West Somerset Council to consider new ways of working
Monday 10 December 2012
West Somerset Council continues to face-up to its considerable challenges as the smallest district council in England by population (35,000) covering large areas of Exmoor and the Quantock and Brendon Hills.
It has streamlined and improved its organisation to provide increasing efficiency and value for money for its residents. Its fundamental problem is lack of income from an historic low level of council tax and government funding which does not reflect the high costs of providing services over such a sparsely populated area. It is one of a few councils who are termed ‘super sparse’. It has little income from other sources. Its basic net revenue budget is £4.9 million of which £1.1 million is paid to the Somerset Waste Partnership to fund waste collection. Over the next three years it is facing reductions of circa £1 million to its budget, leaving circa £2.8 million to cover the funding of all services other than waste collection. No other district council in the country faces such challenges.
In recent years the Council has been proactive in arranging discussions with Government, the Local Government Association (LGA) and other Somerset councils to try to solve its problems. In late July this year the Council took the bold step of inviting the LGA to independently assess the Council’s financial circumstances, make realistic recommendations on possible ways forward and comment on the Council’s future viability. This work was undertaken this October with the support and involvement of Taunton Deane Borough Council, Sedgemoor District Council and Somerset County Council.
The LGA findings, published in early November, concluded that if West Somerset can make (further) suggested savings it is viable over the next two years but is not viable (in its current structure) in the longer-term. The LGA report recommended the Council to engage the Boundary Commission to merge the Council with one or more local councils by reviewing local authority boundaries.
The Government wishes West Somerset Council to be retained as a democratic unit of local government, with councillors elected by and representing the people of West Somerset. At a meeting of Full Council on 12th December councillors are being asked to consider, subject to due diligence, the Council commissioning neighbouring councils and other organisations to deliver its services, whilst retaining a core staff to commission service delivery, monitor performance and administer the democratic processes.
Councillor Tim Taylor, Leader of the Council, said ‘’ We welcome the LGA’s report and findings following its review of West Somerset Council. We have long understood the serious challenges we face and our involving the LGA is part of our long and proactive process of trying to solve them.
The LGA report, which confirms most of what we knew already, has focussed attention on the Council’s challenges and options, and therefore enables Government and partner councils to help us grasp the nettle. We need to play our part in the national imperative to cut costs and therefore help reduce the national deficit and debt. We have made considerable savings in recent years and more are planned for next year, but we are approaching a minimum amount of income to provide the level of services that people expect from their district council. The outsourcing of services to other councils or organisations should provide us with greater expertise and resilience and will hopefully reduce costs.
However, West Somerset Council’s income per head of its population may still be insufficient to pay for outsourced services in such a sparsely populated area. Therefore extra money may still be needed, either by raising council tax above the capped limit or by an improvement in the government funding formula for sparsely populated district councils.
We are continuing to work with Government, the LGA and our neighbouring councils to find a satisfactory solution. We will also consult the people of West Somerset to try to establish their wishes for the level of services they receive.
Adrian Dyer, the Council’s Chief Executive said, “The report being considered has potentially far reaching consequences for West Somerset and staff but at this point we cannot be certain exactly what they are. I appreciate that this report will be of major concern to staff and will raise the level of uncertainty staff have about their future. I will therefore be making sure that any approach adopted by the Council ensures full consultation with staff on the appropriate protocols that need to be put in place.”