The Government has cleared the way for two Somerset councils to effectively merge – and has set aside the funds to help cover the costs.
West Somerset Council, which has the smallest population of any council in England, had been told by the Local Government Association that it had no future as a stand-alone authority because it would run out of cash in two years, partly as the result of repeated cuts in government grants to sparsely populated areas.
But now Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis has announced the creation of a £9.2 million funding pot to finance mergers which see councils joining forces to bring management together – a step beyond merely sharing back-office functions and services.
West Somerset Council agreed in December to the principle of working together with Taunton Deane Borough Council to draft a business case on joint working.
Yesterday’s announcement has been welcomed by Bridgwater and West Somerset Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger, who says it offers the best outcome for struggling West Somerset Council.
Mr Lewis told MPs he wanted to see other authorities follow the example of those such as South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse, which now have a joint chief executive and management structure, and others, including Hammersmith and Fulham, Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea, which are on track to save around £40 million as a result of merging services.
Mr Lewis told the House he knew Mr Liddell-Grainger had been working hard to bring West Somerset and Taunton Deane together.
“I hope that areas such as West Somerset will move forward and see this as an opportunity to help them to do the right thing,” he said.
In a joint statement yesterday, Taunton Deane Borough Council and West Somerset Council said they would “welcome any government funding towards the costs of exploring and implementing joined up working between local authorities.”
Taunton Deane’s Corporate Scrutiny Committee will consider a report on February 21 which sets out the basis for a business case for joint management and shared services.
The statement continued: “The “non-negotiables” of the project are that Taunton Deane and West Somerset remain democratically independent as separate sovereign councils and there must be no detriment to the local taxpayers in each authority area.”
Councillor Tim Taylor, Leader of West Somerset Council said: “Subject to Taunton Deane also agreeing to this principle, the council is looking forward to moving forward with this initiative.”