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Local Government Reorganisation: Somerset

Volume 685: debated on Wednesday 2 December 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered local government reorganisation in Somerset.

This is a great opportunity. I am delighted to see the Minister in her place and to be working with her once again, as I have done for many years. I am grateful to be able to raise the subject of local government reorganisation. It is important to many people, but at the moment it is an irrelevant sideshow due to the awful pandemic. The only reason it is on the agenda now is that the leader of Somerset County Council pushed, bullied and forced it down the throats of our local party.

When the virus started to spread, the voice of David Fothergill boomed out across local radio. Unfortunately, his numerous broadcasts had nothing to do with the worst health crisis in a generation. Instead, Councillor Fothergill polished his ego and got his leg over his personal hobby-horse named One Somerset. It was “Somerset calling, Somerset calling.” It was impossible to avoid hearing or seeing the message, or the man. He made dozens of videos and droned on and on about the golden advantage of single unitary status and the perils of accepting anything less.

One Somerset was already becoming a dangerous distraction to the main task of fighting the disease. One day, we may discover what really happened to some of the huge grants that the county council was given to fight covid. Did the cash go where the Government intended? Did it help to save lives? Was it diverted and at what human cost? I sincerely hope that the county council is not found to have blood on its hands.

The Minister’s Department had hoped to publish a White Paper on the future of local government this year, but launching such a policy document would have been insensitive while the Government grappled with the worst of the crisis. It was a good call that I totally agree with. Councillor Fothergill, however, refused to wait; the man has no patience. He boosted the county council’s publicity team to 28. That is actually more than the Downing Street press unit. He set aside a war chest of £2 million, I am told, to fight for his vision for One Somerset. He also hired a unitary fanatic from Wiltshire with the unlikely name of Carlton Brand—it really is true. Dr Brand, I am told, is being paid in the region of £200,000 for his work. However, Dr Brand’s model is riddled with holes and was completely out of date when Wiltshire went unitary in ’09. When I last looked, it was £21 million in the red already and its relationships with its parish councils have turned desperately sour. I would not buy a pair of used bicycle clips from Dr Brand, let alone a pair of lycra cycling pants, but Fothergill has paid him a small fortune to take the ancient Wiltshire model with a few tweaks, and foist it on us.

In the shadowy world of used car dealers, One Somerset is what they call a cut and shut job. It looks safe until it is found that the front end is a wreck and is welded on to the back end of another wreck, and the paint job at both ends does not match. One Somerset is a municipal death trap. The county councils could not believe Fothergill’s timing. To launch that cobbled-together rust bucket when people were dying from covid was crass, inept and totally unnecessary. It was the tactic of a ruthless smash and grab monster; and that is still his aim—to smash the district councils and grab their cash reserves. His case is based on propaganda and lies. He is Taunton’s answer to William Joyce, and we all remember what happened to that particular traitor—Albert Pierrepoint’s first customer, as I seem to recall.

There is an important question of geographical involvement. What is the exact area of Somerset that we are talking about? It is not a silly query, even for a Member of Parliament who represents a big part of it. When it was established, in 1889, Somerset County Council mirrored Somerset’s traditional borders. It was enormous, bringing in Avonmouth just south of Bristol, and including Weston-super-Mare, Bath and everything in between, including places such as Midsomer Norton, the quaint town where “Midsomer Murders” was filmed. How appropriate. All those picturesque settlements are in Somerset and have nothing to do with Somerset County Council. If I asked Members to draw me an outline of Somerset County Council’s area, many would be stumped. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister has an idea. In her patch it should be easy. Kent County Council still has traditional borders, and I am delighted for it; but the county council is a mishmash and a muddle in Somerset—a misnomer, and a minefield for any Minister of the Crown. The county has been reorganised so often that it is now unrecognisable. How on earth are local people expected to take it seriously?

Somerset County Council is also broke. It has been on skid row for two decades. In ’07 it had only £11 million in reserves. Here we are 13 years later and the reserves are dangerously low. What scares the pants off me is that Fothergill’s One Somerset master plan suggests running the same risk. He allows a mere 10% contingency, as opposed to the 25% that is recommended by the Treasury. If an unexpected crisis happens—and Somerset County Council’s dismal record is littered with expensive crises—there is very little left in the kitty. The county council usually reflects the spending cuts and redundancies that a bunch of new smooth-talking consultants with a magic bullet have left. That is roughly what happened in 2007 when Alan Jones, Somerset’s teeny chief exec, stuck his thumb in the air, thought he felt a wind of change, and yelled “Eureka!” He had a beady eye on the reserves of the district councils all those years ago. He reckoned if the Government agreed to scrap the districts he could save the county from bankruptcy. Labour was in power and Jonesy thought he would get away with it. Wiltshire county was pitching for unitary status and so was Cornwall. The unspeakable little man jumped on the bandwagon and then fell off it. Quite simply, he had not bargained on the most important: the people.

Somerset folk are really canny and strong willed, as I can testify. They may not love their district councils, but at least they know who they are and why they are there. They hate and reject the face of unapproachable bureaucracy. The districts demand a referendum and should have one. The county council refused, so we did it ourselves: a full vote with polling booths and all the trimmings. It cost a bit, but it proves the point. Four hundred thousand people cast a vote and 82% rejected the unitary plan. Mr Jones limped away with his tail between his legs and left the council. Bad chief execs come and go but tightrope walking should not be part of the job description. After the referendum defeat, Alan Jones signed the county up to a lunatic outsourcing scheme called Southwest One. It had disaster written all over it. The four district councils were too sensible to touch it. Our Mr Fothergill was in favour. Southwest One promised to save hundreds of millions of pounds. It fell flat on its face and cost the county £70 million in payments.

Why does this county council always end up with second-rate top brass, incapable of walking along a corridor, let alone a tightrope? The men and women who do the hard graft—the staff—are more like lions, but they are constantly led by donkeys. They are donkeys that lurch from crisis to crisis, blaming everyone else: adult social care, children’s services; the list goes on. Today we have a class A jackass running the county, preaching the only way, and the leader is Fothergill.

In reality, west Somerset should be called three Somerset. This great county has already got two unitaries. Back in 1996, North Somerset, and Bath and North East Somerset were created. Both are struggling today. They are far too small to survive much longer. I wonder if anyone can identify the architect of the biggest, first reorganisation in 1974, when the demolition of our historic county began. That was the Minister who pushed the boundaries as far down as Midsomer Norton. We could call him the Midsomer murderer, after the TV series. Does anybody recall his name? Here is a clue: the poor man died in 1981 and, in a by-election, his safe seat fell to Shirley Williams of the SDP. It was the late Sir Rodney Graham Page. Be warned, history always forgets those who carved up our county.

Counties may be going out of fashion, which may be fair enough. We understand that local government must never stand still, but intelligent change is the best way, Minister. That is why the Government are right to insist that big ideas should come from the councils themselves and not be imposed on them. It is also vital to demonstrate genuine local support. I think the Minister will use the term good, local support. What does that mean?

If a county council votes for reorganisation, does that represent good support? No, surely not, if all four districts vote against One Somerset. Far more elected councillors booed than cheered Mr Fothergill’s hobbyhorse. If a county council secures the backing of a handful of prominent figures, is that good support? How many endorsements are needed? I think we should be told. I note, with great concern, that One Somerset is bragging—bragging, of all things—about the support of Mrs Mountstevens, the police and crime commissioner. Mrs Mountstevens’ reputation for dishonesty now matches Mr Fothergill’s. No wonder they are mates. She broke the rules and picked her own deputy by simply giving him the job; a typical crooked stich-up. To make matter worse, her deputy used to be a lawyer who set up Southwest One, the failed outsourcing partnership. What goes around comes around.

How are the public going to be consulted? It is not good enough to offer cheap online quotations, yet that is the system that Somerset has opted for. Can anyone fill in a form on a website? Lord Haw-Haw could sit all night ticking boxes in his favour; perhaps he does. That is wide open to abuse. Precisely the same dodgy process was tried when Taunton Deane Borough Council set about swallowing west Somerset. I will remind the Minister what happened. It was another half-baked scheme from another corrupt council leader, who—and I will say this only once—claimed to be a Conservative. The people never got a proper say and, when the elections were held for the new council, the Conservatives were basically wiped out.

The people will always punish stupid decisions and stupid people at the ballot box. We should never forget that as MPs. I would like to think that the Minister and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government will select a much more open and honest form of public consultation for this proposal.

I realise this is short notice, but I will provide some detail today. If it is fair, it will have my enthusiastic support. Frankly, we need something that is more thorough than a referendum. I know that, if necessary, the districts are willing to run their own referendum. I hope the Minister can see that that will not be required. I bring today for the Minister a letter from the leader of Sedgemoor District Council, which is partly in my constituency, along with Somerset West and Taunton. He asks the Government to consider bringing back the old county—for the Secretary of State to consider bringing us together, back to 1974, when the travesty of destroying our wonderful county was seen to be important. This is an opportunity.

Colleagues in this place and in Somerset understand that we want to be given a say. The critical mass of the existing county, with the ridiculous proposal to save only £18 million, will do nothing—nothing, Minister. It will just enable it to limp on, but limp on to what? Another oblivion; another loss. This letter—this opportunity—means that we can secure our self-esteem, and bring our historic heartland and the people we represent together.

The MPs of this area are mainly of one party, which is the most successful democratic political party in the world. Why? Because we listen to the people and understand what they say, and it is important that we continue to do so. I ask the Minister to urge our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to think about this long and hard, because I hope that today is the start of chance for the Government to put right a terrible wrong, and to understand that the will of the people matters beyond all else. I will pass this letter to the Minister and thank her for her courtesy in listening.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms McVey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing this debate. His passion for Somerset and its history is well known across the House. He often treats us to interesting snippets of historic fact.

I understand his long-standing interest in this matter. The Government are committed to levelling up all areas of the country and empowering our regions by devolving money, resources and control away from Westminster. We will in due course set out our detailed plans in the local recovery and devolution White Paper, as my hon. Friend mentioned.

At the spending review, the Chancellor announced a new £4 billion levelling-up fund, building on the success of our £3.6 billion town fund. Local areas across England will be eligible to apply directly to the fund to finance things that communities need and people want. The spending review makes available up to £600 million in 2021-22, and we will publish a prospectus for the fund, launching the first round of the competitions in the new year. Further finding will spread over subsequent years, up to 2023-24.

The Government consider that locally led changes to the structure of local government, whether in the form of unitarisation or district mergers, can be the appropriate means of saving taxpayers’ money, and improving service delivery and local accountability. However, we are clear that any reform of a local government area is most effectively achieved through locally led proposals, put forward by those who know the area best—the very essence of localism, to which the Government remain committed. There is no question of, as my hon. Friend referred to, top-down imposition of Government solutions. Any proposal for change will need to meet our long-standing criteria and must be likely to improve local government in the area, command a good deal of local support and lead to unitary councils covering a credible geography.

This brings me to local government reorganisation in Somerset, one of the three areas of the country where, on 9 October, the Secretary of State invited all the principal councils to submit locally led proposals for unitary local government. The other areas where councils received an invitation were Cumbria and North Yorkshire. Councils in these areas have been developing ideas about restructuring local government in their areas for some time and have requested such invitations.

In Somerset, all five councils published a report on the future of local government there in January 2019, looking at a wide range of options for improving local services. It is right that Somerset councils should now have the opportunity to take their local discussions to a conclusion and, if they wish, make a proposal for unitary reform. We have received two outline proposals from Somerset councils—one from the county council proposing a single unitary for the area, and one from the district councils proposing two unitary councils. The councils will now have until 9 December to submit their proposals in full.

I welcome the healthy debate that this process represents on the best way forward for local government in Somerset to ensure that councils can deliver excellent services for their businesses and residents. It would not be appropriate for me to comment today on those proposals as they are yet to be submitted in full, but I would like to outline the steps that we plan to take after the full proposals have been received.

The next step is for the Secretary of State to consult. The statute requires that any such consultation consult any councils that would be affected by a proposal but did not submit it, as well as any other persons that the Secretary of State considers appropriate. We will be keen to gather views from a wide range of stakeholders, including councils, other public service providers, businesses, voluntary sector organisations and, very importantly, local residents. Of course, we look forward to hearing from all local MPs.

We would hope to launch any consultation in early 2021. We may consult on the proposals received, or we may decide at that point not to take a proposal further, if for example it was not in compliance with the invitation. Hence, we may undertake the consultation on both proposals for Somerset.

Following the consultation, the Secretary of State will carefully consider the proposals, assessing them alongside the long-standing criteria that I described earlier. He must have regard to all representations that he has received in relation to the proposals, including those received through the consultation exercise, and all other relevant information available to him.

Where the Secretary of State decides that a proposal should be implemented, he will seek parliamentary approval for the necessary secondary legislation—the structural changes order—with which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset is familiar. Such an order would need to be considered by each House. If Parliament approves the implementation of such a proposal, it is likely that a new unitary council will be established from 1 April 2023. The majority of the implementation work that councils will undertake will be in 2022-23, with elections to shadow or preparing councils in May 2022.

I just want to touch on elections. The Secretary of State has the power to postpone local elections. We recognise that, when making proposals, councils may request that the May 2021 local elections in the area be postponed for a year. There are precedents for a one-year postponement of local elections where unitarisation is under consideration, the examples being the Buckingham and Northamptonshire unitarisations. Such a postponement avoids members being elected for a short period and confusion for the electorate, who are asked to vote for councils for the future that are under consideration and may be abolished. We will carefully consider any such request from any councils and any other representations that we receive on that.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate, and I look forward to having further discussions with him on the matter. I am grateful to him for passing on the letter addressed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the issues that he has raised.

With the invitation, councils in Somerset now have an opportunity to move forward with reforms that can open the way to achieving significant benefits for local people and businesses, delivering service improvement, facilitating economic growth and contributing to the levelling up of opportunity and prosperity across the country. I very much hope that we see successful proposals and outcomes for Somerset and indeed the rest of the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.