Marcus Fysh: The challenge of coronavirus shows the need for streamlined decision-making in Somerset

26 Feb

Marcus Fysh is the Member of Parliament for Yeovil

Regular readers will be aware of the ongoing debate around the future of local government in Somerset. This is, of course, important to the future of local democracy and public services in our county, particularly as we move into the post-pandemic phase. Creating a fit-for-purpose council structure will be crucial to helping communities to recover and in attracting new investment and jobs.

To do this without learning the lessons from the last year would be a huge missed opportunity. Dealing with the virus on a traditional silo-based model, with multiple artificial and ceremonial boundaries, was never going to work given the scale of the challenge. There have been unprecedented levels of collaboration between public services in the county, notably with health and care services coming together effectively on the current county boundary model. This model has proven invaluable in this time of crisis and is far more appropriate than reverting back to the old silos or, as the Lib Dems want, creating an even more complex structure that would hinder recovery.

That’s why I strongly believe that a single unitary authority to replace the county council and the four district councils in the county is the best option for the future, reflecting the lessons learnt in the last year.

Not only would a single unitary model deliver significant annual savings that could be reinvested into front line services; it would also join up and improve local service delivery with key partners, including health and police (both of whom support a single unitary). Aside from these real-world savings, achievable through lack of duplication and better management, the proposal would also give a real boost to local decision-making, enhancing the role of parish and town councils to make sure that people’s voices can make a real difference at a more local level. The people of Somerset should have one well-run and competent organisation, as has worked well in other areas that have recently adopted this approach.

The other proposal, led by the county’s Lib Dems, is a recipe for chaos and confusion that would create an even more complex structure than we have now. It would split the county in half, creating two small competing unitaries in the east and west of the county, outsource children’s services to a separate company, create a further shared services company, plus a combined authority. The existing five councils would, therefore, be replaced with five new bodies each with their own staff, budgets, back office, priorities, and so on.

This sadly has more to do with trying to keep a motley coalition of competing interests and personalities together who oppose a single unitary than trying to deliver better local services for our residents. It completely misses the point of what our county needs; relies on Lib Dem administrations and ideas that should have been put out to pasture years ago; would disrupt existing pan-county services including those for the most vulnerable; and would fail to learn the lessons from tackling COVID.

For the reasons above, and to put into practice the lessons of the last year, we need to move to a single unitary authority in Somerset as soon as possible, helping our communities to recover, whilst delivering on what our residents want: better local services and better value for money.