|Founded||1 April 1889|
Length of term
|4 years (from 2027)|
|First past the post|
|5 May 2022|
|County Hall, Taunton|
Somerset Council, known until 1 April 2023 as Somerset County Council, is the unitary authority which governs the district of Somerset, which occupies the southern part of the ceremonial county of the same name in the South West of England. The council has been controlled by the Liberal Democrats since the 2022 local elections, and its headquarters is County Hall in Taunton.
The council was created on 1 April 1889 to govern the administrative county of Somerset. The county was reformed in 1974, becoming a non-metropolitan county with a county council and four districts. The districts were abolished in 2023 and the county council took on their responsibilities, becoming a unitary authority.
The Conservative Party has been the largest or second-largest party on the council since 1973, and since 1981 has competed with the Liberal Democrats for control; each party has formed several majority administrations in the period since.
County councils were first introduced in England and Wales with from 1889 as a result of the Local Government Act 1888, taking over administrative functions until then carried out by the unelected Quarter Sessions. Somerset County Council was established in on 1 April 1889; the administrative county excluded the county borough of Bath.
In 1974, as part of wider reforms to local government in England and Wales, Somerset became a non-metropolitan county governed by a county council and five districts: Sedgemoor, West Somerset, Taunton Deane, South Somerset, and Mendip. At the same time the north of the administrative county became part of the new non-metropolitan county of Avon; the county was abolished in 1996, and this area is now two unitary authorities within the ceremonial county of Somerset. In 2019 West Somerset and Taunton Deane were merged to form Somerset West and Taunton.
The first proposal create a Somerset unitary authority took place in 2007, but was rejected in a local referendum and were subsequently abandoned by the Department for Communities and Local Government. In 2020 the idea was revived, and on 1 April 2023 the four district councils were abolished and their functions assumed by the county counci, which was renamed 'Somerset Council'. The councillors elected in May 2022 oversaw the reforms and will serve until 2027.
In 2009, the council was made up of 58 seats. From 2013 until 2022 council elections were fought over a 55-seat council. Both periods saw the use of first past the post as the election system and saw Conservative majorities returned.
In 2009, the Conservative Party UK won 35 seats, a six seat majority, with the Liberal Democrats UK coming second with 21 seats, in 2013 the Conservative Party UK won 29 seats, a one seat majority, with the Liberal Democrats UK coming second with 18 seats and UKIP (a new entrant) coming joint third with Labour Party UK on three seats. In 2017 the Conservative Party UK won back seats and ended up winning 35 seats, gaining them a seven seat majority, in this election, UKIP did not stand and the Liberal Democrats UK continued their loss of seats dropping to 12 (although they remained in second place).
The 2022 local elections in Somerset were fought on new boundaries, with 110 seats available within the new unitary council. In this election the Liberal Democrats UK won 61 seats granting them a five seat majority, the Conservative Party UK came second with 36 seats.
The Conservative governments of Theresa May and Boris Johnson undertook structural changes to local government in England, that resulted in several county councils and their district councils being replaced by unitary authorities.
Somerset County Council drew up initial plans for unitarisation in 2018. Its proposal was for a single new unitary authority that would encompass all the districts, while the joint counter-proposal of the four district councils (Somerset West and Taunton, South Somerset, Mendip, and Sedgemoor) was for two new unitary authorities representing respectively the areas of East Somerset and West Somerset. A non-binding referendum of residents held in June 2021 expressed a preference for the two-authority proposal. Nevertheless, the central government minister responsible, Robert Jenrick, selected the plan for a single authority.
Before becoming a unitary authority the county council was responsible for the more strategic local services of Somerset, with a changing pattern of lower-tier authorities existing alongside it within its area and responsible for other more local services, such as waste collection. The Council provided a wide range of services, including education (schools, libraries and youth services), social services, highway maintenance, waste disposal, emergency planning, consumer protection and town and country planning for matters to do with minerals, waste, highways and education. This made it one of the largest employers in Somerset. The Council outsourced some work to a joint venture with IBM, SouthWest One, created in 2007. In September 2012 the Council prepared to sue Southwest One as a result of a procurement quality dispute.
Somerset County Council contributed to encouraging businesses to relocate to the county through the inward investment agency Into Somerset.
Somerset County Council appointed eight members to the Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Authority.
Somerset County Council was also responsible for many children's services. In 2013 and 2015, Ofsted inspectors rated it, "inadequate". In 2018 Ofsted inspectors said services were better but still "require improvement to be good". Services for children requiring protection need improvement, children in foster care are moved to new placements too often.
Somerset County Council needed to save £19.5 million in 2017/18, but only cut £11.1 million. Cuts were announced to highways, public transport and special needs services. Staff will be told to take two days off unpaid for the coming two years. The chief executive said he had, "no choice" because of cuts to central government funding. Further proposed cuts include, reducing winter gritting, suspending 'park and ride' services, stopping funding for Citizens Advice, cutting adult social care and support for people with learning difficulties, cuts to funding, and jobs, cuts from the GetSet programme which helps stop vulnerable young people needing social care. There will be reduction to help for vulnerable families and children with special educational needs, youth services, road-gritting, flood prevention, among other cuts.
In July 2018, two senior Conservatives councillors resigned over concerns regarding the Council's handling of financial matters. Dean Ruddle and Neil Bloomfield had previous held roles as the respective chair and vice chair of the audit committee. An official audit of the council criticised its "pervasive" overspending and its failure to deliver sufficient savings over the previous 12 months.
In September 2018, the Council voted through £28 million of spending cuts, spread over the next two years. Critics of the cuts, including Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors, noted that between 2009 and 2016, Somerset’s Conservatives administration had voted to freeze council tax, when an increase of 1.9% would have brought in an additional £114 million.
In January 2013, Ofsted inspectors gave Somerset Councils' Children’s Services the lowest rating of "inadequate".
In January 2015, Ofsted reinspected the Children’s Services Department and concluded that it remained "inadequate". The corresponding report found no improvement in the care provided by the children's services and described a "corporate failure" to keep children safe. Ofsted found there were "widespread or serious failures" which it considered placed children to be harmed or at risk of harm. The report also identified managers who "have not been able to demonstrate sufficient understanding of failures" and had been ineffective in "prioritising, challenging and making improvements".
In January 2015, Julian Wooster was appointed director of Children's Services, the fifth such appointment in five years.
In November 2017, the service was inspected by Ofsted. Services were judged to have improved, but still "require[d] improvement to be good" in all but one area. The report found that services for children needing help and protection required improvement, as did leadership, management and governance. The inspectors concluded that too many children in foster care experienced moves between placements before they were found the right home. Inspectors singled out adoption services as being "good".
Somerset County Council operated the local government cabinet system which was introduced by the Local Government Act 2000. Previously called the "Executive Board", the Cabinet consists of six county councillors and is the county council's main decision making body, taking most important decisions about its functions. Each of the members of the Cabinet is directly responsible for a particular area of county council activities.
Decisions to do with the planning matters dealt with by the county council and other regulatory matters are still taken in a committee called the Regulation Committee.
Main article: Somerset County Council elections
The first elections to the new county council were held on 23 January 1889. Since then, members have been elected for a term of office (initially three years, now four), with elections held all together on the "first past the post" system.
Until the early 1970s, the County Council still included aldermen. Of a total of 92 members, 69 were elected every three years by ratepayers, and 23 were aldermen, chosen by the 69 elected members. The aldermen served for six years, so after each triennial election either eleven or twelve were appointed, these numbers alternating. Until 1910, the outgoing aldermen could also vote on such appointments. As voting members of the council, aldermen were finally abolished in 1974 under the Local Government Act 1972 so that there are now only the elected members, each of the 55 present county divisions electing a single member up to 2017, and then two members for the final 2022 election.
On 5 May 2022 the Liberal Democrats won 61 of the 110 county council seats, giving them control of the unitary authority after the 2023 reforms.
|Source: Election results on BBC News|