Somerset will join the ranks of Wiltshire and Cornwall by becoming a Unitary Authority. The announcement by Robert Jenrick is still subject to Parliamentary approval but is expected to go through. The announcement has been met with mixed reactions as some had called for two separate authorities covering the east and west of the County.
Brett Spiller, Director at Chapman Lily Planning commented; ‘Officers within the individual districts have worked extremely hard to keep the show on the road in recent months, albeit a combination of covid, the need for phosphate neutrality across the Somerset Levels catchment and staff shortages have presented a very challenging environment. Thus this announcement might be perceived as a further unwelcome challenge.
In my experience County functions have sometimes proven slow in providing consultation responses or solving the big issues and thus I welcome the greater accountability that a Unitary model can bring and the pooling of expertise.
In the short term I would want to see stability and a smooth transition and would urge the authorities to start work (offline) on the integration of back office systems and processes at the earliest opportunity’.
The new authority is due to be formed from 2023, with elections for shadow Councils taking place in May next year.
Brett added, ‘The shadow Council will need to look at the status of the various Local Plan reviews and take a pragmatic look at options for progression or abandonment in favour of a new Somerset wide Plan or Area based plans.
It is also crucial that the new authority is able to retain Officers with detailed local knowledge – thus when it comes to planning I would urge the shadow Council to think about staff motivation and retention, rather than cost savings so that timely Development Management decisions can be made. In an area of Somerset’s size there will continue to be a need for area based planning and we hope that the experience of other newly authorities might help in this regard.’
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