We have written not one, not two, not three but FOUR stories about the proposed changes to local government in Somerset and we are not done yet! The latest development threatens to plunge the whole matter into the realms of farce but it will be no laughing matter if the events are used to call off the referendum.
Let’s just recap for you: it all kicked off when Jenrick decided to support the Conservative county councillors and cancel the county council elections for Somerset, scheduled for 6 May. As we wrote at the time
“The official reason for suspending democracy was that local government might be reorganised. There are two competing proposals for how local government in Somerset might look. The county council favours “One Somerset”, a new unitary authority covering the current county council area. Many see this as an attempted takeover of the district councils by the county as the new authority would inherit the vast bulk of its powers, staff and budget from the latter.
The district councils, dismayed at the prospect of this takeover, have put together a counter bid, “Stronger Somerset” with cross party support. This differs from the county’s proposals in that it would see two unitaries created rather than just one. Government is now consulting on whether we should adopt either of these two proposals or, indeed keep things as they are.”.
The four district councils behind Stronger Somerset (including Conservative-controlled Sedgemoor) have the backing of the MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, Ian Liddell-Grainger. The One Somerset camp is supported by MPs Marcus Fysh Yeovil), Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane), David Warburton (Somerton and Frome) and James Heappey (Wells)…oh, and, it seems, Robert (Honest Bob) Jenrick, minister for local government amongst other things.
So the District Councils were going to organise a public poll on unitarisation of local government (which they’re entitled to do, pursuant to S116 of the 2003 Local Gov Act). Jenrick chips in and writes
“ to the leaders of the district councils telling them in the strongest terms that it would be wrong for them to consult the local electorate on which unitary pattern they would prefer. He has issued a consultative document. For any other body to do so he says would risk ‘duplicating and detracting’ from it.
He threatened legal action, questioning value for money, and saying :
“My decision will not be made on the basis of which proposal has the most popular support as expressed simply through the number of representations received or the result of a poll.”
This did not deter the district councils who sought legal advice from a QC who said it was fine to go ahead – so they did.
They tried to get the County Council involved in the poll, but they refused, calling the referendum a sham on local BBC news (Points West). The district councils employed an independent firm of solicitors to draft the wording on the ballot paper, as well as two leaflets explaining each unitary option (One Somerset vs Stronger Somerset).
The ballot papers started to arrive across Somerset last week, and some eagle-eyed voter noticed that the website on the One Somerset leaflet (remember, it was written independently of the District Councils) contained a spoof link instead of the real one. The District Councils had supplied the correct web address to the lawyers but instead of OneSomerset.org.uk, the .uk had been omitted and was not picked up when the materials were submitted for proofreading.
Now, it’s highly desirable to have a sense of humour in life and it is pretty clear from the most cursory of glances that the site is a jolly jape. Here, for example is the third page of the plan for the county:
But the four Conservative MPs aren’t having any of it. They want Jenrick to step in an declare the referendum cancelled as “the democratic process has been corrupted”. This is more than a bit rich given the many irregularities and illegalities in the ‘advisory’ Brexit referendum which conveniently became mandatory after the event, but what’s done is done.
Meanwhile, in the Stronger Somerset corner, Ian Liddell-Grainger isn’t holding back. He’s had a fair bit to say about the One Somerset campaign’s attempt to persuade voters that their vote was pointless and ripped up the letter sent at tax-payers’ expense on camera (definitely worth watching!) and the latest twist led him to issue a press release over the weekend:
Let us hope that the people of Somerset are allowed to have their say.