A cash-strapped Somerset district council is poised to merge with its neighbour after the Government ring-fenced money to ease the transition.
Officials have told West Somerset Council that it has no future as a stand-alone authority, and it is now close to signing a deal with Taunton Deane Borough Council to cut costs.
In December, an agreement in principle for the two working together to draft a business case on joint working was agreed. 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.
The 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, 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 authorities’ 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 auth-ority 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.”
Last month, Mr Lewis told the WMN the days of rural district councils refusing to share services with neighbours “are numbered”.
West Somerset District Council serves 34,000 people, making it the smallest authority in the country. It has been labelled financially “unviable” in a review by officials.
The Conservative-controlled council is facing budget reductions of £1 million over three years.
The merger could be a model for other cash-strapped small rural authorities, Mr Lewis indicated, against a backdrop of deep cuts to local authority funding.