A NEW option proposed at a special meeting yesterday (December 12) to discuss the future of West Somerset Council has the potential to avoid significant job cuts.
The idea of following a mutual or cooperative model could result in an employee-owned organisation being set up to deliver services.
Three business cases will be drawn up by West Somerset Council in partnership with Taunton Deane Borough Council to examine this in addition to the options which were already on the table – becoming a commissioning authority or a virtual council.
The latter options would see the democratically body of councillors remain, but officers lose their jobs as services are either commissioned from an external organisation or shared with a neighbouring council.
Cllr Peter Murphy, who proposed the new idea, said: “The livelihoods of our 80 plus staff are in our hands. If we reduce officers down to ten, we will damage families across the district.
“I believe there is another way – a mutual-based community strengthening model which would mean we are all in it together. This approach empowers staff to design, manage and deliver services.
"This would potentially safeguard the livelihoods of more than 70 staff, instead of losing them and their expertise."
Despite earlier indications, the possibility of holding a referendum to ask people whether they would accept a council tax rise of more than the 2% cap could still be considered once the business cases have been put together.
Plans to employ someone to guide the council through the process at the cost of £25,000 have been scrapped as it was not considered right to use so much of taxpayers’ money for the role. There will be some costs but they will be considerably less than this figure.
Council leader Cllr Tim Taylor blamed a reduction in government grants of nearly 35%, or £1.2million in real terms, in addition to council tax caps and escalating costs for the authority’s situation, but said it was not over yet and that all options should be considered to ensure its survival.
He said: “Talks of the death of West Somerset Council are very premature. We have enough money to keep going for at least two years, but we want to look ahead.
“Our problems are financial, not organisational. Our problem is lack of funding and considering our smallness and super sparse population, I believe we have done remarkably well.
“I have made the point that we are under-funded to the minister and LGA very strongly, but the response is that nothing can be done about that at this stage. The favoured model by government is the sharing or commissioning of services.
“The savings that we can make by sharing services with other councils are relatively minimal – there will be some, but they will not be as great as will be expected. It will not solve our problems and it will not bridge our savings gap.
“We understand the national need to reduce the deficit and we have to do our part in that but at the end of the day we have to have enough income to provide the basic services for the people of West Somerset.
“Life has moved on since the LGA report and we have tried to take action. I know that we have done our utmost for the people of West Somerset and I believe that we have done very well indeed and have been very proactive in moving things forward.”
Cllr Taylor condemned external pressure urging the council to take decisions as quickly as possible.
He added: “The future of our employees and the council in West Somerset should not be dictated by people putting pressure on us from outside.
“I have always said I will do what is right for the people of West Somerset and would never let partisan politics stand in the way of that.
“We are a sovereign council – we make these decisions and if anyone is trying to come in and steamroller us, let them try it.
“Whatever model we decide on will be challenging. We may have to make difficult decisions and they will probably be in the New Year, but I don’t think we should rush them as much as we have been told to.
“I hope that coming out of today is real unity.”