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Question to the County Council

In our current edition of the Leveller we take John Osman to task for the lack of consultation with the public around the creation of a new layer of local government. Mr Osman wants a devolution for a new super authority of Devon and Somerset – creating four levels of local government where there are currently three.

We promised to publish online the full text of the exchange between our editor and Mr Osman and it is as follows:

Question from the editor to Mr Osman (Leader of Somerset County Council)
My own county councillor did not stand for election on a platform of devolution. And I can find no evidence that no others did either. There is, I suggest, no mandate for this devolution process that councillors are driving through. Once again this council is driving through something which could be delayed until next year when you all stand for re-election. Will you now commit to seeking a mandate and delaying further negotiations until next year?

However we are also told “Full public consultation on any proposal to introduce a Combined Authority will take place”. What does this mean? Will it be a few conversations by members of the cabinet with their mates? Or a proper referendum in which citizens and tax payers in Somerset get a say?

Will the process be transparent and accountable, or a piece of tokenism where citizens are presented with a fait accomplis and asked how much they like it?

Response from Mr Osman:

I would like to point out to Mr Lee that devolution is a national agenda with a national mandate, and it has the potential to deliver local opportunities. Somerset County Council has been quick to respond and was the first authority in the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership to react and to start the process of building a case for local devolution. We are front and centre of this partnership agreed across all 23 authorities and bodies and this is something that all Somerset should be proud of. Today is an important day in the progress of our joint bid and I very much hope will be supported by all parties in this Chamber.

Mr Lee must be aware that this is not a bid for Somerset County Council and therefore can wait for our own election cycle. This is a bid for 17 elected authorities, and if we had waited until after the next election for Somerset County Council, and then started the process, we would then have to wait for the next round of district council elections, that would have delayed us another two years, then the next set of elections, another two years, then another two years, and so on and so on. We would have been paralysed by inaction. So the time was right, and is right for us to try to strike a devolution deal with government now.

As to Mr Lee’s point about full consultation, I’m sure he would have taken part in our on-going Listening Learning Changing public roadshows, and if he hasn’t had the chance, can I invite him to do so. Our teams spent the weekend at Yeovil show and will visit Bridgwater and Taunton in the coming weeks. Mr Lee might also be interested to know that our initial findings are around 50% of respondents support our devolution bid, around 20% do not support and the remainder are undecided. And he may also be interested to know that around one-third support a devolution bid with a mayor as a figurehead, one-third do not, and one third undecided.

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The answer from Mr Osman suggests that a consultation via the roadshow which will (if past experience is anything to go by)  engage with fewer than 10,000 people (our of a population of 500,000) is good enough.

The reality is that every person in Somerset, regardless of what district they are in will vote in the County Council election next year and if Mr Osman wanted to, a referendum on devolution could happen at the same time. The answer from Mr Osman seems to suggest he’d rather not ask you.

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