Council’s Follaton future is uncertain

By Steve Peacock in Business

Totnes could be abandoned as a district council headquarters if the proposed merger between South Hams and West Devon councils goes ahead, town councillors have been warned.

Follaton House has been a council HQ for more than 50 years, as the old Totnes Rural District Council offices and then the home of South Hams District Council following the 1974 local government changes.

But following a merger, the headquarters of a joint council will likely end up somewhere near Plymouth, town councillors were told last week.

Reporting back on a meeting involving local town parish council mayors and chairmen, plus district council officers and leading councillors, town clerk Catherine Marlton told councillors that the controversial merger had been one of the main topics under discussion.

“One question was where the headquarters for the enlarged council would be.

“It would not be Follaton House and it would not be Kilworthy (Kilworthy Park in Tavistock is West Devon Borough Council’s HQ). It is likely to be somewhere near Plymouth,” she said.

And she also warned that a merger would mean “significant” council tax rises for South Hams householders.

But she pointed out the meeting had been warned that a standalone district council was “unsustainable” over five years.

An 18th century former mansion house set in its own grounds, Follaton House is now only partly used by the district council after it shed scores of staff in a major shake up two years ago.

Office space is currently rented out to Public Health England, Devon County Council, Citizens Advice and the Community Volunteers Service.

South Hams said this week it will run out of money in three years time if the council does not raise average council tax bills in the wake of the possible merger with West Devon.

It said the proposal to create a single new council out of the two local authorities will be considered by councillors later this month.

Council leader Cllr John Tucker said: “We know that there are some key concerns that the public will have, and in the proposal you will see how we plan to address those concerns.

“The biggest one for our residents in South Hams is likely to be the difference between our council tax rate and West Devon’s, which is approximately £63 a year on a band D property. 

“If the proposal goes ahead we would need to bring the two council tax charges to the same level and this may mean that South Hams residents will see an increase over the next few years, until they are at the same level.”

He added: “If we do not do this, there is a risk that South Hams will run out of money after 2020, due to the lack of funding, we therefore want to make sure we consider all options to continue funding those services we know are vital to our local communities.”

He added that “both councils must address their financial positions so as to protect frontline services”.

The council said that like many local authorities across the country, South Hams and West Devon have been facing huge financial pressures due to the phasing out of the money they used to get from central government.

It added: “The reduction in government funding (revenue support grant and the councils share of business rates ) has been dramatically reduced by £4m in South Hams and £3m in West Devon since 2009/ 2010. However, through sharing services since 2007, the councils are currently saving £6m a year. 

“Despite this the councils are still facing a combined budget gap of £1.9m each year after 2020.

“Local councils are not allowed to set a negative budget, so South Hams and West Devon will have to find ways of closing that gap.”

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