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Somerset (Structural Changes) Order 2022

Volume 819: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Somerset (Structural Changes) Order 2022.

Relevant document: 29th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, this order was laid before this House on 24 January 2022. The other place approved it on 28 February. If approved by this House and made, it will implement a proposal submitted by Somerset County Council for a single unitary for the whole of the Somerset County Council area.

In my introductory words for the Cumbria order, I set out the Government’s views on the benefits of strong local leadership. This order will establish for the people of Somerset a new single unitary council. Implementing this proposal and establishing this unitary authority will enable stronger leadership and far greater engagement at the strategic level and with its communities at the most local level. While Somerset is not among the areas for an early county deal, we will continue discussions with Somerset about a future devolution deal. The reform for which the order provides can help pave the way for such a deal.

I set out the full detail of the process for all three areas undergoing unitarisation in my speech regarding Cumbria. I will not repeat the detail of the invitation, criteria or dates of the statutory consultation here but will highlight the matters specific to Somerset. When issuing the invitation to the principal councils in Somerset to submit proposals for unitary local government, the then Secretary of State, my right honourable friend the Member for Newark, Robert Jenrick, also wrote to the neighbouring unitary councils of Bath and North East Somerset and North Somerset. Two locally-led proposals for local government reorganisation in Somerset were received in December 2020, one for a single unitary council and one for two unitary councils.

Turning now to the responses to the statutory consultation, we received almost 5,500 responses on the Somerset proposals. Of them, 5,167 responses, 94% of the total, were from residents living in the area affected. Both proposals received of a good deal of support. Some 3,000 residents, or 57% of those who responded, supported the two unitary councils option, while some 2,000 residents, or 35% of those who responded, supported the single unitary option. Some 72 % of respondents from the business sector supported the single unitary option and 88% of respondents from other public service providers also supported that option.

The district councils in Somerset ran a poll of residents about the unitary proposals. My right honourable friend had regard to the results of that poll and the representations he received about the way it was conducted. In essence, the poll showed similar levels of resident support as the consultation. Namely, there was a good deal of support for both proposals, with greater support from residents for the two unitary proposal.

However, I stress that the decision about the proposals is not a decision on the basis of any form of poll or referendum, nor is it on the basis of which proposal is most popular among a group of consultation respondents. It is a decision on the basis of the criteria to which I have referred and which were set out in the invitation of 9 October 2020.

Noble Lords will recall that my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State announced his decision on the proposals. A ministerial Statement setting this out was made on 21 July 2021, which I repeated in this House. In reaching this decision my right honourable friend made a balanced judgment assessing both proposals against the three criteria to which I have referred. He also had regard to all representations received, including responses to the consultation, and to all other relevant information available to him. He concluded that the two unitary proposal did not meet the criterion of improving local government and service delivery across the area. He also concluded that it did not meet the credible geography criterion. He concluded that the single unitary proposal for Somerset met all three of the criteria set out in the invitation of 9 October.

The Government believe that there is a powerful case for implementing this locally-led proposal for change. It will improve local government by enhancing social care and safeguarding services through closer connection with related services such as housing, leisure and benefits. It will improve local government by offering opportunities for improved strategic decision-making in areas such as housing, planning and transport. It will provide improvements to local partnership working with other public sector bodies and generate savings, estimated by the county council to be £52.6 million over five years. It will preserve service delivery over a county-wide area that has an established local identity and is easily understood by residents and provide a single point of contact so that residents, businesses and local communities will be able to access all council services from one place. If noble Lords approve this order, there will be, from 1 April 2023, a single unitary council for Somerset delivering the improvements I have just outlined.

We have prepared this order in constructive and collaborative discussion with all the councils concerned. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved in this process. Our discussions with the councils included the transitional and electoral arrangements. They are key to how the councils will drive forward implementation. Where there has been unanimous agreement between all the councils, we have adopted their preferred approach. Where there were different views about the detailed provisions, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State considered all differing views and reached a decision accordingly.

Turning now to the detail of the order, I shall highlight the key provisions. The order provides that on 1 April 2023 the districts of Mendip, Sedgemoor, Somerset West and Taunton and South Somerset will be abolished. The councils of those districts will be wound up and dissolved. In their place, their functions will transfer to the new unitary Somerset Council. The order also provides for appropriate transitional arrangements including that in May 2022 there will be elections for the new unitary council, which will assume its full powers from 1 April 2023. These elections will be on the basis of a 110-member authority with 55 two-member electoral divisions. Subsequent elections to the unitary council will be in May 2027 and every four years thereafter. We expect that the Local Government Boundary Commission for England will undertake a full electoral review before the May 2027 elections. Parish council elections due in May 2023 will be brought forward to May 2022 to align with the unitary council election cycle. A duty will be placed on existing councils to co-operate during the transitional period until 1 April 2023.

As I set out in the previous debates, we intend, if this order is approved and made, to issue a direction. This direction would ensure that the new unitary council has appropriate oversight of the commitments that predecessor councils may enter into during the transitional period and which the new unitary council will take on from 1 April 2023. Before issuing any such direction I will be inviting councils’ views on a draft.

In conclusion, through this order we seek to replace the existing local government structures that were set up in 1974 in Somerset with a new council that will be able to deliver high-quality, sustainable local services to the people of Somerset. This council will be able to provide effective leadership at the strategic and most local levels. All the existing councils have made clear they share these aims and are committed to the very best services for Somerset residents. This order delivers this, and on that basis, I commend this order to the Committee. I beg to move.

My Lords, I understood that we ought to be here at the outset of a debate. I do not want to cause an issue, but I would like clarification.

I was just sending a text. Although the noble Lord was nearly four minutes late, as the only representative from Somerset here, I ask that he be allowed to speak.

I am very happy for the noble Lord speak. He has been here most of the evening waiting for this to come, but I was seeking clarification because we do not want to set a precedent for other issues.

The noble Baroness is of course right. I apologise to those present. The speed with which the Minister finished off North Yorkshire completely fooled me about when he was about to start on Somerset. I thank the Committee because as the only representative of Somerset here, and having represented a Somerset constituency in Parliament for 30 years, I would like to comment on the changes that are taking place without the Minister looking too worried that I am going to seek to overturn the proposals that he has made. He can relax on that.

In my earlier career, I was, among other long-forgotten things, Minister for Local Government for three and a half years and I was in the Department of the Environment, as it was then. My noble friend Lord Heseltine and I worked together in that field looking at the activities of local government.

I accept that bringing in unitary authorities leads to more efficiency and more opportunity for strategic development for the county. However, there is obviously a concern about whether it becomes more remote from any individual authorities. Noble Lords may know that I am Lord King of Bridgwater. Bridgwater was a constituency that stretched a long way out to the west and included in it was west Somerset. When we look at the arrangement for this new unitary authority, the abolition of Taunton and Somerset West is the one that gives me some concern—not for Taunton, which will look after itself. I used to have Porlock, Oare and Minehead and the further west parts of Exmoor and that part of the county. I make one plea. I accept that this idea is sensible and think I am right in saying that my successor is one of the ones who is not too enthusiastic about it. I think the other Members of Parliament for Somerset are in support of this for the greater efficiency and the greater strategic approach that can be taken. However, we must try to ensure that the centre of power does not become too remote from those in the more remote parts of the proposed new area.

That is my only plea at this stage and I hope that the Government, in putting these proposals, will try to ensure that the interests of the more remote parts that might otherwise be left out are taken into account. I am not quite sure of the mechanism but there needs to be some way of ensuring that every part of the new unitary gets proper representation. The Minister has already said that there are 110 councillors in this new authority—that seems pretty big to me—and I think west Somerset will have eight of them. The warning on the packet is that they could easily be overridden and forgotten in approaches. I am very grateful to the Minister for listening to my concerns on this having, as I said, for 30 years represented part of what he is talking about today. I understand why it is being done but I am still going to stand up for the people I had the honour to represent for a time and make sure that their interests are taken into account.

My Lords, I start by adding an additional interest to the ones that I declared earlier, as I have a family member who is a councillor in Somerset, so I know a bit about what is going on. I am glad we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord King, because I agree with him about the danger of local government becoming remote from people, which is a comment I made earlier about North Yorkshire. It then loses the “local” out of the government. What you might gain in strategic oversight, you lose in terms of local voice and listening to local people. I think the Government would do well to listen to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord King. I think I will repeat some of the remarks I made earlier. It is a done deal. Everything is in train to create this unitary authority in Somerset. It is not necessarily something that I think is completely right—I agree with the comments that have been made.

One of the issues that arises with the Somerset local government reorganisation is that one of the three criteria that lead the Government to determine whether to have a one-or two-unitary council model is that it commands a good deal of local support. The Minister whizzed through what the Explanatory Memorandum says, but I will repeat some of the figures because they are important in this regard. The views of residents, where they have been asked, are very clear on this issue: 58% of those who live in the area support a two-council model. Some 67% of parish and town councils support a two-council model. The voluntary and community sector supported a two-council model by 53% to 20%. When the district councils set up the online poll, to which there was a huge response—100,000 people responded—65% supported the two-council model. Although there was the counterview from Somerset County Council, which stuck up for what it had already, the people wanted a two-council model. Unfortunately, that has been overridden by this decision.

This is the point at which I draw the Committee’s attention to the comments of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, to which I would like the Minister to respond. It said:

“Given the Government’s commitment to unitarisation”—

horrible word—

“being ‘locally-led’ … it is not clear whether or how the three criteria are prioritised.”

What weight is given to each of them? The people of Somerset clearly said no to having one council, and the Government said, “Hard luck, you’re going to have it.” The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee invited those of us debating this to ask the question. I am asking it, and I would like an answer.

I heard what the Minister said about credible geography being important in this case. Perhaps he can explain what that means, given that Taunton, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord King, is in the bottom left-hand corner, if I can put it like that, so it is nowhere near the middle. It is at the south-west edge of the county, which is very rural. A consequence is poor connectivity and access to services that are to be administered miles away from the northern part of the county. To get to Taunton from the north—from Frome or somewhere such as that; that is a new town for the Minister to know—would take an hour and a half. There is no public transport to get there, so unless you drive you cannot get there. It should be a matter of concern that the administrative centre of a new council is not easily accessible for people who live in one part of the county.

As I said, what has really upset me about these instruments is that there is no mention of people in them. I do not want any further instruments to come here without mentioning people, who are at the heart of local government. There is no mention of them at all, except in the consultation. Somerset has a population of 500,000. It is very rural. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord King, it is proposed that there will be 110 councillors for the initial interim council, but I have heard it suggested that 85 will be the maximum number once the local government boundary review is done.

Each councillor will represent 2,000 households in the interim council and probably 2,700 households when the Boundary Commission has spoken, which is a very significant cut in representation. It makes them quite large in terms of numbers of councillors per household. I take as a random choice the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, just as a comparator. It has a population of 180,000 in 80,000 households, and there are 46 councillors, so each represents a mere 1,700 households—a mere nothing. My colleagues and I represent 9,000 households between us, by the way. On top of that, in London there are also Assembly members providing additional local representation—and you have a compact borough, with excellent connectivity. So what is the problem with Somerset having equivalent levels of representation at a local level?

I applaud what the council is doing about the local community networks; that is something to agree with—it is trying to get something done. But there is no coherent plan for devolution to local communities at all, as there was in North Yorkshire, and no devolution plan for parish and town councils or, as they have in North Yorkshire, area constituency committees. There is much to be concerned about.

Of course, residents understand that some decisions, such as on highways, are best made at a county-wide level. But what is less acceptable, particularly in this case, is for decisions on planning or bus services to be made in Taunton by a Cabinet of 10 members out of 110 who will not understand the practicalities. Those who live near and around the Somerset Levels, for instance, or live in the north of Somerset, in Shepton Mallet, Frome or Street or any of those small towns in the north, do not want their planning decisions to be made in Taunton. Currently, the plan is for planning not to be devolved to area committees, which is a huge mistake. I hope that those with influence in Somerset, such as the noble Lord, Lord King, will do their best out of this to get some devolution at a local level, because that is the only way that these vast unitary authorities will work.

Noble Lords can see that I am not enamoured by this plan, because that is what it is—we do not have a choice today. The focus and purpose of the change is being driven by administrative and financial demands. Local democracy has been steamrollered out of the equation; it is entirely about process and not people.

These big unitary authorities may be more efficient because they can take a strategic view of what is needed across the area. I have served a community on the edge of a big metropolitan authority of 450,000 people for 30 years, and I can tell you how difficult it can be to make the voices of the villages I represent heard at the centre. It might be more efficient in administrative terms, but it will not be more effective at hearing the voices of local people. For me, local democracy is about local people, and their representatives listening to them and doing something about what they have said. There is not much point if they do not.

As noble Lords can hear, I am very concerned about what is happening in Somerset. It is going to happen, so I hope it is made to work. It will only work if there is proper devolution. I wonder whether the Minister will be able to put some pressure on his colleagues in Somerset to insist that that happens. With those few words, I look forward to what he has to say.

My Lords, this is the third and last of the SIs on structural changes we have been debating. I will be brief, as we seem to have been here for some time. I thank the Minister for his introduction and the noble Lord, Lord King, for giving the perspective of someone from Somerset. As always, it was helpful and useful to hear that. My credentials are that my husband is a Somerset boy—well, not such a boy anymore, but he is from Somerset.

I understand from the consultation that

“The Secretary of State has concluded … that the proposal for a single unitary council meets all three criteria and that the proposal for two unitary councils meets only the criterion on local support”,

not those on improving local government and being a credible geography. From looking at the consultation, it seems the people of Somerset supported a proposal for two councils. Both the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the Minister mentioned the poll that was run by the four district councils, with a good number of people taking part—more than 100,000—of which 65.3% voted for the district council’s “Stronger Somerset” proposal, which would have created two councils, western Somerset and eastern Somerset.

As referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, Somerset County Council did not like that proposal. My understanding is that it described the poll as “deeply flawed” and “biased”, but the Member of Parliament for Bridgwater and West Somerset, Ian Liddell-Grainger, said that the Secretary of State “cannot afford” to ignore the poll. Could the Minister explain why the then Secretary of State ignored that poll? Did he agree with the county council that it was deeply flawed and biased? Will the Minister and the department assure the people of Somerset that their views in the consultation will not be ignored, and will be heard loud and clear in the transition phase to the new unitary authority? The people of Somerset need to be fully involved in the process at every stage. I hope the Minister can give specific assurances on this.

Noble Lords have said it is important for local people’s voices to be heard. Local decision-making must be part of any future structures. If the Minister could give reassurances on these matters, I would be grateful.

My Lords, this is almost like a well-oiled relay. First, we had my noble friend Lord Jopling stepping in to provide covering fire. Then we had my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater, with his Somerset credentials, stepping in to cover my lack of them. I went to a school in Somerset once—I think Blundell’s is in Somerset—and I did a prize-giving there, but that was about the first time.

Is it in Devon? Gosh, that was not particularly good; I am probably not best placed to sell the virtues of Somerset. I wanted to say that I learn something every time, such as the fact that my noble friend was a Local Government Minister under the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine. You succeeded him, did you not? That was your first Cabinet position and you continued to serve with great distinction, for almost a decade, in the Cabinets of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Each time I see my noble friend I am reminded of “Spitting Image”; he has not changed a bit in all those years, I have to say.

Most importantly, my noble friend raised the issue that Governments need to be strategic but also deliver. As someone who has served in the town hall, in City Hall and now as a Minister, I absolutely recognise that. It is possible to do both. It is possible to be strategic and focus on delivery. That is what local leadership is all about. That is what I would say in response to my noble friend.

It has been very difficult to listen to some of the passages from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, because I was being lectured by someone from Yorkshire about Somerset and about Hammersmith and Fulham. In response to her and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, I would say that the process was done properly. The key point is that both options had a great deal of support in Somerset. As I set out in some detail for the first statutory instrument, the three criteria are considered in the round. Residents are central to the criteria that have led to this order, in the sense that this reform is all about better delivery of services to the residents of Somerset.

Before I conclude, I will just say that the electoral arrangements are clearly for an election in May 2022. That was proposed by the Somerset councils. There will be a review by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England before the second election in 2027.

This has widespread support from residents, local businesses, and the voluntary and community sector in Somerset. I commend the order to the Committee.

Motion agreed.