Somerset Council tax bills could rise sharply as town and parish councils’ step in to run local services.

Statement issued on behalf Othery Parish Council.

21 November 2023

Dear Othery parishioner

I feel an urgent need to write to you concerning challenges the parish council is going to experience on your behalf during 2024 if changes in delivery of services proposed by Somerset Council are approved.

It cannot have escaped your attention that Somerset Council (SC) has announced that there will be an overspend of £27m in its budget for 2023, and a budget shortfall of £100m for next year.

To manage this huge shortfall, Somerset Council will have to make difficult decisions regarding cutting services or declare bankruptcy (s.114 notice) and follow in the footsteps of councils in Woking and Birmingham.  Somerset Council has commenced a programme of engagement with town and parish councils (Othery included) using the recently created and very much untested local community networks (LCNs) to find out what ‘services’ currently being run centrally can be devolved to parish level in order to reduce the unitary’s economic responsibility.

I have listed below a range of the services which are currently under scrutiny for devolvement, the list is far from definitive but provides some idea of the potential logistical problems the parish council would experience if imposed upon us. These would be in addition to the services we already undertake on behalf of the village.

  • Street cleaning, litter bins and dog poo bins
  • Funding local bus services.
  • Grit bins and sandbags.
  • Grass cutting and hedge trimming.
  • Maintaining public rights of way.
  • Clearing drains and gully.
  • Minor highway repairs (e.g. pavement repairs).
  • Public toilets.
  • Parks, play areas, allotments and closed churchyards.
  • Tourist services and local markets.

So why the proposed changes?

Somerset Council is restricted by law as to how much it can increase council tax in a given year, the current level would not enable them to raise sufficient funding through council tax to maintain the current level of services next year. By contrast, parish councils have no such restrictions, with result we can put up ‘your’ council tax, year on year, as much as we determine necessary to fund services. Othery Parish Council has always kept the precept (Council Tax) you pay for the services we provide on your behalf to an absolute minimum. If the proposal for devolution of services to a local level comes into force (law) we would have to raise your council tax significantly to cover the cost of running them. Conversely, Somerset Council would be able to keep any rise in council tax at a low level. We feel this is unacceptable.

Whilst the financial ‘crisis’ at Somerset Council is serious it is not without precedent. What is different is the solution being proposed whereby services would be devolved to parish council level. Whilst this might seem like an attractive option the cost and logistics of their management are extreme and untested. Another problem would be how Somerset Council would control consistency of services across the county which has diverse demographics and demands. It is our contention that the elected representatives of Somerset Council have a responsibility to ensure delivery of services on a county wide basis and should not be looking to abdicate responsibility to a local level.

How the proposed devolved services would be administered and operated at parish level has not been explained. It is probable devolved services would still be provided centrally but paid for from the increased local council tax levy. In effect this would equate to a double charge insofar ‘devolved’ services, which would normally have been provided from your annual (Somerset Council) council tax levy, would be funded from the increased parish council tax levy without a commensurate decrease at Somerset County level.

Othery Parish Council has proactively campaigned against these proposals since proposed around 18 months ago, as we identified for services to be fully funded would require a significant increase in the parish set council tax you pay. As parish councillors we already undertake a raft of services, liaison with stakeholders and agencies to ensure the village remains a desirable and pleasant place to live. We are elected non-fee recipient ‘volunteers’ who give our time freely, of the seven parish councillors six are in full-time employment, as such we have insufficient additional time, experience or qualifications to manage the devolved services. In addition, there are concerns regarding the question of how, when, and moreover ‘if’ Somerset Council would ever accept a return to full management and financial responsibility for services in the future.

I will keep you informed as these proposals evolve. These are, as stated at the outset, challenging times for Othery parish council, that said I want to assure you that we will continue to represent your interests to the utmost during this difficult period.

Thank you for reading.

Cllr. Dr Andrew Tizzard PhD MCIfA

Chair Othery parish council.