I sincerely hope I will not be reading this Death Notice on Wednesday. At teatime on that day West Somerset Council is due to meet to decide its own fate. If they vote to merge with Taunton Deane that will be the end of West Somerset – and probably the end of decent local democracy too.
The Prime Minister has invited me to Westminster for a private meeting on Wednesday. She wants me to explain why Hinkley is so important for us all. But she is also seriously concerned about the plan to merge West Somerset with Taunton Deane Council. I was asked by West Somerset’s leader, Anthony Trollope-Bellew, to raise the matter at the highest level. I cannot go any higher.
I would like Councillors to defer making a final decision about the merger until we all know what Mrs May has to say and how our councils should proceed, and until the future of Hinkley is clear. I have already written to each Councillor personally
These issues are closely interlinked. Hinkley will take a decade and more to complete. The investment is astronomic. No Prime Minister, least of all Mrs May, welcomes any uncertainty about the democratic governance of the area in which our nation’s biggest ever project is about to start.
West Somerset councillors could effectively vote themselves out of existence next week. West Somerset’s leader recommends that 28 councillors should join forces with Taunton and form a new authority.
Unfortunately, it is not that simple.
Tucked away near the end of the agenda is an admission that a vote in favour of merger could trigger a detailed review of the number of councillors. That is putting it mildly.
The Boundary Commission for England was established to ensure that people are fairly represented. They fix the number of council seats based on population. They are already recommending that Taunton Deane shrinks by 13 seats to a total of 43. West Somerset is far more sparsely populated. Its current 28 members could fall to just 9 after a review.
The Boundaries Commission will automatically order a local referendum so that ordinary voters can have a say about such an enormous democratic change. About time too! The merger plans were produced without any meaningful consultation.
But referendums do not come cheap. Next week’s agenda fails to mention that this referendum will be paid for by West Somerset Council and Taunton Deane – another very large hidden expense in the High Level Business Case.
However it appears from a document I have received that the plan is to avoid involving the Boundary Commission at all and trying to persuade Ministers to allow the merger to go ahead under a new piece of law that requires very little consultation. Someone inside Taunton Deane or West Somerset Councils has obtained a copy of this website article and added their own comments in RED!
It is now crystal Clear that the instigators of this merger idea hope to get away without a proper consultation with the public. This is morally wrong. It also ignores the published guidance of the Boundaries Commission:
Little does Mrs May want to be party to any merger that ignores public opinion. The Prime Minister will also be very disturbed to learn that the Boundaries Commission has been working for months to reduce the number of councillors in Taunton Deane but has not -and will not be invited – to review West Somerset.
Mrs May does not want to see two councils merged in unseemly haste in order to share the potential income that will begin to flow when Hinkley power station starts producing electricity.
There is no getting away from the fact that the merger plan is all about money. West Somerset will soon be unable to balance its books. By 2021 the council could be £1.2million in the red.
Merger may look like a lifeline. But it promises to be a costly process. The investment for West Somerset alone is well over a million pounds and the savings are only “potential” savings.
The Prime Minister is unlikely to be pleased if other solutions are deliberately ignored.
West Somerset has two neighbours – Taunton Deane on one side and Sedgemoor on the other.
Taunton devised a complicated merger involving a costly new computer system which it urgently needs since the failure of South West One. But West Somerset never used South West One and does not require new equipment.
However, Sedgemoor is not making any demands at all – it simply wants to help.
That is why I urge West Somerset councillors to allow more time for talks with Sedgemoor to take place.
Sedgemoor has an unrivalled record of excellent economic management in England and is already assisting West Somerset and Taunton Deane councils deliver several essential services.
Sedgemoor also has a flexible and fully functional IT system with the capacity to serve Taunton Deane without any massive new expenditure.
Mrs May firmly believes that talks between all three councils, without pre-conditions, could deliver real savings and also protect the democratic integrity of West Somerset.
But the papers for next week’s meeting give a false impression. The agenda (paragraph 11.29) misleadingly states that option 2 (Merger) is the preferred option of Government Minister Marcus Jones.
I know this to be completely incorrect. I have informed Marcus Jones that he has been misquoted and he has made it very clear that he wants what he has always wanted….talks with ALL neighbouring councils. Marcus Jones, Theresa May and I all want a viable solution to be found by fair and sensible means.
Incidentally Sedgemoor is not looking for a merger. It would be their intention to preserve West Somerset’s council and councillors intact.
This fact alone should cause councillors to think very hard before they vote.
There is also the question of money.
West Somerset’s finances hit the buffers when EDF appealed against continuing to pay business rates for the mothballed nuclear plant at Hinkley. West Somerset approached the Government for money and were told to sort it out by cooperating with neighbours.
What councillors may not know, because they have not been properly informed by their management, is that a substantial part of the council’s current financial shortfall – around £300,000 – is due to be paid by EDF in rates as soon as construction on Hinkley C begins. So the council shortfall could be virtually wiped out in six months!
This is surely another good reason for holding fire and opening the door to cooperative talks with Sedgemoor.
I want my constituents to get the best possible service from their council. But I also want West Somerset Council to survive. Both desires are still possible if councillors are prepared to look beyond the agenda that has been presented to them.
They are being told to merge or die. It is not an honest choice. There is another way and the Prime Minister is backing it.