Somerset County Council
Chair of the Council
Leader of the Council
Cllr David Fothergill, Conservative
since 24 May 2017
since 21 May 2014
Length of term
|First past the post|
|4 May 2017|
|5 May 2022|
|County Hall, Taunton|
Somerset County Council (established in 1889) is the county council of Somerset in the South West of England, an elected local government authority responsible for the most significant local government services in most of the county.
On 1 April 2023 the county council will be abolished and replaced by a new unitary authority for the area at present served by the county council. The new council will be known as Somerset Council.
Created by the Local Government Act 1888, with effect from 1889, the County Council administered the whole ceremonial county of Somerset, except for the county borough of Bath. With the creation of the county of Avon in 1974, a large part of the north of the county (now the unitary authorities of North Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset) was taken out of Somerset and moved into the new county. However, Avon was disbanded on 1 April 1996 and the two new administratively independent unitary authorities were established.
The area now covered by the county council consists of the four remaining non-unitary districts of Somerset – Mendip, Sedgemoor, South Somerset, and, since April 2019, Somerset West and Taunton.
Somerset can claim a longer continuously-known history of official record keeping than any other county in England. A meeting of Quarter Sessions held at Wells in 1617 decided that a room should be provided "for the safe keeping of the records of the Sessions."
County Councils were first introduced in England and Wales with full powers from 22 September 1889 as a result of the Local Government Act 1888, taking over administrative functions until then carried out by the unelected Quarter Sessions. The areas they covered were termed administrative counties and were not in all cases identical to the traditional shire counties, but in Somerset the whole 'ceremonial county' came under the authority of the new council.
The new system of local democracy was a significant development and reflected the increasing range of functions carried out by local government in late Victorian Britain. Schools (both primary and secondary) were added to the County Council's responsibilities in 1902, and until the 1990s it was also responsible for operating Colleges of Further Education.
Until 1974, Somerset had a large number of urban district and rural district councils. In 1974, local government was reorganized in England and Wales generally, and in Somerset the former urban and rural districts were amalgamated into a much smaller number of district councils.
In 2007, proposals to merge the surviving district councils with the county council into a single unitary authority were rejected at a referendum following local opposition and were subsequently abandoned by the Department for Communities and Local Government. However, in 2020, a unitary authority was suggested again as a way for Somerset’s district councils to cooperate and to save money rather than the two-tier system. A news report suggested that although it would save £40 million, it could cost £86 million to implement.
In February 2021, the ruling Conservative group of Somerset County Council rejected calls from opposition councillors from the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats for the county to take part in a future trial of universal basic income.
In April 2023, the county and district councils will be abolished and replaced by the unitary Somerset Council. Elections for the new council will take place in May 2022, and it then will run alongside the county and district councils until their abolition.
Somerset County Council is 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 provides 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 makes 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 contributes to encouraging businesses to relocate to the county through the inward investment agency Into Somerset.
Somerset County Council appoints eight members to the Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Authority.
Somerset County Council is 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 must save £19.5 million in 2017/18, but only cut £11.1 million. Cuts have been 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 £28m 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 £114m.
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 operates 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
Further information: Somerset County Council election, 2017
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 fifty-five present county divisions electing a single member.
Elections to the county council in May 2017 returned Councillors in the following numbers: - 35 Conservatives, 12 Liberal Democrats, three Labour members, three independents and two Green Party members. The council is led by David Fothergill (Conservative) who was unanimously elected by Members from all political parties.
|Source: Election results on BBC News|