton Deane and establish a new council Somerset West and Taunton District Council; providing appropriate transitional arrangements, such as a shadow authority and shadow executive; and establishing, in agreement with the councils, any necessary electoral arrangements. We expect the Local Government Boundary Commission for England to be able to undertake a full electoral review of the new area before the elections in May 2019.

In conclusion, these instruments establish the new local government area of, and council for, Somerset West and Taunton. The proposal was initiated and developed by the councils themselves, the democratically elected representatives of the population. The Secretary of State considered this locally led proposal according to the criteria that were announced in the other place. I have full confidence in the local area to implement the merger by April 2019 and allow for the election of the new council soon after in May. On that basis, I commend these regulations and the order to the House.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the LGA and a district councillor in South Somerset. Taunton Deane and West Somerset have been collaborating successfully for some time and share several services and offices, as the Minister said. Taunton Deane now wishes to terminate its collaboration. Instead, it wishes to take over West Somerset. I have received many submissions from local councillors and others who are opposed to the merger, and none in favour. I shall try to briefly give the House a flavour of the communities being discussed this afternoon.

Taunton Deane Borough Council, as its name implies, includes the county town of Taunton. It has a large community and includes some rural villages and the market town of Wellington, but it can in no way be described as extremely rural. It has excellent infrastructure in the form of the main railway line linking down to Cornwall and up to Bristol and the north of the country. It is situated on the junction of the M5 spine, which runs down the west of the country, and has a thriving hospital, a sixth-form college and FE college, several secondary schools and numerous primary schools. There is a vibrant town centre. Generally, it has everything going for it.

West Somerset is a very different area and council. It is one of the smallest, if not the smallest, district council in the country. It has extremely poor connectivity to the surrounding area. The A39, which is the main route to the largest town of Minehead, has not been updated. Seventy per cent of the landmass of West Somerset is within the Exmoor National Park. This means that the area is extremely beautiful and, with its interesting coastline, West Somerset attracts a great many tourists. However, unlike Taunton, which can rely on the new homes bonus to boost its budget, it is impossible to build large numbers of homes in West Somerset due to planning restrictions in the national park.

There are also many other challenges. The community college at Minehead takes pupils from 14 to 18 and covers an area of 600 square miles. This means that pupils travel large distances on school transport and consequently find it difficult to have any social life outside school, which the pupils in Taunton take for granted.

West Somerset is, however, the site of the nuclear power plants at Hinkley. Power station A is decommissioned but has never been removed, Hinkley B is still operational and Hinkley C is still under construction. Despite this, the roads serving Hinkley are, for the most part, rural, winding roads taking a great deal of extra traffic during the construction phase. West Somerset should have been able to count on the business rates from Hinkley. However, when the Government allowed local authorities to retain business rates, they did not transfer funds to cover historical appeals by businesses against their rating. This was an amazing sleight of hand of which many magicians would have been proud. Consequently, when Hinkley’s appeal was allowed, West Somerset had to refund £6.7 million from its meagre resources to Hinkley. Hinkley’s business rates were £5 million, but they have been reassessed at £29 million. Not surprisingly, Hinkley is trying the appeal route once again.

We have before us a David and Goliath situation. Taunton Deane is financially stable and able to plan for its future with confidence. West Somerset, although having some capital assets, has a revenue budget that is not solvent. This is due not to incompetence on the part of its officers or elected councillors but to the greatly increased costs of providing services in deep rural isolated areas, coupled with the business rates issue outlined above.

Central government does not accurately reflect rurality in its settlement for West Somerset, nor does the Boundary Commission reflect this when reviewing electoral boundaries. It takes no notice of sparsity or connectivity but focuses solely on the number of electors, hence the four county councillors who cover the whole of West Somerset have a great many parished areas to cover. In one case, that is 25 parishes.

Contrast that with the county town of Taunton, which is unparished. The draft Statutory Instrument refers to the Government’s commitment to,

“immediately carry out a Community Governance Review to ensure that the currently unparished area of Taunton is parished as soon as possible”.

I do not see any costs for that in the statutory instrument.

Now we come to the issue of democratic deficit—a subject close to my heart. Currently Taunton Deane has 56 councillors and West Somerset 28. The proposal is for 58 councillors going forward—a 32% reduction. One of the new wards will have five councillors. How is that going to work? There will be five people, potentially from different political parties, all trying to represent the views of the electorate. Many councillors cannot agree among their own party colleagues, never mind those from another party. If the number of electors demands five councillors, why not divide the ward into smaller sections and give those elected a fighting chance of doing a decent job?

West Somerset will now be covered by four divisions with a total of 13 councillors—more than a 50% reduction, while Taunton Deane gets only a 26% reduction. Who devised these massive, multimember wards for very rural areas? This whole thing reeks of political gerrymandering on a massive scale. A consultation has taken place, but this does not appear to have been satisfactory. Like a lot of consultations, the questions asked are often to produce the answers required. I note that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee was concerned about the nature of the consultation. I quote from a letter sent to that committee, which I received this morning:

“The public consultation was biased in many ways as noted earlier in HL Paper, but it is not mentioned that the proponents of the merger had promoted it in the local press as a fait accompli, (emphasising that the councils had already taken a vote and the proposal to merge had already been sent to the Minister) BEFORE this consultation took place. It was also repeatedly claimed, inaccurately, that the merger per se would save £3.1m”.

I turn briefly to the predatory and unwelcome bid on 2 May by the leader of the county council to form a unitary county. We can see from press reports in the Telegraph on Monday that Somerset County Council is running a deficit budget. It is, therefore, looking to the districts, which are solvent, to bail them out. The leader of the county council says:

“This is the start of the conversation. At this stage the situation is best described as being in ‘talks about talks’ and I’m adamant that I will enter into these conversations with an open mind and nothing on my agenda except delivering long-term sustainable services for Somerset’s residents”.

Still on the subject of unitary, he says:

“I know the announcements earlier this month may have been unsettling, and even worrying, to some staff within SCC and also the districts, especially where it was coupled with alarming headlines. That was not the aim of publicising our discussions and I’m happy to apologise to staff in all organisations if that was the consequence”.

I find these words somewhat disingenuous.

The press release from the five district council leaders who met last Friday, states:

“The leaders of all five district councils together with the County Council have pledged today to work together on a joint review of local governance in Somerset. The aim of the review will be to determine the best way of delivering local public services and meeting community outcomes in Somerset in the future.

Whilst the details of the review are still to be finalised, the leaders have committed to some important principles including … Ensuring the review is independent of any one or group of organisations and that the focus of the review is on what is best for Somerset and its communities … Considering a range of options for the future”,

with all options having,

“a robust business case analysis … Inviting others, including health care, to work with the councils on the review … To engage with communities and stakeholders through the review process, keep people informed and undertake community consultation before any final decisions are made”.

Work will now commence on drawing up detailed plans and timetables for the review, and further updates will be issued in due course.

There was a debate in the other place on the proposed unitary yesterday—this despite the leader of the county council taking the trouble to go to London to lobby the MPs on his proposal. However, his proposal did not meet with unqualified support. I do not doubt that West Somerset is in desperate straits but, if Taunton Deane does not wish to continue its collaboration with it, why not look to Sedgemoor District Council? It also has a boundary with West Somerset and together they form one parliamentary constituency, represented by Ian Liddell-Grainger, who, incidentally, is opposed to the merger that we have before us today. He is recorded as saying that he was gobsmacked at the unitary proposal—and I take that from Hansard.

The costs of the merger are large, setting up a shadow authority on 1 April to be overtaken by the new authority in May 2019 and then, again, by a possible unitary authority. This seems like a desperate waste of taxpayers’ money. I regret that I do not think now is the right time to be progressing this proposal.

My Lords, I again refer the House to my entry in the register of interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

This is another set of proposals that seems fraught with local difficulty and, as I said before, the lack of clarity from the Government on their plan for local government in England as a whole is not helping matters. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of your Lordships’ House has brought these two statutory instruments to the special attention of the House, on the grounds that there appear to be inadequacies in the consultation which relates to these instruments. Inadequacy in these sort of consultations is a matter that I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer on what the department will do to improve the situation.

I am very much in agreement that, for a consultation exercise to carry any credibility, those who organise it must be open-minded about its results, otherwise there is no point in the exercise. I also have some sympathy with the residents of Taunton Deane in respect of their concerns about this merger, as the independent auditor considers West Somerset District Council to be financially unsustainable. The merger may be the answer, but that has not been established to the satisfaction of many people locally. We then have various other individuals giving their views, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, said. The leader of Somerset County Council, the Conservative councillor David Fothergill, who lives in Taunton, wants a countywide unitary, which he claims will save the council £28 million. Marcus Fysh, the MP for Yeovil, who is a former county councillor, also wants the county unitary model. James Heappey, the Member for Wells, also wants a county unitary, but Rebecca Pow, the Tory MP for Taunton Deane, is firmly sitting on the fence, saying that she will wait to hear more proposals before she makes her mind up.

It is all a bit of a shambles again, which is not helped by the general approach from the Government, with no clear vision how local democracy should be delivered in England. It just makes matters even more difficult to get right, although I accept that these things are very difficult. It would in my opinion be better, as we were saying, to see unitary local government in England, and we will work with local councillors and local communities to come up with the best options in each county to deliver that with full consultation.

I wonder whether the Minister can help me, because I am getting a little confused by all these mergers, and how it all works. I think that he said in our previous debate that when we have districts coming together in mergers, any one district can oppose that. Then he said that any unitary proposals are decided in the round, so a council cannot oppose it. But what happens if you get a county district wanting to merge with a unitary? Is that done in the round again, as well, or is there a third option? I am thinking of somewhere like Oxford City Council, which is a unitary and does not want to merge with Oxfordshire. Has it got a veto? I do not know. It all seems very confused to me, and we need to be clear because I think that the Government are very muddled on this.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. May I just address one point that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has raised in both debates? What he describes as a muddle is a reflection of the Government’s approach—which we think is the right one—which is to respect what local communities want. We are responding to locally led proposals. Both the statutory instruments we have just agreed, and this one, are proposals that local people have asked the Government to approve. The alternative, which may be the option that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, prefers, is a top-down approach whereby government states its desired structure and then imposes that uniformly throughout the country. So I reject his description of our policy as a muddle: we think it is locally responsive. We considered the proposals in the round and we think this is a more satisfactory approach to local democracy than the alternative.

Let me deal with some of the points that were raised during our debate. Rebecca Pow is on record as supporting the proposed merger. On the electoral arrangements, the proposals in the order are a back-up option put together by the local authorities. The Local Government Boundary Commission will re-ward the whole area into appropriate wards. Once the number of councillors is reduced, the number of electors to each councillor will remain approximately 1,900, which is the average for the United Kingdom.

So far as support for the proposals before us is concerned, Taunton Deane Borough Council voted in support of progressing the merger at its full council meeting on 26 July 2016: 32 voted in favour, 16 against, and two abstained. Somerset County Council supports the merger, and there is no proposal from the county council or any of the districts for further unitary councils in Somerset. Should, in time, any locally led proposals come forward, we would of course consider them, but there are none on the table.

Looking at the parish councils, the majority of parishes supported the proposition: 10 were supportive and five were against. A strong majority of businesses and voluntary sector organisations—18—were supportive, and four raised no objections.

The thrust of the noble Baroness’s case was that the merger would be to the detriment of Taunton Deane residents. I do not want to go through all the arguments that I rehearsed when I introduced the instruments, but we do understand that, should the merger not be implemented, the financial unsustainability of West Somerset Council is considered to jeopardise the financial benefits of the current partnership, thus forcing Taunton Deane Borough Council to remove itself from the partnership agreement, which for both councils would risk the savings already generated. As I said, the independent auditor notes that,

“if the ‘One Council’ was not to go ahead and TDBC sought to unwind the collaboration the financial gap would be exacerbated”.

The two councils are clear that the merger will safeguard annual savings of £3.1 million—£2.6 million from transformation and £0.5 million from the governance changes.

I have listened with respect to the arguments put forward, but I think there is a strong case for agreeing to the proposition put to us by the two borough councils concerned.

Before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him to clarify one point? I thought I heard him say that each councillor in the new council would have an electorate of 1,900. How can that be, when no single-member wards are proposed? In one case, it is a five-member ward.

That would be an average, dividing the number of electors by the number of councillors. I have not drilled it down to an individual ward basis.

I thank the Minister for his contribution. I mentioned Scotland and Wales in the previous debate. I think the Minister was in the Cabinet when the Major Government introduced unitary government to both Scotland and Wales in 1996, producing 32 councils in Scotland and 22 in Wales. That has largely stood the test of time. It seems strange, if that was the right thing to do then—it seemed to work well then and carries on to this day—that in England, it is very confused. I accept that the noble Lord has said that is what the policy is, but when we have a unitary council in one place and a district council in another, it all just appears to be a muddle. I recall a discussion with, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, who described that he had five councils potentially levying council tax and other demands in Cambridgeshire, but in Cornwall there was only one. It certainly seems to me to be very confused.

Motions agreed.