HOW many times have you - or someone you know - blamed something on 'the council'?

The state of the roads? 'The council'. Grass not cut in the park? 'The council'. Streetlights? 'The council'.

The list goes on and on.

But what do you actually know about 'the council' - and what it is responsible for?

Recently, local government has made its way on to the front pages in Somerset as we are told things are going to change.

But what is going to change? What does it mean? And how will it affect me?

Here, I hope to answer some of those questions in a bid to inform those of us who don't know much about 'the council'...

Please bear in mind this is a deliberately simplified guide in a bid to give people a basic understanding of local government. It is by no means comprehensive - and I would urge you to find out more, should you wish.

Anyway, here we go.

So who is 'the council'?

Well, it's tricky.

There is, in actuality, no single 'council' on which we can blame everything - or praise when things go well.

In Somerset, most households will have THREE different councils which look after their services, or facilities (there are exceptions, but as I said, this is a simple guide!).

They are:

  • A town/parish council: This is the 'smallest' council you will ever have to deal with, and focusses on a very limited area, as the name suggests (there are hundreds of them in Somerset).

For example, Wellington has a town council, Glastonbury has a town council, as do Bridgwater and Chard. (Taunton does NOT have a town council, but again, that's for a different time...)

Others places have a 'parish' council, such as a village or group of villages, including the likes of Stoke St Michael, Brean, Cannington, Ilton and Norton Fitzwarren, to give you an idea of scale.

  • A district council: The next level of local authority is the 'district' council.

Town and parish councils deal with small areas, whereas the next step up covers a larger area, called a district (handy eh?).

In Somerset, we have FOUR district councils: Somerset West and Taunton; Sedgemoor; South Somerset; Mendip.

  • The county council: This is, as the name suggests, the largest council any of us deal with, as it covers the whole county.

Why are there so many?

If you think about it, it is very, very difficult to manage every little detail for every town, village, hamlet or parish in the county.

They all impact on one another, but all have very different needs, facilities and situations. 

(For example, there are 78 parish and town councils in the Somerset West and Taunton district ALONE)

So, as local government has evolved, people thought perhaps the best way to do it would be to create different levels of responsibility.

It works something like this, in broad terms:

  • The parish or town council is there to deal with everyday things that are very particular to one area.
  • The district council oversees things that will have an impact on a wider area.
  • The county council deals with things that matter everywhere.

Make sense?

If not, here is a very brief guide to the sorts of things each council takes care of, which might clarify it.

  • A parish/town council looks after things like:
    bus stops/shelters
    community centres and town halls
    play areas and play equipment
    public benches
    public clocks
    They can also hand out fines for certain things, so tend to deal with:
    fly posting
    dog offences
  • A district council looks after:
    planning (the county does some, but we'll tackle that another time)
    rubbish collections and recycling
    collecting the council tax (though they don't decide how much it is on their own - that's for another time!)
    parks and open spaces
    leisure centres
  • A county council is responsible for:
    social care
    trading standards
    fire and public safety
    waste management (even though the districts collect it)

You see, it sort of makes sense. Because a parish council knows what allotments it has, it deals with those. The county council manages roads, because they often cross many parishes and districts - and so on.

If the system works, then why are we trying to change it?

There are, of course, problems with any system - and local government is no different. 

Parishes may disagree with districts on some things (planning, for example), while the county council might not like something a district has done.

And we, the people who live here, might find it confusing trying to find the right person to talk to about dog fouling at our local park (that's the district, by the way).

It's also an expensive business, running parishes, districts and counties. There are councillors' allowances (wages) for example - but to be clear, parish/town councillors don't get 'paid', but can claim some expenses - the cost of putting on elections, and printing headed notepaper, that sort of thing. All of that money comes from somewhere (taxpayers).

So many people feel we should do things differently.

So what is being proposed?

Remember those THREE councils most of us deal with - parish, district and county?

Well, a number of places across the country have abolished 'the middle man' - the districts - and simply have one authority that deals with all of the main issues (the districts still do the 'little' things).

When there is an overarching authority, it is called a 'unitary authority'.

Some form of unitary authority is being proposed for Somerset.

So why the debate?

Right, fasten yourselves in - this is where it gets interesting (okay, interesting if you're into this sort of thing...).

Somerset County Council has proposed creating a unitary authority for Somerset, abolishing the districts (and the county council itself) to be replaced by one, overarching authority to look after everything.

They say it would be cheaper and easier for people to understand.

In addition to that overarching authority, they say they would create 15 to 20 LCNs (Local Community Networks) in the county to act as that 'middle man'.

The districts, as you might imagine, are sceptical. 

They have campaigned AGAINST having one, single authority overseeing the entire county.

'They would say that,' I hear you cry...

But the districts themselves, in fact, agree that there needs to be change.

However, they disagree that the county council's plan would save as much money as many claim, and that it could dilute the voice of people like you and me, because we would no longer have a 'middle man' to speak to - it would simply be one, enormous authority. 

So, they are set to release a plan which would see TWO unitary autorities created in Somerset - a halfway house if you like.

(Wells MP James Heappey came up with the idea of having THREE unitaries, but we won't get into that here)

What has been decided so far?

Nothing has been finalised, yet.

Any plan to change things needs to be 'invited' by central government (yes, they ask for us to recommend a change), which in this case is the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick MP. 

In preparation for being 'invited' to make a change, Somerset County Council drew up a business plan for their idea (for ONE unitary authority to oversee the county) and approved it. So that is on the table, ready to go.

But it looks like that invitation is not coming just yet.

As mentioned above, the four districts are promising to release their plan in the coming weeks, so that could trigger some negotiations.

And there is also talk of a THIRD plan, but we'll have to wait and see on that one...

Can I have my say?


There HAS to be community consultation on any plan.

You can still fill in a survey on the county council's plan - see - and look out for updates through your County Gazette on any other consultations in the future.

So there it is, a rough guide to all this. 

I'd be intrigued to hear if you found this helpful, and what changes you'd like to see in how you are governed locally. Email me at, or tweet me (@GazettePaul).

I hope that clears some things up - it isn't easy, but it's important as many people as possible get involved in what's happening, because if you don't, you'll just end up blaming 'the council' again...

Meanwhile, you can read more of our coverage of this on-going saga if you want to know more about what's happened - and why:

May 2018: Plans to abolish district councils in Somerset revealed
May 2018: VIDEO: David Fothergill on unitary plans for Somerset
May 2018: Reaction to plans to abolish district councils in Somerset
January 2020: Councils disagree over future of local government in Somerset
February 2020: Fact checking claims in Somerset unitary authority row
July 2020: Plan to scrap Somerset's district councils APPROVED
July 2020: MP questions why unitary plan is being 'steamrollered through'
July 2020: County council leader on why unitary is right for Somerset
August 2020: District councils reveal they will unveil their own unitary plans