Stonewall controversy: More views from Conservative Police and Crime Commissioners

6 Sep

Last month, we reported on Lisa Townsend, the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey, and her comment that Stonewall had become “a well-funded lobby group for a dangerous ideology that threatens the safety of our women and girls.”  Three other Conservative PCCs went public to say that they shared her concerns – Donna Jones, the PCC for Hampshire & Isle of Wight, Marc Jones, for Lincolnshire, and Rupert Mathews, who serves as the PCC for Leicestershire.

Since then, we invited the other Conservative PCCs to give their opinion on the controversy – and several have done so.

Some were strongly supportive of Townsend’s stance.

Tim Passmore, the PCC for Suffolk, responded as follows:

“I think Lisa Townsend is absolutely correct with her desire to stop funding Stonewall. In my personal opinion, Stonewall has changed from an organisation which achieved a great deal in promoting the rights of gay people but it has now become far too confrontational in its approach. Some months ago I gave instructions to our finance department to stop paying any public money to Stonewall. I was unaware at the time that our police force had made such payments. Using taxpayers’ money for supporting political organisations such as Stonewall is at best misguided and in my opinion, plain wrong. I do not believe the majority of our local Council Taxpayers would approve of using their hard-earned cash in this way, especially after several years of above-inflation increases. I am also reviewing any other subscriptions to try and ensure such situations do not occur again.”

David Sidwick, the PCC for Dorset, agreed:

“My belief is that the law should define this issue and sex should be paramount when it comes to risk and safeguarding. It should be safety that is the primary consideration and therefore the interpretation has got to be law based and not lead the law. The police should uphold the law without fear or favour and therefore should not subscribe or support lobby groups with agendas. The issue here are the quite understandable concerns of women in areas such as refuges / prisons and with regard to the offences of sexual assault and rape. I know that there are fervent voices campaigning for self-identification to be the only criteria. I do not hold with that and certainly not in the context of a safeguarding situation. This is not about who people are or how they live their lives – it is about taking a sensible and pragmatic approach. Therefore record both sex and gender.  Lisa my PCC colleague for Surrey is right to make this case.”

Mark Shelford, the PCC for Avon and Somerset, said:

“I think it is very courageous for PCC Lisa Townsend to have spoken out about her position on Stonewall and women’s safety. Such a topic is a very complex and sensitive matter and I fully support her view. I have shared my concerns with the Temporary Chief Constable and I will be formally asking Avon and Somerset Police to consider their use of consultation and advisory services from Stonewall when their contract comes up for renewal this October. I will ask that they either work with Stonewall to change their policies to better reflect the public’s concern regarding the safety of women and girls or end their contract. I want to ensure that any advice taken by the police is inclusive and considerate to all those from communities with protected characteristics but also considers the public safety of women and girls.”

David Lloyd, the PCC for Hertfordshire, commented:

“Lisa is shaping up well to be a brilliant PCC – she recognises that we are in charge of strategy and the chiefs are operational. She also recognises that we have the power to force change in areas where there are divergent views and to take a position. As Paul Goodman says, “the one recently elected for Surrey is going about earning her salary, getting stuck in, campaigning for a cause she believes to be important – and risking the inevitable social media backlash.” I fully concur.”

Others were less emphatic.

Roger Hirst, PCC for Essex, responded:

“It is not an issue which has come up so far in Essex – we don’t have a women’s prison, and the governor of the men’s has told me we have never had a transgender inmate. So I have not had occasion to look into it.”

Philip Seccombe, Warwickshire’s PCC, gave the following reply:

“I am very supportive of efforts to boost inclusion and ensure we have a diverse police service which fully addresses the needs of local people. To do this I think it is vital to work closely with local organisations and representative groups who understand these needs best and can speak more authoritatively about what is happening within Warwickshire, including on subjects such as trans rights. Warwickshire Police does not currently employ Stonewall or make use of its programmes but does engage an extensive network of local independent advisory groups. I remain committed to ensuring local voices have the strongest possible say in how policies and practices are developed and would want to see this approach continue in the future.”

Many thanks to all those who were prepared to comment on this controversial, but important, issue.

Harry Fone: A browse through Council contracts shows the extravagant spending continues

26 Aug

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) frequently calls out wasteful foreign aid spending and we never have a shortage of examples. From “friendship benches” in Zimbabwe to a study of Latin American teenagers, millions of pounds go up in smoke every year. A common argument by those who defend overseas aid is that you can always cherry-pick profligate projects.

But I disagree. It shouldn’t be easy to find such examples because they shouldn’t exist in the first place. This brings me onto local authority spending. Despite many councils claiming there is no more fat left to trim from their budgets, one doesn’t have to delve too deep to find some juicy morsels. In what will be at least a two-part series I’ve put together a list of publicly tendered council contracts that are ripe for cutting to help put a stop to inflation-busting council tax rises.

Barnsley Borough Council is currently tendering a contract worth between £25,980 and £30,000 to buy 100 laptop computers which it will loan to European Social Fund (ESF) participants. If you’re not aware, the ESF “aims to improve employment opportunities in the European Union”. Now this may well be a remnant of Brexit that Britain still pays into but why Barnsley Council thinks this is a good use of local residents’ cash at a time like this is beyond me. Especially so considering that council tax increased by 3.4 per cent in Barnsley this year.

The TPA has previously called out so-called ‘Town Hall Pravdas’ – glossy council newsletters funded by council tax which are often nothing more than propaganda. Spending on these was bad enough before the pandemic but that hasn’t stopped Dorset council. The local authority offered a contract worth £225,000 for “the provision of a Residents’ Magazine Publication”. Dorset residents pay the second-highest Band D bill in the country at £2,223 – every penny of which should be going on statutory services not glorifying the council.

In this column, I’ve highlighted questionable spending by town and parish councils. My concern is that many are charging ever-greater precepts and becoming more grandiose in their ambitions. Leighton-Linslade Town Council in Bedfordshire is the latest example. It seeks suppliers to set up a “technology helpline” for those aged over 55 in the community. This is very noble but is it the role of a town council? Especially when the cost is upwards of £30,000. Add to that there are countless private sector organisations already providing training (often for free) and you have to question if this is good value for money.

This next area of spending is interesting to say the least. Both Doncaster and West Lancashire Borough Council have awarded contracts for “terrorism insurance” worth £80,000 and £13,038 respectively. I can’t be certain but I find it unlikely that councils were taking out this kind of cover, say, 25 years ago. Perhaps it’s a worrying sign of the times we live in. In this instance, I’m not saying this is outright wasteful spending either but I suspect many households would be more than a little annoyed to see their hard-earned taxes spent in this manner.

I’ll try and finish on a happier note, or perhaps that should be a ‘hoppier’ note? I’ve discovered that the Isle of Wight council plans to construct a “Brewery and Visitor Centre”. The contract doesn’t go into a huge amount of detail but we know that total value was £1.75 million for “the construction of a steel-framed structure to provide a Brewery facility incorporating a visitor centre, staff offices and storage warehouse.” Begging the question, why is the IoW council building a brewery? Given many councils have a poor track record when it comes to commercial investments one wonders if the council will be able to organise the proverbial in a brewery or will things fizz out?

This is just the tip of the iceberg, so far I’ve only scoured a small percentage of the thousands of contracts put out to tender by councils. In my next column I’ll show you even more wasteful contracts. At a time when the public finances are in dire straits, every penny of taxpayers’ cash matters. Councils can’t afford to waste a single penny. So if you’re concerned about your council’s spending I implore you to join me in this quest to root out waste. Do drop me an email with your findings.

Leading Conservative councils are withdrawing their support for Stonewall

12 Jul

In recent weeks I have been undertaking extensive investigations into the funding for Stonewall from local authorities. This has been done via Freedom of Information requests and via contact with council leaders and other councillors. Last week I reported that Surrey County Council had decided to continue with funding. I suggested that the decision was a serious mistake for various reasons. One is “value for money” – sending Council Taxpayers money to political lobbying groups is unjustified, regardless of the particular causes they espouse. Also freedom of conscience. Council staff should not be sent on “training” sessions to be told what to think. Provided they carry out their work to a high professional standard, their personal views on political and social issues are their own affair. Finally, Stonewall has become a highly controversial outfit. From its beginnings in championing equal rights for gay people, it has adopted an extremist agenda that is hostile to free speech, damages the mental health of children, and undermines women’s rights. Stonewall declares that ‘trans women are women’ despite the phrase’s potential to ride roughshod over elementary science, established language, and women’s rights to single sex spaces and services.

The good news is that Surrey County Council is very much the exception. The great majority of councils have not given money to Stonewall in recent years. Of those that have, many indicated that they would not be doing so again. Conservative councils withdrawing backing include Conwy, Derbyshire, Hampshire, Nottinghamshire, Northumberland, and Wiltshire.

Some Labour councils (or Labour-led councils) have also ceased their funding. These include Blackpool, Cheshire East, Hounslow, Islington, Merton, Redbridge, Southend and Warrington.

The following councils are currently still funding Stonewall and have not given any clear indication they will stop doing so:

  • Anglesey
  • Argyll and Bute
  • Barking and Dagenham
  • Brent Council
  • Bridgend
  • Brighton and Hove
  • Calderdale
  • Camden Council
  • Cardiff
  • Ceredigion
  • Dorset
  • East Ayrshire
  • Fife
  • Glasgow
  • Gloucestershire
  • Greenwich
  • Greater London Authority
  • Gwynedd
  • Hackney
  • Haringey
  • Kirklees
  • Lambeth
  • Leeds
  • Leicester
  • Leicestershire
  • Midlothian
  • North Lincolnshire
  • Nottingham
  • Oxfordshire
  • Portsmouth
  • Rhondda-Cynon-Taf
  • Slough
  • Southwark
  • Stirling
  • Stockport
  • Sandwell
  • Sunderland
  • Surrey
  • Telford and Wrekin
  • Torfaen
  • Waltham Forest
  • Westminster.

Typically the sum involved is £3,000 a year for membership of the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme. Some have paid for extra, for example, additional training sessions on top of this.

Though I have included Slough Borough Council, there must be some doubt about that particular revenue stream. The Council has issued a Section 114 notice which restricts its spending to essential services.

Among those Conservative councils on the list, some have indicated that the issue is under review. The message from Gloucestershire is:

“We are taking the opportunity to raise questions with them”.  

Westminister Council states:

“We are reviewing all of our memberships to ensure value for money”.

Cllr Rob Waltham, the leader of North Lincolnshire Council, tells me:

“We have over the past few years sought to improve the councils standing and position on LGBT+ issues. It was well established back then that Stonewall were the  leading body for accreditation on such matters.  Clearly recent events and our progressive approach as an organisation has provided us an opportunity to review and think if this relationship is best suited to deliver our aims. I have triggered that review and will happily report back once it is completed.”

Dorset Council has also put the matter “under review”. But what was especially weak in this case was that elected councillors responded that it was not a matter for them and was for their officials to decide.

I have also made enquiries about police constabularies. Most have not provided recent funding. Greater Manchester Police has, but has stopped doing so. Police forces still providing funding are:

  • Derbyshire
  • Durham
  • Dyfed-Powys
  • Gwent
  • Hertfordshire
  • Humberside.

Again the spending is usually £3,000 a year each.

Jonathan Evison, the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Humberside, arranged for his assistant to write to me to say that it was an “operational” matter for the Chief Constable. This seems to me to stretch the definition of operational policing to an absurd degree. The PCC is supposed to be responsible for setting the policies, priorities, and the budget. If they are abdicating responsibility on a decision about handing over money from the police budget to Stonewall, it is hard to see what the point is of electing a PCC is.

When it comes to the NHS Trusts there is not even the potential of democratic accountability – though some local councillors may sit on the board of governors as appointees. Some of these Trusts give funds to Stonewall, most do not. It really seems to depend on the ideological whims of the senior officials. Those that have withdrawn funding include the East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, the Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, the Norfolk Community Health and Care NHS Trust, the Bristol, North Somerset & South Gloucestershire Clinical Commissioning Group and the Brighton and Hove Clinical Commissioning Group. The following are presently due to continue making payments –  though the Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust did add it was “under review”:

  • Aneurin Bevan University Health Board
  • Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust
  • Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust
  • Cardiff and Vale University Local Health Board
  • Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust
  • Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust
  • Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust
  • Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust
  • Derbyshire Community Health Services NHS Foundation Trust
  • Hywel Dda University Health Board
  • Kernow Clinical Commissioning Group
  • Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust
  • Midlands Partnership Foundation Trust
  • Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust
  • North East London NHS Foundation Trust
  • North Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust
  • Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust
  • Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust
  • Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust
  • Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust
  • The Royal Orthopaedic NHS Foundation Trust
  • Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • Solent NHS Trust
  • South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust
  • Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust
  • Swansea Bay University Health Board
  • University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS Foundation Trust
  • University Hospitals Birmingham
  • West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust
  • Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust

While I am encouraged that the overall trend is for payments to be ended or reviewed, it does seem extraordinary that any payment of public funds to Stonewall should remain legal. Public sector bodies should not make payments from taxpayer funds to lobbying organisations, who in turn use that funding to lobby public sector bodies.  The rules on this should be tightened.

Andy Street: The BBC’s Birmingham plans represent a cultural “levelling up” this country needs

23 Mar

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

This weekend Line of Duty, one of the BBC’s most successful shows, returned to our screens for its highly anticipated fifth series. The hit crime drama is one of a number of major TV productions made in Northern Ireland, making a significant contribution the local economy there.

However, few people know that the first series of this hit show – the one that established it as a fans’ favourite – was made in Birmingham, with filming taking place across the West Midlands.

In fact, Line of Duty was created by West Midlands-born Jed Mercurio, who lived for several years in Birmingham where he worked as a doctor in local hospitals.

I don’t know why production of the show moved away from Birmingham, but its move was certainly emblematic of a shortfall in investment by the BBC here, resulting not only in an economic imbalance but also in a lack of representation of West Midlands life on national TV schedules.

Now, all this is changing – with a landmark announcement this week from the BBC and significant plans for independent production studios in Birmingham, following years of lobbying by myself, and huge combined efforts by our talented creative industry. In TV parlance, we are “ready for our close up”.

I believe the announcement by the Beeb represents a kind of cultural “levelling up” – and follows the announcement that the Department for Transport is to move to Brum and the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government to Wolverhampton. All of these moves are crucial to the ongoing success of devolution, as they ensure opinion formers and decision makers, whether in the media or the Government, understand and engage with life outside the capital. But this has been a long time in the making.

For decades, Birmingham boasted one of the biggest BBC centres in the country – Pebble Mill – which was home to the Archers, Top Gear, The Clothes Show, Countryfile, Gardeners’ World and the daily magazine show Pebble Mill at One. Its studios were used to film All Creatures Great and Small, Boys from the Blackstuff, Doctors, Dangerfield, Howards’ Way, Juliet Bravo, Dalziel and Pascoe and more.

After the BBC closed the famous studios in 2004, its presence in the region shrank to a shadow of its former self. By 2011, the Corporation had opened its huge base at Salford’s MediaCity, in Greater Manchester – where it employs more than 3,000 people.

This, for me, was another symbol of how our region was being left behind other parts of the country. It wasn’t just about the loss of jobs and investment, critical though that was, it also meant that talent from our region would be forced to move elsewhere.

It also showed a major national institution turning away from us, and not just any institution – the BBC isn’t like any other business. It is one we all pay for through our licence fee and it was clear that West Midlands people were getting a poor return on the money they were contributing to BBC coffers.

Four years ago, the BBC’s annual report revealed the Corporation spent just 1.5 per cent of its programming budget in the Midlands, down from 1.8 per cent the year previously. It meant that while licence fee payers in the wider Midlands region were paying £961 million a year, the broadcaster was spending just £135 million a year here, while pumping money into London and the North. Quite simply, the BBC was investing less in the Midlands than any other part of the country.

And it’s not just about money – it’s about representation. Think about this: how many TV shows can you name that are set in the Midlands? TV schedules are full of gritty northern dramas, London cop shows or programmes that use famous regional landmarks as their backdrops. Happy Valley is set in Yorkshire, Unforgotten, Luther and Marcella in London, Broadchurch in Dorset. The biggest soaps are in the capital, Manchester and the Yorkshire Dales. Doctor Who may travel anywhere in time and space, but the Tardis chose to move its regular base from Wales to Sheffield.

Yes, we have the sublime Peaky Blinders, created by proud Brummie Steven Knight, and Line of Duty subtly hints at an anonymous Midlands setting, but there are very, very few shows where you can see life here on your screens, or hear our accents. As one of the UK’s most densely populated places, this underrepresentation is simply wrong.

Last week, the BBC announced ambitious plans for its biggest transformation in decades, including moving more programme making and investment to the West Midlands, finally delivering the kind of investment that our region has been crying out for.

This followed months of negotiations with Tim Davie, new BBC Director General, and means that over the next six years the corporation will increase activity across the region, with at least one new primetime drama series and one new primetime entertainment series commissioned here.

This will not only bring new jobs and opportunities, it will also give us the chance to tell our own stories, express our creativity, make our voices heard and ensure a fairer representation for the region on the cultural landscape. However, it will also mean that the BBC will benefit hugely from the incredible pool of talent here.

This is an industrious, innovative place. In the last four years our creative sector has really begun to regain momentum. Creative and digital was the fastest growing sector in the West Midlands between 2016 and 2018. There are nearly 1000 creative businesses in the region, contributing £4.7 billion per year to the economy – that’s why I have always championed it as a sector.

Now, this new BBC investment will feed that momentum, creating more jobs and giving us the opportunity to be a leading light in the sector again, just as we were in the heyday of Pebble Mill.

There have been setbacks. There is no doubt that years of BBC under-investment impacted on independent production here, which was cited as one of the possible reasons Channel 4 chose in 2018 to overlook Birmingham’s bid to be its new base outside of London, in favour of Leeds.

I was personally hugely disappointed by the Channel 4 decision, because I thought we were the best choice, but I don’t regret the fact that we tried. In fact, going through the process with Channel 4 helped us to galvanise our creative sector, work out where our strengths lay, and it has laid the foundations for the successes we are now seeing.

Under my leadership, the West Midlands Combined Authority helped set up Create Central to bring together the local screen industry to lead the development of plans to grow the sector. This included £2 million for Create Central to fund a programme of activities to boost the film, TV and games sector in the region, with £500,000 to run bootcamps to teach young people the skills they need to work in the TV production sector.

All this activity means the arrival of more BBC activity coincides with a creative explosion here, centred around Birmingham’s Digbeth. Two major new production facilities are already planned in this creative quarter of the Brum – Mercian Studios, an international film studios and media village, led by Peaky Blinders’ Steven Knight, and a new Creative Content Hub for independent TV and content production.

Over the next few weeks, the UK will be gripped by Line of Duty, a TV phenomenon that began here in the West Midlands. Soon, the Peaky Blinders will return to our screens too. The news that the BBC is to finally take full advantage of the immense talent to be found here will mean viewers can look forward to many more West Midlands-made TV classics, while local people will get a fairer share of the nation’s cultural currency.

David Sidwick: Police and Crime Commissioners should not be too cosy with Chief Constables

2 Mar

David Sidwick is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for Dorset.

As we face the May elections, there will be much debate about policing and the role of Police and Crime Commissioners.

The first question is why do we have PCCs in the first place? There has always been a local linkage of governance to a police force. First it was via local watch committees which were dissolved when it was felt these were not transparent enough. Then came police authorities, that whilst more transparent, had weak strategic input and no direct democratic mandate. Finally, Police and Crime Commissioners which can provide both the democratic linkage and the strategic input.

The issue is that there has never been a strong enough case put for the role to the public – and there has never been a strong enough differentiated case for Conservative PCCs and the unique benefits that they bring.

This has allowed a conflation and misunderstanding of the impartiality of the police and the political nature of PCCs. The independence of the police was enshrined both in the actuality of the legislation and in the spirit. PCCs in their oath of service clearly state they will not interfere with the operational effectiveness of the police force.

Conservative PCCs particularly understand the complicated and necessarily distanced relationship with the Chief Constable – it must neither be directive nor too cosy as both have the capability to infringe on operational independence.

Conservative PCCs also understand that they hold the grail in that the police must remain operationally impartial. It was in our DNA when Sir Robert Peel set up the Peelian Principles and it is worth restating Principle 5 – Police seek and preserve public favour, not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.

So this is the “no fear or favour” that lies at the heart of the operational policing and it absolutely has to be sacrosanct. But let’s be clear; this has to be impartiality to all, including the following – political parties, lobby groups, rich individuals or corporations, and also those groups that may be a public relations minefield – no matter how good the cause. The law applies to all that commit crimes and should be equally applied.

And therein also lies the issue with the suggestion about removing governance completely and letting the police run themselves via the National Police Chiefs Council – leaving aside the fact this removes the local democratic accountability that has been part of our police forces since the years of their inception – it also means that the institution will no longer serve the public, but themselves – having an internal view not accountable to the public is a very dangerous path.

So the concept of operational impartiality for the police remains at the heart of the concept of Conservative PCCs.

In the South West, there has been a deliberate message to the electorate that confuses the operational and strategic to make the case for Independent PCCs. Far more important and relevant for a PCC are the understanding of strategy, the ability to engage, and the right motivation to be an advocate for the public.

The governance therefore relies on the strategic plan (the Police and Crime Plan (PCP)) and less on the much more discussed but less important ability to dismiss the Chief Constable. This should always be the last resort and the true strength lies in the professional relationship founded on mutual respect between the PCC and the Chief Constable. It is not for a PCC to order about a Chief Constable – that contravenes their operational independence. It is however also vital that the Chief Constable should enact operationally the requirements of the PCP. This is the link through the plan to the democratic will of the people. A connection that too often is forgotten and is the most important.

A PCC therefore should have, above all else, an understanding of the strategic process: from communication with the electorate; to an overarching vision; with a clear mission; with objective-bound priorities that can be directly linked to impartial operational effectiveness.

A Conservative PCC understands this. Crunch the numbers and the vast majority of the areas with the lowest crime rates have Conservative PCCs. I would argue that they also show more clearly the rule of law and a strong moral compass at the heart of their plan. This structure is inherent to our party’s vision of aspiration – you can only build strong communities and businesses within a safe framework of law and democracy, where anarchy and mob rule has no place.

There are great examples of this – North Yorkshire and Devon and Cornwall are first and second lowest in the country for the overall crime rate. Those PCCs that put crime prevention / reduction high on their priorities have forces that not surprisingly perform well – it’s worth comparing PCP priorities across the country and looking at the differences. What links all the high performing Conservative PCCs is that direct link from their population to their force, through a PCP focused on preventing crime and anti-social behaviour. Both in the plan itself and commissioning services, Conservatism should be transparent to the voters – that is not incompatible with operational effectiveness in any way.

The operational effectiveness of the Police is sacrosanct to the Conservative Party and protected by legislation. Conservative PCCs understand the relationship between them and the Chief Constable to be professional not cosy. They demonstrate this with their clear understanding and ability to deliver both effective and efficient policing.

We understand strategy, engagement, and delivery. Conservative PCC candidates have a rigorous selection process including a written exam, literally dozens of informal interviews locally, a panel interview with other PCCs and local government leaders and hustings – this means the electorate can be reassured that we have candidates that pass muster. To truly transform police and crime, the party needs to, at all levels – (CCHQ, every MP, local councillor and party activist) strongly support the Conservative PCC candidates to ensure they get elected so that they can make the link between electorate and delivery, so crime and disorder is reduced for the good of us all.

Let’s unleash the true power of having a Conservative PCC.

Faye Purbrick: Don’t split Somerset in half

16 Dec

Cllr Faye Purbrick is the Cabinet Member for Education and Transformation on Somerset County Council

In 2009, Conservatives ended 16 years of Lib Dem control on Somerset County Council and set about doing what good Conservative authorities do; delivering efficient local public services and value for money. Of course, there have been challenges along the way, but we’ve balanced the books and are now in an enviable position with decent reserves and a stronger financial position than probably any other county council, despite Covid-19 pressures.

And we want that to continue. We also want to go further and be able to make sure that Somerset plays a leading role as we emerge from the effects of the pandemic, particularly in creating and attracting jobs and businesses with the long-term investment and infrastructure that we will need. The events of the last year have illustrated that local government has a key role to play in supporting local communities. But they have also shown the limitations of the current system with unnecessary boundaries, duplication and inefficiencies.

Let’s be very clear, this is not about district vs county. Indeed, the county council and the four districts (one Conservative and three Lib Dem) are agreed on one thing; that the current two-tier structure has run its path and is no longer fit for purpose.

The options therefore come down to a choice between one single council for Somerset, ‘One Somerset’, supported by the county council, the majority of MPs, local businesses, the Police Crime Commissioner and a majority of the people of Somerset who favour an end to confusion, duplication, and the generation of savings to reinvest in frontline public services.

The alternative proposal, backed by the districts, would in effect see a Berlin Wall placed down the middle of the county splitting it into small, rival East/West unitaries whilst creating a separate “Alternative Delivery Model” for children’s services, a shared services company, and an elected mayor/combined authority sitting over the top. It would therefore replace the existing five authorities, each with their own staff and separate cultures, with, five organisations, each with their own staff and separate cultures. Not only would this create confusion, it would disrupt existing county services (notably care for vulnerable adults and children) whilst each east/west unitary would struggle to be able to exist, serving a population smaller than the figure government believes is a credible entity. And that is before we start to look at the discrepancies in deprivation between East and West, twice as bad for those living in the West of the county – not just a split in our county but a blocker to aspiration and levelling-up.

A single unitary model has worked well in those areas that have adopted it in recent years including Dorset, Wiltshire, and Buckinghamshire. It is favoured by partners in the police, probation, and health service who care little about local government boundaries. It would allow Somerset to have a unified single voice, critical in attracting inward investment, and would join up local public services.

On every test, a single council delivers over the alternative five organisation approach; greater and quicker savings that can be reinvested back into public services with lower costs of implementation.

It would also deliver a boost to local democracy by creating a network of local community networks, working with local parish and town councils and at the heart of neighbourhoods and communities. People identify with their local village or town and their county and want to see services delivered at those levels; in fact, they just want to receive great quality and value, local services. And that’s what the One Somerset proposal would give them.

We have submitted a business case to the Secretary of State to do exactly this, but we are also setting out a series of clear commitments to the people of Somerset over the coming months to ensure that One Somerset delivers on what they want:

  1. No disruption to local services as we change, and a promise to keep residents fully informed.
  2. We will protect those front-line staff working with vulnerable people across the county.
  3. Council tax will not increase because of moving to a single unitary council.
  4. Physical, face-to-face council contact points across the county.
  5. One telephone number and one website to access ALL council services.
  6. Improved services for our vulnerable residents including housing, adults’ & children’s services.
  7. Improved services for our children and young people, including education, training, jobs and transport.
  8. More local decision making by our town and parish councils and new local community networks.
  9. Closer relationships with partners including the NHS, police, education, and the voluntary sector to deliver better services.
  10. And finally, we will not split Somerset in half, divide communities, lose our proud identity, or weaken our standing on a local, regional and national level.

What we are offering is simple and based on good Conservative philosophy: a blueprint for better services, better value for money and reduced bureaucracy, no artificial boundaries – and certainly not splitting our great county in half as we look to rebuild our communities and country following Covid. That’s what Conservatives stand for and that’s what we will deliver if we are given the opportunity to continue the journey that we started in 2009.