A Local Government Association investigation into a district council in the South West has found that it is “not viable as a unit of local democracy and governance over the longer term”.
West Somerset Council called in the LGA in July 2012 amid concerns over the prospect of major cuts to local government funding. It asked the association to assess its financial and operational viability, including the scope for savings with neighbouring and partner councils.
The LGA team – comprising Cllr Neil Clarke and LGA Executive Director Michael Coughlin – held talks with Somerset County Council, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Sedgemoor District Council as well as West Somerset last month.
“In our view the situation that West Somerset Council finds itself in, is without precedent,” the report, which will be considered by West Somerset’s councillors on 12 December, said. “Therefore there is no established measure or definition of the viability of a council and no process nationally prescribed to deal with such a situation.”
The LGA highlighted a number of challenges faced by the authority such as a high level of ‘sparsity’ – its population of 35,075 is spread over 470 square kilometers – and a population with the oldest average age in the UK at 52.
It said West Somerset incurs each year additional, unavoidable cost pressures amounting to £150,000 (representing around 3% of costs), but is only able to raise a 2% council tax increase of just £39,000 per annum.
“This structural problem generates an ongoing potential increase in the council’s budget of £111,000 each year on an annual net budget of £4.939m,” the report said.
“Partly as a consequence of these factors, West Somerset Council has historically faced significant financial pressures and the LGA and others have worked with the council over a number of years to address them.”
The association’s modelling suggested that the authority’s budget gap would exceed £1.5m by 2019/20.
On the possibility of a council tax referendum, the report said: “While West Somerset Council remain of the view that this is something that councillors may wish to pursue, the overriding sense emerging from our discussions was that it was very unlikely to generate a result in favour of the level of increase in council tax necessary to address the problem.”
The authors said their conclusion in relation to West Somerset’s longer-term viability, if proved correct, would mean that the council would be unable to provide essential or statutory services to a minimum acceptable level.
The local authority would also be unable to: “ensure an ongoing acceptable level of risk to life, health, well-being, property and/or assets; recruit and retain sufficient capable staff to deliver basic services; ensure the capacity needed to make the changes the council is required to undertake to remain viable; and maintain residents’ confidence in the ability of the council”.
The report made a series of recommendations, including that the council should:
- Give serious consideration to accelerating the council’s discussions with the Boundary Commission to instigate a review of local authority boundaries and governance arrangements commencing in the summer of 2013;
- Review staffing levels and structures “to ensure that every opportunity for savings has been identifed and made, against a clear set of fewer council priorities”;
- Consider introducing additional income raising opportunities, such as pre application planning advice charges;
- Consider cessation of non-statutory services, “where suitable alternative provision exists”;
- Press ahead with the options for the sale of the leisure centre site as a matter of urgency;
- Explore and speedily determine the optimum shared service arrangements with others. These would include sharing planning services with Sedgmoor and/or the Exmoor National Park Authority.
Cllr Tim Taylor, the authority’s leader, said: “I feel that West Somerset Council is viable in the short term but there is a question over the viability of the council’s core structure in the long term. The report recommends that WSC considers achieving savings both internally within the council and externally through the sharing of services with neighbouring councils and this will be explored further.”
He added that the council would take the LGA’s recommendations very seriously indeed.
“Much will still depend on the level of government funding over the following years,” Cllr Taylor said. “We will continue to make the case for WSC to receive an annual income per head of its population, which at least matches that of other Somerset district councils, so that we are able to provide services at a similar level to those provided by other Somerset district councils.”