Merger Most Foul

merger-ahead-smallToday West Somerset and Taunton Deane Councils were due to meet in separate full sessions. with a very big item on both agendas – a proposal which could result in a merger of the two. In West Somerset discussion of this has now been postponed until Sepotember 7th because so many councillors were uneasy. I believe a merger would be a catastrophic mistake. I distrust the costings in the business plan. Trade Union reaction has been equally cool towards the idea. Have a look at this: Unison Merger report 10 Jul 2016, 15.44 (1)  It may also be helpful to read my article written for last Friday’s edition of the West Somerset Free Press:

“Next Tuesday West Somerset Councillors were due to play Russian Roulette with their own future. A revolver had been loaded with three bullets. In this game of municipal risk a single error could have proved fatal.

As your MP it is my job is to protect the interests of 35000 council tax payers in West Somerset. I was prompted to write this article after reading in the Free Press about the optimistic predictions from Leaders of West Somerset and Taunton Deane Councils about a merger.

This proposal was initially recommended as though it was the only viable course of action. But it is definitely not.

Seven months ago senior officers were instructed to draw up a Business Plan in order to show the financial benefits of joining the two councils together. I have examined that document in great detail. Most of it of it is wishful thinking and impossible for anyone to quantify.

More to the point the plan has not been the subject of any public consultation or discussion with any of the MPs involved. After seven months work the whole process was on the verge of being rushed through.

Councillors from both authorities were offered three options: to work more closely; to merge completely; or to split up and face the consequences.

A complete split would possibly result in West Somerset going bust. But Taunton Deane also has a deep financial black hole. Option Three, therefore, is a near certain sentence of death for both.

Option One, is for the two councils to work more closely together. At first glance this seems a reasonable idea, but it depends upon making more severe cuts in the number of people employed.  There are also expensive extras.

Taunton Deane has to buy a brand new computer system. They have been down this road before with disastrous results. They were keen investors in, and champions of, South West One – the IBM joint venture that wasted and lost millions of pounds of tax payers’ money and achieved nothing but chaos and confusion.

The same two senior officers responsible for writing the Business Plan were leading figures in the South West One disaster back in 2007.

Frankly I would not trust them to count beans, let alone oversee a complex computer system.

Unison, the trade union representing most of the staff, has also questioned the validity of throwing extra money at IT. What will it really cost?

Many of my constituents are elderly people unable to access the internet because of internet black spots. Some of them feel uneasy using new technology at all. But human beings are to be replaced by faceless digital robots.

This leaves Option Two – a full-blooded merger which would mean that Taunton Deane ends up subsidising West Somerset to the tune of at least £1 million every year.

Taxpayers in Taunton have not been adequately warned about this. The option also depends on installation of the same expensive, untried computer system.

It sounds absurd and illogical. Why should a local authority which says it wants to operate efficiently seek to join forces with a tiny council that can no longer make ends meet?

This merger idea is certainly not inspired by generosity. Taunton Deane has its eye on a much bigger prize.

One day in the not-too-far-distant future Hinkley C will generate electricity and begin paying substantial business rates. The recipient will be the council we currently know as West Somerset. But under the merger Hinkley’s millions would be going straight into Taunton Deane’s bank – not West Somerset.

Perhaps that would be acceptable if West Somerset got anything out of the deal. But I have scoured all 119 pages of the Business Plan in vain. There is no mention of a carrot, no promise of a new swimming pool. We will lose our individuality, identity and most of our influence. We will get very little indeed in return.

Three options are on offer. All three are flawed. And why are there only three?

The Government wanted imaginative thinking about collaboration with other councils. West Somerset and Taunton could both benefit by discussing the future of delivering better public services using the experience and infrastructure of neighbouring authorities. That’s what Ministers wanted and still want.

This is precisely what representatives of West Somerset and Taunton Deane Councils were told when they went to see the Government with begging bowls some months ago.

They pleaded to be bailed out. They were forcefully informed to go home and talk to their neighbours about collaboration. There will be no new Government handouts.

Last week, at the Scrutiny Committee meeting in West Somerset, senior officers were asked if they had attempted to discuss collaboration with Sedgemoor Council.

The officers replied that Sedgemoor “was not interested”. This is a blatant untruth. Sedgemoor District Council, one of England’s most successful and solvent authorities, has not been formally approached for any discussion.

I have spoken directly to the Leader of Sedgemoor Council who has made it clear that he is very happy to speak to both West Somerset and Taunton Deane about working jointly.

As your MP I am deeply concerned that a vital decision about the future course of our local democracy was scheduled to be taken so quickly and with so much misinformation.

I am delighted to learn that the full meeting of West Somerset Council has been postponed until September 7th so that more information can be made available to members.

I believe that a matter of this magnitude also deserves to be put to the people at Parish Town and Community levels. It may require a referendum.

There is not a single pledge for any person in West Somerset that services will be maintained. It will become much harder for people to contact their council officers.

Finally, the substantial sum of money already given by EDF through the Community Impact Mitigation Fund may no longer be guaranteed for the benefit of West Somerset’s people.

I would ask all Councillors of all political persuasions to think carefully on behalf of those they represent before agreeing to sign up to a full merger or a closer working relationship.

This should be an opportunity for us to control our destiny, to find new partners and create fresh opportunities for all our futures.

West Somerset has often felt at the end of the line. It must not now be allowed to hit the buffers.”