One Somerset or Stronger Somerset?

    Somerset residents have just one week left to decide which of the visions for the future of their local government they most prefer.

    Two separate bids for the future shape of Somerset’s local government have been put forward, with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government holding a public consultation until April 19th. 


    On the one hand, there is One Somerset – backed by Somerset County Council – which involves the five existing councils being abolished and replaced with a single unitary council, with more power being devolved to local community networks and parish councils.
    On the other hand, there is Stronger Somerset – backed by the four district councils – which will see the five existing councils replaced with two unitary councils (one for the east, one for the west).


    The business cases for both sides are available online, with the government due to decide which proposal will be taken forward by the summer and then implementing it by 2023.


    Struggling to make up your mind? Here’s how the different sides stack up on a handful of key issues:

    Adult Social Care
    Adult social care is a huge issue in Somerset, with existing resources struggling to keep pace with an ageing population and the rising cost of care.

    Here’s how One Somerset would tackle the problem:
    “The commissioning model for adult social care would be simplified by bringing in the aspects of other commissioning currently led by the district councils – for example housing, disabled facility grants and
    homelessness.
    “This would enable a single, integrated ‘whole system’ response to the challenges faced by adults in terms of health, well-being and their housing needs.
    “Planning issues would be the same as already exists in the district councils, where the development control function has to act within a ‘Chinese wall’ to planning applications submitted by other council departments.
    “These would be decided by elected members with reference to the planning policies contained within the single county wide local plan. So the new unitary council would act in the same as all other unitary and district councils.
    “Service users of adult social care services (services for older people, mental health, hospital discharge and learning disability services) currently have to deal with two separate organisations (county and district councils) for their care and housing needs – particularly the desire to remain in, or to return to, their own homes (and any adaptions that may be needed) after a period of care.
    “A new unitary council brings together all of these services in a single team within the organisation. This simplifies service design and offers accountability to enable delivery of care in the right place, preferably in a
    person’s own home.
    “Significant improvements to a person’s health and well-being, coupled with savings, can be made by integrating the system in this way, enabling those savings to be reinvested in more front-line service delivery including prevention work and supporting more people to stay at home.”


    Here’s how Stronger Somerset would address the same issue, using a ‘combined authority’ to bring its two unitaries together:
    “A combined authority is a separate matter from the leadership of adult services. Discussions about a combined authority would take place once new unitary authorities are in place. Those new authorities would be running adults’ services from day one.
    “The combined authority is a mechanism to deliver a devolution deal from the government. They are created voluntarily and allow a group of authorities to pool appropriate responsibility and receive certain delegated functions from central government.
    “We envisage a Combined Authority ready to deliver a themed devolution deal to include Bath and North East Somerset and North Somerset. This would open door to, for example, a step change in digital connectivity that will support a different environment for business, relationship with government, and reduce the need for travel.
    “We have set out seven key themes for devolution which address Somerset’s distinctive challenges and opportunities and would accelerate recovery from the coronavirus, support the levelling up of the national economy, deliver on national and local climate change commitments, and enable delivery that is more efficient and effective through a locally and regionally based approach.
    “We will improve adults’ services through targeted reform based on a strengths-based, locality model. Stronger Somerset is the only proposal that has a clear investment plan for adults’ services to make services affordable and sustainable into the future Stronger Somerset is best placed to keep people healthy and independent for longer and support people of working age to live their best lives.
    “The two-unitary proposal is the only way to effectively and efficiently use population health and evidence-based data to deliver care as close to home as possible and give assurance that those services are effective and efficient through better use of data analytics that get to the heart of local need.
    “By including the full range of council services that impact upon the wider determinants of health, such as housing, leisure and growth, our model will make sure that all services are built around people while retaining the ability to flex for local differentiation and need.
    “Local services will be commissioned, and delivered locally, using primary care networks as the building blocks, and the unique skills of the community and voluntary sector.
    “Our proposal puts this sector on an equal footing as a local partner, recognising that there are services only they can deliver, and recognising the need for investment.”


    Children’s Services
    Somerset’s children’s services haven’t had an easy ride in the last few years, with inspections by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) identifying numerous areas where improvement was needed.


    Here’s how One Somerset would bring about improvements in this area – including the long-discussed University of Somerset:
    “The business case for a single unitary council deliberately makes no assumptions about savings from children’s services (or indeed adult social care), unlike the Stronger Somerset proposal which identifies £53M of indirect savings that could be made.
    “Our approach reflects the well-defined improvement programmes with our partners in the NHS which are currently driving up performance across those systems. This performance improvement is nationally recognised as described in the two independent reports covering these service areas. “There are no plans to reduce the size of the inclusion team, and indeed the annual unitary savings could be used to increase the size of this team if it were required and was a political priority for the new unitary administration.
    “Bringing together separate services sitting in the two tiers of local government allows a joined-up approach for children in care or leaving care. At the moment we have a postcode lottery in the county with, for example, some district councils granting council tax relief to some young people leaving care while others do not.
    “A single unitary, able to join up children’s services with the council tax revenue service, will enable all young people to benefit equally as they currently do in our neighbouring areas.
    “Elected members of the new unitary authority will determine their priorities and policies including for the provision for higher education (HE) in the county. It is worth acknowledging, however, that the county has extensive HE provision through its FE colleges and does have two universities within the county (University of Bath and Bath Spa University) and a further three within the recognised ‘travel to work areas’.
    “The government has made it clear that there will be no further universities built unless these are privately funded. However, a single unitary would be far better placed to deliver on this with a strong national voice rather than two smaller unitary councils that would compete with one another for resources and inward investment.”


    Here’s how Stronger Somerset intends to tackle these complex issues:
    “We will create a new alternative delivery model (ADM) – a stand-alone legal entity, jointly owned by, and with accountability to, the two new unitary authorities. The ADM will deliver all children’s services, including social care, education and learning and youth offending responsibilities, working with health, schools, colleges and voluntary sector partners.
    “The ADM will give the fresh start that is needed, giving strong and singular focus on children and young people, and to deliver improvements at a greater pace and with better momentum. We will have one director of children’s services, working with a lead member for each unitary authority.
    “We will give the utmost priority to corporate parenting responsibilities so that the needs of children looked after and care leavers will be met so that they have the very best start in life. The creation of a new entity that focuses entirely on the needs of children will help improve outcomes for these children and young people.
    “There would be a single local safeguarding children partnership arrangement, working across both unitary authorities, to support the very best partnership working to protect and safeguard children from harm.
    “Stronger Somerset will pioneer new ways of drawing on best practice to enable schools to work closely together and with other services, for example through basing social workers in schools, but also in driving up the educational attainment for children from disadvantaged groups.
    “Stronger Somerset is committed to investing in creating a high growth, high investment local economy. This will include broadening and increasing opportunities for young Somerset residents to access higher education.”


    Public Health
    Public health has been in the spotlight during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with the relationship between the NHS and local authorities coming in for close scrutiny.
    With the pandemic’s end more in sight and businesses opening up again, we asked both camps what they would do to ensure public health officials would have the resources they needed in the years to come.


    Here’s One Somerset’s reply:
    “Staff realignment across the system (i.e. council staff reassigned to the NHS and council support staff reassigned to front-line service delivery) because of the emergency requirements of the pandemic has been widespread across the local government sector.
    “This is likely to occur in a similar but reduced fashion over the next two to three years as the pandemic continues, albeit at lower levels of infection and response.
    “It is highly unlikely that these arrangements would have to be undertaken in a non-emergency situation.”

    And here’s the Stronger Somerset response:
    “Public health is a key service in leading preventative work and targeting resources where it is most needed.
    “By including the full range of council services that impact upon the wider determinants of health, such as housing, leisure and growth, our model will make sure that all services are built around people while retaining the ability to flex for local differentiation and need.”

     

    The Economy and Planning
    Any new council will need to run smoothly to ensure new homes and jobs can be delivered where they are needed, through approving planning applications and allocating land to create new employment and meeting local needs.


    Here’s how One Somerset is approaching this massive issue:
    “The business case for a single unitary council does not promote certain industries for a given area unlike the Stronger Somerset proposal.
    “The new council’s economic and growth strategy would need to consider the relevant geographical implications for business in all areas of the county, not just Bridgewater or Taunton. It would propose policies to attract and grow business in all areas and across all sectors to deliver the economy and associated prosperity sought.
    “Local development orders are one tool in the development control toolbox. There are no plans to use these more or less frequently than currently used.
    “The new development control service, and the associated single local plan for the county with a range of supporting policies, will be developed and implemented during the transition phase to unitary to enable good development whilst protecting our special environment.
    “The four district local plans, plus those at the county level such as highways, education and waste & minerals will be brought together over a period of time, supported with the many planning policy documents required to meet the national planning policy framework.
    “These will then be consulted upon throughout the county before being adopted by elected members. It is recognised that this process will take three to four years, as it did in other areas such as Dorset.”


    Here’s the approach which Stronger Somerset would take:
    “Stronger Somerset will help to level up the Somerset economy – with improved productivity and social mobility. We pledge to grow a productive, connected and sustainable Somerset which is a great place to live, work and visit.
    “Our two unitary councils will recognise local distinctiveness, reflecting the opportunities and challenges of our market towns, coastal and rural communities and our principal towns of Bridgwater, Taunton and Yeovil.
    “We will build on local strengths and make sure no one is left behind.
    “Whilst unitary local government will help us to address a number of our economic challenges more effectively, we also recognise that our ambitions need to be supported by an ambitious and progressive devolution deal.”


    Highways and Transport
    Somerset’s transport network regularly comes in for criticism, whether it’s the quality of the road surface, the regularity of roadworks or the state of local bus services.


    Here’s how One Somerset aims to address people’s concerns in this field:
    “The unitary council business case makes no assumptions about any realignments of transport priorities. This would be for the newly elected members for the unitary authority to decide in conjunction with their
    requirement to deliver national policy in these areas for the government.
    “It is important to consider that running bus services in a metropolitan area usually enables significant profit to be made and then reinvested into those service areas.
    “Running buses in a rural county where services and parts of service routes are often loss-making requires a national policy solution which the current government is considering.
    “In county areas where the equivalent of our proposed Local Community Networks (LCNs) operate, it is these types of democratic input into highways, street scene and others place-based services which are often most important to members of a community.
    “LCNs would be enabled to shape and inform such schemes, their timing, content, etc. working with the highways engineers to deliver safe roads in a way that works for a community area.”


    Here’s the Stronger Somerset take on the issue:
    “Highways and transport are key challenges and managing them well and improving connectivity across the county is vital for economic and social well-being. “On a regional level we acknowledge that while unitary local government will help us to address a number of our challenges more effectively, we also recognise that our ambitions need to be supported by an ambitious and progressive devolution agenda. Transport infrastructure and physical connectivity is one of the seven devolution themes we have identified.
    “On a more local level, transport is one of those issues that local initiatives by communities acting themselves or through local councils are impacting on, for example by helping sustain some transport services, and we would support communities who wish to do this.”

    How to have your say – and what happens next:

    You can access the full business cases for each proposal at;
    www.onesomerset.org.uk  and www.strongersomerset.co.uk respectively.

    This is how you take part in the consultation

    Email your views to: unitaryconsultation@communities.gov.uk 

    Post your views to;
    Governance Reform and Democracy, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, 2 Marsham Street, London, SW1P 4DF All responses must reach the government by Monday, April 19th. 


    A final decision on which proposal will go forward to implementation is expected to be taken by the government in the summer, with any new authority starting in 2023.
     

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