Bath and North East Somerset Council’s small stature makes it a “sitting duck” for a takeover by Bristol, a top Conservative has warned.
Councillor Paul Myers said Somerset and Wiltshire both now benefit from economies of scale but the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of B&NES Council’s finances.
The authority has rejected an invitation to submit plans to reorganise local government in the historic county after a 2018 report warned of significant risks.
Leader Dine Romero said the talks were a distraction when efforts should be focused on tackling the pandemic.
Councillor Myers, the Conservative group leader, said at the full council meeting on November 12: “The advice was there were significant risks and no real benefit for residents [of reorganisation]. The advice just focused on Somerset.
“B&NES Council is a relatively small authority. We have pressure on our public finances. The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a loss of income from parking, heritage and our commercial estate.”
He said being a small council with a population of 192,000 when Wiltshire – more than twice the size with 470,000 residents – is now a unitary authority and Somerset could be heading in the same direction could be a “risky strategy”, adding: “Doesn’t that leave us a sitting duck for a takeover from someone like Bristol? I don’t know anyone that would want to be subsumed into Bristol.”
Alderman Tim Warren returned as a public speaker to comment on the government’s invitation. When he led the council he said it could merge with Mendip District Council.
He told the meeting he did not want to return to the days of Avon County Council – which brought together Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset – but having fewer authorities in Somerset had cut costs.
With the pandemic impacting on income from tourism, parking and the council’s commercial properties, “now is the time to strengthen relationships and collaborate,” said Mr Warren.
Cllr Romero, his successor, said officers had warned that the benefits of merging with other authorities in Somerset “insignificant compared to the scale of risk”.
Somerset County Council and the four district councils have been working on proposals for some time, which could result in either one or two unitary authorities.
Last month the government invited B&NES Council to submit proposals but the deadline now passed.
Cllr Romero said: “At this moment in time I do not believe we have anything to gain by submitting a late extra possibility for government to consider.
“This feels like an unnecessary distraction when efforts should be focused on the pandemic.”
Deputy leader Richard Samuel added: “B&NES Council does not want to get drawn into this morass as we wish to concentrate on the things that really matter to local people. This is why the cabinet soundly rejected participating in these discussions.”
Stephen Sumner, Local Democracy Reporter