Wednesday, June 13, 2007

One size fits all?

The Unitary debate is reaching a key stage across the country.

Responses to the Department of Communities and Local Government consultation on their selected bids is due by June 22nd.

In Somerset we are still debating whether the right option was selected (it wasn't) but at the same time I hope we are getting closer to some shared understanding on what would have been a more generally acceptable proposition if DCLG had provided the time, process and will to enter into bottom-up consultation as well as create a top-down straightjacket.

I chair the Local Strategic Partnership (South Somerset Together) and we had our Annual General Meeting last week. As well as launching the consultation on a complete revision of our Sustainable Community Strategy we discussed amongst ourselves as the LSP and with representatives from a wide range of our parishes, towns and partner organisations what characteristics would make any future local authority in South Somerset either markedly better - or markedly worse.

The gravest concerns were the possibility of a significant reduction in democratic representation (down to 116 Councillors for 500,000 people) and the possibility of losing the internationally recognised Community Development and Engagement by officers of the South Somerset District Council which is so strongly supported through active Area Committees made up from all members of all parties. County Council representatives at the meeting made a robust response to both these points, and clearly the County opinion is that these concerns should be allayed by the way in which the new authority will actually do its job - time will possibly tell, but the confidence our audience felt was not helped by the clear message that the promises of 'not more than 2% council tax rises for 5 years' and others could not be mandated on the new authority!

There was hope expressed that any new authority would simplify decision making, reduce central and overhead costs and fit better with the other partner agencies. At our District level there was major concern that a County wide approach to these aspects would result in remoteness of decision making, more direction from Government through a single body, and a reduction in the level of personal heavy commitment from District Councillors in education, community safety, health and well being.

The Local Strategic Partnership is a consultee in the Unitary process. It is odd (to say the least) that a non-statutory body such as the LSP gets to make a formal response when the more formal public bodies such as town councils and parish councils do not have a specific route to get their responses heard and weighed. I hope our exercise will repair that deficit to some extent - but it is not enough.

We will be writing to the DCLG in time for their deadline. I hope that the referendum has been reported by then because it will help us address one of the five categories that DCLG have proposed our response should cover:

- that the proposal should be supported by a broad cross ection of partners and stakeholders.......

(In Prime Minister's QuestionTime today (June 13th 2007) the Prime Minister expressed complete confidence that DCLG would take seriously the views of the 6 MPs in North Yorkshire about lack of cross-sectional support. Let us hope he does for Somerset as well - perhaps our MPs could get together and make a similar strong statement)

The other categories from DCLG are

- affordable (value for money and can be met from councils' "existing resource envelope")
- provide strong effective and accountable strategic leadership
- deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment
- deliver value for money and equity on public services

The LSP will be making a submission that we will make publicly available. Any individual or body NOT on the list of consultees can of course write direct to DCLG (accessing the website is a good start and look at consultations).

Whatever you choose to do - if you have an opinion make sure it is heard.