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Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2007, 09:54 GMT
Turkeys vote for Christmas?
Paul Barltrop
Paul Barltrop
The Politics Show West

County Hall in Taunton, home of Somerset County Council
County Hall in Taunton, home of Somerset County Council

Politicians and principles: an unusual mix. They say they want what is best for society, but all too often it does not seem that way.

Certainly, changes which threaten their very existence rarely get their vote.

So it has been in Somerset where an increasingly embittered row has erupted over how to reform local government.

At the crux: Whitehall's wish to get rid of the traditional two-tier structure, in favour of unitary authorities.

In plain English that means where there are county councils and below them district councils, new super-councils will be created.

The logic is simple: almost everyone is confused over who does what - and it is inefficient having two layers of local government.

Many elected politicians are going to get the chop - and they don't like it.

Somerset divided

But while in places like Gloucestershire councillors of both varieties have united to reject any change, in Somerset they are split.

The County Council has seized the initiative, moving quickly and drawing up detailed plans to get rid of Somerset's districts. Everything would be run by one super-council.

There would be twice as many members as presently meet in Taunton - but using the same boundaries used for county council seats.

Councillor Cathy Bakewell
Councillor Cathy Bakewell claims big savings

Big savings

The Liberal Democrat leader of the council, Cathy Bakewell, talks of ending confusion and bureaucracy, and insists it would bring big savings - more than 20m a year.

And she is not afraid of taking on the other side: "I want to look forward not backwards," she says.

"However I do believe that we need to put our customers, citizens and taxpayers first and our organisations' vested interests second."

Nonsense, say the leaders of Somerset's District councils. Four are Conservative-run, one is under Lib Dem control; all are united in their opposition.

Councillor Duncan McGinty
Councillor Duncan McGinty questions savings

Savings questioned

They question the proposed savings - warning instead that such a drastic change would cost every person in Somerset at least 53.

But their main argument is that it's bad for democracy in a large and varied county.

"Unitary status would mean a 60% cut in the number of elected councillors to just 116," says the leader of Sedgemoor District Council, Duncan McGinty.

"How can 116 people in an area the size of Luxembourg and with a population of 517,000 represent the public at grass roots level? It would be laughable if it wasn't real."

In politics, though, there are always exceptions.

In neighbouring Wiltshire, a similar plan for a single unitary authority is being championed by the county council. It is opposed by all of the districts - bar one.

North Wiltshire District councillors have backed the plan, supporting their own abolition.

So some turkeys do vote for Christmas.

Tune into the Politics Show, to find out. And we would like to know what you think - e-mail us here!

The Politics Show on Sunday 21 January 2007 at 12:00 GMT on BBC One.

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Politics from around the UK...

Previous stories...

Council to apply for unitary move
18 Jan 07 |  Wiltshire
Unitary council plan moves closer
15 Jan 07 |  Somerset
Unitary bid by Somerset council
22 Nov 06 |  Somerset
11 Sep 05 |  Politics Show

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