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The New Unitary Authority

(This article was written in 2022, but we feel still has useful information about the structure of local politics. Somerset Council became a Unitary Authority on 1st April 2023 when the 5 District Councils - in our case, Mendip District Council - ceased to exist. Wells City Council is hopeful that assets will be transferred back to the City as Somerset reassesses all the assets it has taken on. A new role of joint working for all parish and town councils has been created through the 18 Local Community Networks (LCNs). Wells Independents councillor Philip Welch has taken on the role of LCN Councillor Representative for Wells City Council.)

The New Unitary Authority

The biggest change in our local government for almost 50 years will bring once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for Wells.

Back in 1974 an extra layer of administration was added in the shape of Mendip District Council, between Somerset County Council and the City Council for Wells.

Now plans are in place to simplify this three-layer set-up to two by abolishing the county’s four district councils – including Mendip – and distributing their assets and powers between the new Somerset Council and smaller councils like ours.

These plans were announced by the Government in July 2021, saying they would: “Strengthen local leadership and transform the way services are delivered.”

A new Somerset Council

The new Somerset Council will be known as a unitary authority and Wells Independents councillors are playing a leading role in dealings with the Somerset unitary team about the changes which will take effect in April 2023.

Mayor Philip Welch states: “This is the chance of a lifetime, and we are going to grasp it in a responsible way. It gives us the opportunity to have more control over our own destiny. We have researched the possibilities and had many discussions with our county council and other similar councils elsewhere in England.”
Deputy Mayor Stewart Cursley added: “The council wants to create a legacy for the people of Wells.”

On 31st March 2023 the four district councils (including Mendip District Council) as well as Somerset County Council will be abolished and replaced by one single unitary authority.

There will be an election on 5th May 2022 for the new Somerset Council and the Government decided that parish elections should take place on the same date and that includes Wells City Council (WCC).

What does this mean for Wells?

The full business case for the new Somerset Council can be downloaded [here]. Page 76 of the business case lists the types of assets and services that will be considered for devolution from the new county council.

The drive for devolution in assets and services is supported by the Localism Act 2011 which created a right for local councils to express an interest in taking over the running of local services and therefore lead to the transfer of assets and services to a more local level.

Clearly it cannot make sense for all services in Wells to be run from Taunton.

Local services should be run by local people.

So, we have begun discussions about the assets and services we would like to take back when the new unitary authority for Somerset comes into being.

This provides an opportunity for the city council to regain assets and revenue it lost in 1974, including control of the Market Place, car parks and library, and taking over services such as grass cutting, street cleaning and maintenance of local parks and play areas.

WCC would also like to take back the freehold of the football club and athletic ground on Rowdens Road, the land next to the rugby club, the skateboard park and the Burcott Road allotments.

What will happen next?

The WCC precept has been raised in preparation for the new local authority arrangements, but with Mendip District Council's precept no longer being levied from 2023, the hope is that there will be little overall impact on council taxpayers.

The proposals have been submitted to the unitary executive body, and the first meeting to discuss them was held in January at the start of what is likely to be at least 12 months of negotiation. WCC has taken the initiative as it is so important, and as WCC was there at the beginning of the process, it has a better chance of success.

WCC are working to get the best deal for the people of Wells, rather than wait to see what services and assets we are offered.

The new Somerset Council says the result of devolving the assets and the services “should broadly result in a cost neutral budget for both parish and unitary authority, in order to minimise financial instability on either part.”

Local Community Networks (LCNs)

The new Somerset Council also intends to introduce Local Community Networks (LCNs) throughout the county, through which it is hoped there will be a strengthening of local leadership.

The LCN of which WCC will be a member will be known later in 2022. It is expected that each LCN will consist of at least 12 parishes and be based on the City of Wells. The LCN will act as a full committee of the new Somerset Council with its own budget. It will draw members from a wide range of statutory and non-statutory organisations.

As well as starting talks with the executive body for the new unitary county council, we are talking to neighbouring parishes to explore how they might work together in the LCN, so that they can all benefit.

Once the situation is clearer, the city council will hold public meetings to engage with residents...

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