Somerset wants local government to be local

From left to right: leaders of Sedgemoor, Somerset West & Taunton, Mendip, South Somerset District Councils: Duncan McGinty, Federica Smith-Roberts, Ros Wyke, Val Keitch. Photo courtesy of Stronger Somerset

Double defeat for Jenrick

It’s a double defeat for ‘Honest Bob’ Jenrick.  Firstly, the free vote of Somerset residents that he tried so hard to stop has taken place. Secondly local electors resoundingly rejected the option he so obviously preferred – the ambition of failing Somerset County Council (SCC) to take over the four districts.  He may still get his way; but if he does it will be exposed as top-down imposition of a plan determined by Whitehall, not the will of local people.

Unambiguous vote

The vote was unambiguous. More than two thirds of those voting preferred the case made by the four district councils for two unitary authorities – Stronger Somerset.  Compared to the 52:48 margin in the Brexit referendum that Jenrick and his colleagues see as immutable this was a landslide.  It is also a vindication of the cross-party challenge by the districts to what looked like a cosy stitch up between the county council leader and the minister.  The people should have been consulted and they should not now be ignored.

Attempts to discredit poll failed

Even before the poll was undertaken Jenrick and his allies sought to discredit it.  Since the result was announced the county council has called the exercise “deeply flawed, biased and expensive” though without providing any evidence of the supposed flaws or bias.  Civica Electoral Services (formerly the Electoral Reform Services) which ran the poll is well respected for its rigour and impartiality and it should take more than mere name-calling to overturn it.  

As for the cost, commitment to democracy has to be pretty thin if spending around 70p per elector is considered too expensive.

Turnout not unusual

It is possible that opponents of Stronger Somerset will focus on the turnout.  Some 74 per cent of electors did not vote.  Such critics however should reflect on the fact that 72,541 electors voted for the Stronger Somerset proposal – only slightly fewer than the 78,107 who voted for the Conservatives in the 2017 council elections.  Moreover 83,234 electors voted against David Fothergill’s party in that election compared with 38,547 who opposed the districts’ proposals.  It is perhaps the legitimacy of the county council that should be called into question rather than the result of the local referendum.

Good for democracy

It is good that the people of Somerset have stood up against our overcentralised state and had their say.  It is good for democracy in another way too. The UK is unusual in having fewer and larger local authorities than almost any other Western country. According to a study by the University of Manchester the UK had 2,603 electors per councillor compared with 118, 209 and 256 people per councillor in France, Austria and Sweden respectively.  Somerset electors have voted for more elected representatives rather than fewer.  In the words of the four district council leaders they have shown that ‘people prefer their local government to be more local.’

Mr Jenrick needs to reflect carefully on the message that Somerset electors have sent.  The four local MPs who joined his campaign to stop local people having their say also need to think long and hard. A clear majority have rejected their interference with the democratic process and may well remember that at the next election.