City council gets set to take on more services

WELLS City Council has set up a working party to consider which services it should take on from Somerset Council.

The city council’s Devolution Officer, Haylee Wilkins, gave a presentation to a meeting of the council’s Finance & Council Matters committee on June 13.

Somerset Council has contacted all 279 Somerset parishes highlighting a list of functions ‘at risk’ as a result of the council’s financial emergency that could potentially be devolved to the city, towns, and parishes willing to take them on.

Ms Wilkins explained that Somerset Council is looking to devolve services before assets. She drew attention to services provided by IdVerde – which include things such as grass cutting, and playground inspection and maintenance – because those will come to an end when the IdVerde contract ends on May 31, 2025.

Services being considered for devolution to Wells include grounds maintenance along with a number of others such as the set up and pack down of weekly markets, bin emptying and the management and cleaning of public toilets.

Ms Wilkins said that Bridgwater Town Council had been an early adopter of devolved services, and there were “lessons to be learned” from their experience. (A data input error means that the town council might now need to use some of its reserves to cover a budget deficit.)

“There’s a keen interest for Wells to be the next leader, the next council that moves towards delivering some of these services locally,” she said.

The challenge is to work through all the information that has been provided, and work out how to balance the need to deliver against the cost. There will be implications for the next budget when it is considered later in the year, and there is a significant area of work around the staffing structure.

“There is an awful lot to do in a very short timeline,” she said.

There is also an opportunity for the city council to negotiate what services it wants.

Town Clerk Steve Luck said that the city council had to decide what its priorities are, and how to maximise income from what it takes on. He said that council officers needed guidance from committee members about the priorities.

He said that there is no Plan B from Somerset Council, no explanation of what will happen if the city council doesn’t take over the services.

He said there was a danger that Wells could lose its playgrounds if the city council does not take on responsibility for them.

Councillor Tanys Pullin said: “I’m worried to death about this, and I think the public should be worried to death about this. We’re going to be used as scapegoats for Somerset. They have no idea what Somerset do or what Wells do. The public should know it’s not us – it’s totally forced. I’m furious about it. We’ll get blamed for it.”

Mr Luck said that public meetings are being planned to explain more and get that message across.

Councillor Harvey Siggs said: “We are here to deliver services to our community and that’s our priority. We won’t be able to afford everything. It’s for us to speak up and say what our priorities are.”

Five committee members put themselves forward to join a working party to develop proposals: Councillors Stewart Cursley, Gordon Folkard, Louis Agabani, Isa von Mensenkampff, and Harvey Siggs. Council officers including the Town Clerk, Devolution Officer and Responsible Financial Officer will also be involved.

Cllr Agabani said that a public meeting is critical at some stage. Councillor Philip Welch agreed, saying: “I think it’s very important to communicate with the public.”

During a discussion at the meeting about the recent internal audit, Mr Luck said: “Risk assessment is going to be a major problem for us going forward. Everything we take on is going to have to have a risk assessment.”

He said that if members disagreed with an officer’s decision, then those members could be personally liable for risks. This caused some disquiet among the councillors present. Councillor Sarah Powell said: “This threat of personal liability is a very real one. It effectively means that democracy is lessened and the power lies with the officers.”

Cllr Siggs said that decisions can be made against officers’ advice as long as they have been carefully considered and councillors are not “reckless”.

Councillor Denise Denis said that officers’ advice is valued but that it made her feel unable to make a decision without fear.