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Controversial Somerset poll finds backing for districts’ reform proposals

A controversial poll on reorganisation in Somerset which was carried out contrary to the wishes of the communities secretary has found almost twice as much support for a ‘two unitaries’ proposal championed by districts as for the county’s vision of a single unitary council.

The poll saw a turnout of 26% (111,108 votes). Almost two thirds of participants (65%) were in favour of the Stronger Somerset model, supported by the area’s four district councils – Mendip, Sedgemoor, and South Somerset DCs and Somerset West & Taunton Council – that would split the county into two unitaries. Only 35% supported the county’s One Somerset proposal for a single unitary.

The district councils spent more than £300,000 carrying out the referendum alongside the government’s own consultation on the issue. But the poll’s delivery was marred by a blunder on campaign materials last month which sent readers to a spoof site.

The hiccup prompted Robert Jenrick to send a strongly worded letter to district leaders accusing them of potentially “undermining the reputation and standing of local government in the country” by directing people to a site containing “offensive” material and “sexist and derogatory depictions of women”.

District leaders vowed to plough ahead with the poll regardless, telling Mr Jenrick they were “satisfied” it had not been “invalidated”.

In a joint statement the four district leaders described the poll results as a “crystal clear message” to Mr Jenrick “from the people of Somerset”.

“There are potentially significant changes ahead for local government in Somerset that will affect residents’ services and their quality of life for decades to come,” they said. “We believed it was important that the residents of Somerset were given a proper say in their future in a simple and democratic way.

“We put our faith in the voters of Somerset to make up their own minds by organising a local poll, independently run and verified, while others took every opportunity to discredit the poll and to stifle debate.”

Describing the 111,108 voters as “a huge number” which “cannot be ignored”, the statement said the government “claims they had thousands of responses to their consultation, but they cannot say for sure how many came from Somerset residents”.

Somerset CC slammed the poll as “deeply flawed, biased and expensive”.

“Residents, businesses and other organisations that are key to local government services in Somerset had already had a well organised and accessible opportunity to make their views known on this matter – through the government’s official consultation,” said the council. It added that Mr Jenrick’s three tests for judging reorganisation proposals include that a unitary council should “improve local government in the county” and “have a population between 300,000 and 600,000” as well as having local support.

A previous poll of residents which was organised by Somerset’s districts in 2007 saw 82% of respondents reject the idea of any reorganisation.

The poll was also opposed by the Somerset Independents whose leader Andrew Pope described it as “deeply flawed”, saying it was “a Hobson’s choice between two options which no residents asked for”.

The party had campaigned for the referendum to include a ‘no change’ option and a change to the committee system of governance.



Article originally appeared on the Local Government Chronicle (LGC)

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