CONCERNS over West Somerset Council’s ability to serve its people have been voiced after a Local Government Association (LGA) report concluded it was not viable in the long term.
The report recommended cutting non-statutory services, which could include economic development and tourism, grants to organisations and charities, parks and open spaces and public conveniences, which are already under threat.
Cllr Ian Melhuish, the Independent leader of the democratic alliance, foresees a bleak future for the council.
He said: “It seems the Government wants us to remain as a council but doesn’t want to give us any money and merging with Sedgemoor District Council or Taunton Deane Borough Council is never going to happen – they don’t want to know because we haven’t got any money and they are too far away, so I don’t know where we can square the circle.
“Services that aren’t statutory would have to go. We were elected to serve the people and we won’t be able to do that.”
The LGA report highlighted potential government cuts to local authorities and the inability to make sufficient savings for an expected budget deficit of £1.28million by 2016.
In addition to cutting discretionary services, it recommended completing the sale of the former leisure centre site and sharing services with neighbouring councils as options, but warned that a proposed referendum on raising council tax by 39% would be unlikely to be welcomed.
Cllr Neil Clarke and Michael Coughlin of the LGA, who led the report, said: “In our view the situation that West Somerset Council finds itself in is without precedent. Therefore, there is no established measure or definition of the viability of a council and no process nationally prescribed to deal with such a situation.
“Were the council over the next two years to make the full range of savings suggested, we believe that it could continue to provide a viable organisation serving the people of West Somerset.
“However, we conclude that the council is not viable as a unit of local democracy and governance over the longer term.”
At a seminar attended by 26 out of 28 members on Monday, four potential solutions were tabled for discussion in coming weeks.
- Bringing the Boundary Commission in to effectively abolish West Somerset Council and split the district between neighbouring authorities.
- Amalgamating officer teams with other local authorities but retaining members.
- Trying to make enough savings to ensure its survival.
- Forging on with the council tax referendum in addition to making savings.
Cllr Tim Taylor, leader of the council, said: “We will take the LGA recommendations very seriously indeed, and we are considering the four options very carefully, but I doubt we will have made a decision by the full council meeting on December 12.
“We have identified savings for the next financial year of £600,000 but we don’t think we can stretch to £1.28million and we are not even sure we would be viable having made the £600,000 savings.
“There are comments in the LGA report to say we should be doing more to streamline our management team but we have done a huge amount of that already – before 2007 there were about 140 employees and we now have just 82.
“It could be that another dozen jobs go through potential savings but if many more go, we would have to ask ourselves if we could continue to carry out the basic functions.
“There are issues to local organisation and efficiency which would need to be looked at very carefully if more services and officers were to be shared with other councils – it might not save much money.
“We are between a rock and a hard place but we have got to do what is right for the people of West Somerset.”
For the full analysis of the situation faced by West Somerset Council and more reaction, buy this week's West Somerset County Gazette, out today.