This is a critically important time for local democracy in Somerset. I started in politics as a District and then County Councillor and now as an MP I am still very aware that local authorities are hugely important to people’s lives. Much of the environment in which we live, from planning decisions to cleaning and waste collection is run by councils. During my time as a Councillor I also met some impressive and decent representatives from all parties and also excellent officers and staff.
It may seem strange then, for me to be calling for fewer local authorities. I am completely behind the plan, led by Somerset County Council, to follow other regions in the area and across the country in setting up one unitary authority to replace itself and the four District Councils in the area with a single body.
The County Council estimates that setting up the unitary authority could save over £50million in five years through efficiencies. This is no small sum but the financial gains are not the most important reason. Somerset people should have one well-run and competent organisation to go to with local authority issues. Under the current system it is confusing and time-consuming to work out where responsibility lies and in cases there can be disagreement between the Councils. Unitary plans include establishing 20 new Local Community Networks to make sure that people’s voices are still heard at a more local level.
Aside from the cost saving through lack of duplication and better run administrative services, there is another very good reason for supporting the plan. As I first got involved in politics many years ago it quickly became apparent that South Somerset District Council was not operating planning in an even-handed manner. For a decade now planning policy in SSDC has been unfit for purpose, delivering bad decisions backed up with shoddy evidence.
In addition to bad decisions, there have been unacceptable delays in processing some applications and enforcement, where works undertaken are not in accordance with agreed plans, is also not up to standard. As the MP I continue to receive complaints about all of these. Many are from residents concerned about new developments but I also hear regularly from applicants and property agents who cannot get answers and are subject to delays and additional costs.
The clear picture is that planning in South Somerset has become a closed shop. Simon Fox, former planning lead at the Council, recently left after 18 years citing desperate need for process change. We didn’t agree on the merits of every decision but Simon is a decent professional, one of the good officers I mentioned at the start. The lack of accountability and transparency will only get worse with people like him leaving and restrictions due to COVID-19 have been used to centralise power further. SSDC are putting forward proposals which would see them incorporated into closer working with other councils. This is wrong; the people of South Somerset deserve better and it’s time for a fresh start.
As always, if you would like to get in touch please do email me at email@example.com or call 01935 314321.