THE row over the future of local government in Somerset is rumbling on as accusations of lies and ‘misrepresentations’ start to fly.

Cllr David Fothergill, leader of Somerset County Council, threw down the gauntlet in a recent council meeting, where he claimed he was ‘disappointed’ the leaders of the district councils were ‘deliberately putting out information they know is inaccurate’.

The fresh bid to abolish all of Somerset’s councils in favour of one unitary authority was brought up by Cllr Fothergill in May 2018.

He claimed the plans could save the county up yo £28million a year, and still maintains a unitary authority is the best option in 2020.

A short time after he announced the proposal, the council was forced to make £15 million worth of cuts in an emergency budget as it struggled with the ever-rising cost of social care.

But the county’s district authorities aren’t seeing eye-to-eye with Cllr Fothergill, as they believe a programme of working together could bring about similar results.

A report was commissioned following the announcement, costing £167,000 split evenly across the five councils, to explore the options as all of Somerset’s authorities face tough financial circumstances. Seven options were outlined, each with different implementation costs and savings.

SCC continues to campaign for a unitary authority.

This option, outlined in the report, comes with projected savings of £35m-47m, but would see the number of elected councillors across the authorities go from 300 to between 100 and 125.

Although the districts are against plans for one ‘unitary’ authority, they have accepted change is needed to improve the way local government works across Somerset.

The ‘collaboration and integration’ option, aka Get Fit and Sharing, which is preferred by the district councils, would see projected savings of around £10m-32m.

So what, exactly, does Cllr Fothergill claim is misleading?

Well, in a recent letter sent out by the districts, it outlines their views and why they don’t believe a unitary solution is right for the county.

Here’s the first section of the letter Cllr Fothergill takes issue with: “The announcement from the leader of SCC came as a surprise to us. Of the options presented to all of us in the final report, full unitary status does not provide the biggest cash savings, it causes the most disruption to services, and it takes away that vital link the district councils have with their local communities in our large and diverse area.”

Cllr Fothergill said: “They claim this announcement came as a surprise. It can’t have been.

“We have been talking about this for two years. It was always made clear what my preferred option would be.

“We had a meeting in December, they asked me to hold off in announcing my option until after Christmas so it didn’t impact staff morale, which I did.

“To say they didn’t know is misleading.”

Somerset County Gazette:

RESPONSE: Cllr Val Keitch

READ MORE: Row brewing as councils disagree over plans to abolish districts in favour of one authority

In a joint response on behalf of all district leaders, Cllr Val Keitch and Cllr Duncan McGinty said: “The five councils of Somerset, including the county council, worked closely together for two years on developing proposals for a system of Government in the county which could better serve its communities.

“The conclusion of the joint research – carried out by the Somerset Internal Consultancy Team - was that greater collaboration was the best way to not only deal with the financial pressures on the county council but to deal with the big challenges facing our communities including child poverty, older people living in isolation, the climate crisis, housing and infrastructure.

“When SCC announced it wanted to ignore the findings of research it helped create, it did come as a surprise.”

Somerset County Gazette:

QUESTIONS: Cllr Duncan McGinty

FACT CHECK/OUR VERDICT: So, this one is a little bit subjective, because we cannot go back in time to see if the council leaders were, in fact, truly shocked by the announcement.

The statement itself is a little vague, but it was further clarified in their response that they were referring to their shock over the contents of the announcement, and that the leader ‘ignored’ the report.

However, Cllr Fothergill is quite right that meetings and discussions have been going on for two years, so the plan itself should not have been a surprise.

Next, Cllr Fothergill takes issue with the above statement again, as it says a unitary authority does not provide the most savings, and implies the report says it is also the most disruptive option.

READ MORE: 'Decision over future of Somerset local government should be put to the people'

Cllrs Keitch and McGinty added: “While this is not about money, the agreed research which is available publicly showed that equivalent or greater savings could be achieved through collaboration and yes, this will also cost a considerable sum to implement – the exact figures will need to be determined with a full business case. But we believe this is the right choice for Somerset.

“The research also clearly concluded collaboration was far preferable to the disruption and distraction of creating a unitary authority.

“The district councils have proposed a radical programme of change to integrate the councils with each other and other public services, and to provide a real focus on tackling the community issues that are affecting quality of life and causing increased demand for services.

“This will ensure financial savings and community benefits are generated and importantly, the issues that are causing the county council financial difficulties, are tackled.

“In contrast, the county council proposes an old fashioned structural change to councils which will see a one size fits all approach to services, with everything centralised in Taunton and decisions not taken by local communities. And there will still be financial problems and poor levels of service because the real community issues that cause demand on services have not been tackled.”

FACT CHECK/ OUR VERDICT: In a sense, one unitary authority would be the most disruptive as it is the one that sees the most change. It’s the impact of the disruption that would need to be looked into in a business case.

However, cllr Fothergill is wrong to suggest a unitary authority would definitely bring about the most savings, as the report outlines that four other options have the potential to save more than the unitary option.

Thirdly, Cllr Fothergill says the letter details that he wants to spend ‘an estimated £82 million of taxpayers’ money spent on abolishing the district councils’, when the preferred option for the districts would also involve £74million on implementation.

Cllr Fothergill said: “The letter says I want to spend £82million on the new authority. That is really misleading. They don’t mention the costs of £74 million of their option - and it doesn’t deliver the same savings.”

FACT CHECK/OUR VERDICT: The districts aren’t incorrect in their statement – creating a unitary authority would cost an estimated £82 million. However, Cllr Fothergill’s point regarding the costs of other options is correct.

Finally, he takes aim at the Taunton Deane Herald, a publication run by the Taunton Deane Liberal Democrats.

In a recent article, the Liberal Democrats criticised the use of consultants Ignite, after a separate report into the merger of Taunton Deane Borough Council and West Somerset Council outlined a catalogue of failures by the consultancy.

The article stated: “Far from learning from this completely avoidable scenario, the Conservative-led SCC is now promoting the creation of a new super council by setting up a unitary council embracing the present county council and five local district councils.

“They claim this unitary council will save money and increase efficiency, and who are they employing as their consultants (you guessed it) Ignite - this all has a feeling of deja vu and what a waste of taxpayer money this all would have been if another new council was to be created.”

Cllr Fothergill claims Ignite is ‘nothing to do with’ the plans going forward.

A spokesperson for The Herald said: “Councillor Fothergill has not had the courtesy to inform us what lies he is accusing us of telling.

“He cannot deny the involvement of Ignite in preparing the report that his unitary case is based on. The report has the Ignite logo and is co-authored by five named representatives of Ignite along with other consultants.

“As to the future, we have never claimed that Ignite would oversee the delivery of any unitary process.”

FACT CHECK/OUR VERDICT: Ignite was at least partly responsible for the report, commissioned by all of the councils, which outlines the available options, so Cllr Fothergill himself could be accused of being a touch disingenuous here – Ignite has been involved, in fact, it was involved in creating the very report cited by all parties in making their recommendations on the next steps.

It would be fair for people to be concerned about the use of Ignite following the merger of TDBC/WSC into the new Somerset West and Taunton Council, and perhaps it wasn’t widely known knowledge that Ignite would not be involved in any future plans.

However, after Cllr Fothergill’s comments, the county can be assured Ignite will no longer play a role in the process, aside from originally outlining all the options in the report which will be used to influence all the future decisions.