Frome Chamber has filed a response with the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government (DHCLG) on the proposals for a unitary authority for Somerset. We have reviewed both bids and held meetings with One Somerset and Stronger Somerset.
The Chamber questions whether this is the right time for our local authorities to be distracted by a fundamental reorganisation, which under both bids only promises savings and a real improvement in services in the medium to long-term. In Cornwall it has taken 10 years for the proposals to reach a stage where local communities are seeing any improvement.
Local authorities have worked together cooperatively in the past. We do not understand why they are not able to do so now. If they did, such a fundamental reorganisation would not be necessary.
Frome is not part of Somerset in any coherent way. The East Somerset proposal reproduces the imbalance of the Parliamentary constituency, in which Frome is only a minor part of a larger area with which we have little in common. For jobs, for the housing market, for transport, for education and for health services we have stronger connections with the authorities across the county boundaries to the north and the west. The DHCLG’s own research proves this.
Therefore, we have argued that if there is to be a reorganisation of local government Frome should be part of those authorities with which we have the strongest connections. However, we understand this is not an option.
The Chamber’s position is that we would only support a new unitary authority if there was meaningful devolution of both power and budgets to an area broadly equivalent to the old Frome Urban and Frome Rural district councils. Both One Somerset and Stronger Somerset propose devolving some power locally, while at the same time saving money by centralising. To the Chamber, that appears to be a contradiction, which will require imagination and bravery to overcome. If it does, we will welcome it, but we are not confident that either proposal will deliver it. We fear that under the inevitable budgetary pressure while these proposals are put into practice saving money will trump promises of local democracy.