MERGER most foul - or a match made in heaven?

The reality of two district councils being abolished to be replaced by one covering a massive area is a step closer.

The thought of Taunton Deane Borough Council and West Somerset Council joining together probably hasn’t given most of the 100,000 plus people in the two patches sleepless nights.

But it’s provoked strong utterances in the debating chambers in Taunton and Williton and taken up a hefty amount of column inches in County Gazette because, like it or not, it is going to impact on all of us.

Before looking at why a Government Minister has announced he is “minded” to conduct the marriage, it is worth looking at what the councils do.

Somerset currently has a county council, five district councils and scores of parish councils.

This is The West Country:

The county - which is not involved in the proposed merger - deals with education, social services, transport, libraries, waste management and trading standards.

The districts’ responsibilities include rubbish collection, recycling, council tax collections, housing and planning applications, which would be run by the new authority covering an area stretching from Minehead down to Taunton and Wellington and over to Exmoor.

Parish councils have fewer powers and look after allotments, public clocks, bus shelters, community centres and play areas.

The merger has been backed by both district councils - despite lots of opposition - which already jointly run some services and management under one chief executive.

So, what is the present situation regarding the two becoming one?

Communities and Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid last week said: “Having carefully considered all the material and representations I have received, I am ‘minded to’ implement two locally-led proposals for merging district councils in Somerset and Suffolk.”

He added that he believes the Deane-West Som merger satisfies the criteria of improving local government in the area; commands local support; and is a credible geography.

A consultation period runs until January 19, when people can make representations to Mr Javid.

After that it will be up to MPs to decide.

The leaders of the two councils, Cllrs John Williams (Taunton Deane) and Anthony Trollope-Bellew (West Somerset) - both Conservative - issued a joint statement welcoming Mr Javid’s announcement.

They said: “We have the support of partners, other councils in Somerset, key players in business and the voluntary sector - all play a vital part in the life of our two areas.

“Our proposal will deliver further savings, service improvements and resilience, stronger leadership and improved local governance.

“Ultimately it will deliver financially-viable local government services in our area in the future.

“This new council will make sure we can continue to deliver the services our residents value, and allowing us to focus on boosting our economy, supporting the delivery of Hinkley Point C new nuclear power station and fully embracing the opportunity afforded by garden town status awarded to Taunton.”

This is The West Country:
DECISION: Sajid Javid

So what was behind the idea of scrapping the two councils in favour of a single new authority?

Supporters say it will save millions of pounds and streamline local democracy, with fewer councillors and meetings and less red tape, while safeguarding frontline services.

Opponents argue that Taunton Deane, itself facing a future of less Government funding, is bailing out a near bankrupt West Somerset.

Deane House opposition leader Cllr Simon Coles (LibDem) said: “It’s ironic that, when it comes to raiding the taxpayers’ account to pay for a failing council (West Somerset), the decision can be taken quite promptly, within weeks, but, when it comes to projects such as Firepool that will benefit all residents, it takes over 10 years.

“Obviously, Tory dominance is the name of the game.

He added: “I, together with my party, totally reject this unjust merger, as it will systematically drain residents of the little resources we have available to us to look after our own vulnerable people in the district.”

Former Taunton Deane Mayor and one-time Deane House leader, LibDem Cllr Jefferson Horsley, said: “We simply don’t believe the public supports it and it’s inappropriate for Taunton Deane to have to pick up the pieces of a failing council.

“The merger will lead to a redistribution of assets unfairly in favour of West Somerset.

“It should be central Government’s responsibility to bail West Somerset out.”

Another first citizen, Cllr Libby Lisgo (Labour), said: “A lot of people in West Somerset are worried they may end up with only a few locally-elected representatives.

“But those in Taunton also have good reason to stop and wonder if this merger is a good idea.

“Taunton, the county town of Somerset, is the only place in the county without either a town or parish council.

“Have you ever wondered why we have such woeful Christmas lights in the town? In places like Wellington and Wiveliscombe, their town councils takes the lead.

"Not in Taunton - it’s like our town doesn’t have a heart.

“Taunton Deane Labour party and others will be campaigning in the next few weeks for Taunton to have a single town council - Taunton shouldn’t be left behind.”

READ MORE: More news on the merger

A couple of Independents in West Somerset are dismayed at the proposed merger.

Cllr Hugh Davies said: “West Somerset is going to lose its sovereignty and Taunton Deane will have the majority of councillors on any decision.

“It will make the council remote from residents.

“Is a Taunton Deane councillor really going to care what is affecting Porlock?”

Cllr Ian Aldridge said: “The main reason we were told this needed to happen was because of our financial situation, but since the re-evaluation of Hinkley B, our situation has improved and it seems feasible for West Somerset to survive, yet the decision has already been made.

“It is a done deal but I believe it is politically motivated and not in the best interest of the people of West Somerset.”

What of the Conservative MPs representing the two districts - not the best of friends and unlikely to exchange Christmas cards?

Taunton Deane’s Rebecca Pow said: “The current situation for West Somerset is financially unsustainable and a merger with TDBC makes sense.

“It would be naive to treat these two councils in isolation. They’ve been sharing services for some years and merging means more savings will be made, allowing TDBC to put more money into frontline services which residents across Taunton Deane will benefit from.

“I’ve been clear all along this is a decision that has needed to be led by the local authorities, but I’m pleased to have supported them, always highlighting that if this benefits provision of services to our residents then a merger had to be considered.”

But West Somerset’s Ian Liddell-Grainger, who has opposed the move since it was first proposed, said: “Taunton could become the overwhelmingly dominant force if a new council is created and my own West Somerset is forced to amalgamate.

“West Somerset and Taunton Deane have little in common. We suffer rural deprivation in abundance. You’re about to become a dormitory suburb of Bristol with poorly-planned estates and gridlocked traffic as far as the eye can see.

“Why is it happening? The economics don’t stack up. Taunton is a big borrower. West Somerset has faced enormous problems breaking even.

“But we (West Somerset) look at your housing developments not in envy, but in horror. Will we have the influence to stop them coming our way in future? Probably not.”

One last question. What will the new council be called? Any suggestions?