THE dust has now settled following the astonishing turn of events which transpired in Somerset on Friday (May 6) following the local elections.

In the space of 24 hours, Somerset went from being under a comfortable Conservative majority (which the party has enjoyed since 2009) to being blanketed in orange as the Liberal Democrats won control of the new unitary Somerset Council.

With the next full council meeting, featuring all 110 newly elected members, not due to take place until May 25, the next two weeks will be time for reflection on the result and preparation on councillors’ park for the hard work that awaits them between now and the new authority formally assuming control in April 2023.

But after looking at the results in a little more detail, there are some early conclusions we can draw, regarding why people voted the way they did and what it means for Somerset’s future.

Here are nine things the results of the local elections mean for the people of Somerset:

  • Somerset largely remains a two-horse race – at least for now: in the run-up to these elections, many predicted a ‘hung parliament’ scenario, where either the Lib Dems or the Tories would emerge as the largest party but not have enough seats to govern alone. Pockets of Green support across Somerset and a number of highly-regarded independents suggested that the anti-Tory vote would be split, allowing David Fothergill to remain in charge But in the end, Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey proved correct, as voters fell behind the Lib Dems in a bid to end more than a decade of Tory rule. A lot can change in five years, however, so the Lib Dems should not take this new-found dominance for granted.
  • Turnout was higher than expected – which favoured the non-Tory vote: turnout in the last local elections in 2019 were low, with just over one in four voters within the Somerset West and Taunton area turning out. With national scandals, the cost of living crisis and a general lack of interest in or understanding about the new unitary, it was fair to have expected many voters to have just stayed at home. But in three of the four districts, turnout was close to 40 per cent – which, while low by general election standards, ended up benefitting opposition candidates. The lowest turnouts came in Sedgemoor, where the Tories won most of the seats (except in Bridgwater, where Labour has traditionally done well).
  • Rural areas don’t want to be taken for granted: Mr Davey warned in the days leading up to the election that the Tories had been “taking rural communities for granted”, focusing on keeping their newly-found support in the former ‘Red Wall’ areas at the cost of neglecting their traditional heartlands. The Lib Dems were always expected to do well in certain urban areas, with Taunton, Wells and Yeovil all remaining predominantly orange – but the party won by picking up huge gains in rural divisions. Winning seats like Blackmoor Vale, Blackdown & Neroche, Cheddar and King Alfred suggests rural voters were tired of being ignored by the Conservatives, who will now have to work doubly hard to win them back.

Burnham and Highbridge Weekly News: Map Of The 2022 Local Election Results In Somerset. CREDIT: Election Maps. Free to use for all BBC wire partners.

  • The Clare Pestell scandal had a limited impact: South Somerset District Council has spent much of the last six months in upheaval after allegations against one of its former directors Clare Pestell were made public. Council leader Val Keitch survived a vote of no confidence back in late-February, and went onto retain her Ilminster seat by five votes. But while the Tories did split several of the seats in South Somerset (including Castle Cary, Crewkerne and both Chard divisions), the scandal doesn’t seem to have put voters off from voting Lib Dem to any great extent on a wider scale.
  • The Greens didn’t make as big an impact as they may have hoped: the Green Party has been growing in strength over the last decade in Somerset, winning ten seats on Mendip District Council in 2019 amid the consolidation of their support in Frome and Glastonbury. But while four of Frome’s six seats went to the Greens, along with one in Upper Tone, the party didn’t manage to break through in other areas as non-Tory voters opted for the Lib Dems. In the run-up to the election, areas like Chard North and Monkton & North Curry were seen as potential areas for a Green upset. But they ended up coming a distant third or fourth in too many areas – though there is plenty of time for support to keep growing before the next elections in 2027.
  • Labour is still struggling outside of Bridgwater: Labour supporters in Somerset were under no illusion that they could take control of Somerset Council, fielding less than half of the candidates which the Tories or Lib Dems put up. But any hopes for breakthroughs in urban areas other than Bridgwater came to naught, with Taunton and Yeovil remaining orange and Wellington ultimately splitting between the Labour and Conservative candidates. Labour’s wins in its Bridgwater strongholds saw some of the lowest turnout in Somerset, suggesting more needs to be done to present the party as an alternative in traditional Tory areas (often called the ‘Blue Wall’).
  • David Fothergill may struggle to remain Conservative leader: Mr Fothergill has served as Somerset County Council leader for five years, and the move from five councils to a single unitary was very much his project from the outset. His time as leader has not been without its successes, but the scale of the Conservatives’ defeat has vastly diminished his authority, and with it his prospect of remaining head of the Tory group. While he had not issued any public statement regarding his future, it would be surprising if he remained head of the Conservatives for much longer, as the party seeks to rebuild ahead of 2027.
  • The Lib Dems’ cabinet choices will be key: the Lib Dems have a large number of talented figures who would all contribute something to the unitary front bench. While Bill Revans (North Petherton) would be a natural choice for leader, all three leaders of the Lib Dem-run district councils won seats on the new unitary – Val Keitch clung on in Ilminster, Federica Smith-Robetts triumphed in Taunton East and Ros Wyke won in Mendip West. In assembling their cabinet, any leader will want to ensure that all areas of the county are properly represented; the Lib Dems cannot afford any infighting which would jeopardise their slim majority.

Burnham and Highbridge Weekly News: Final results of the Somerset Council elections. CREDIT: Daniel Mumby. Free to use for all BBC wire partners.

  • The next 12 months are crucial – for all parties: the next 12 months will see the newly elected councillors overseeing the transition to the new unitary, with all the district councils’ functions (such as planning, licensing and environmental health) being swallowed up into the new council on April 1, 2023. The Lib Dems will want to strike a balance between economic prudence (seeing off long-standing Tory arguments about the debt levels from the last Lib Dem administration) and investing in Somerset’s future, particularly when it comes to education, health and infrastructure. The Tories will attempt to position themselves ones more as the party of economic competence (overlooking the 2018 budget crisis), while Labour and the Greens will do well to challenge the environmental and social credentials of whatever new policies are put forward. Whoever you voted for, the next 12 months will be crucial to ensuring that the new unitary is accountable, transparent and truly makes decisions which are in local communities’ best interests.