*** Story updated with additional comments from South Hams District Council ***

South Hams residents have given a overwhelming thumbs down to a council marriage with West Devon – but less than one in 20 of the electorate bothered to make their views known.

Of those who did take part in online, telephone and paper surveys over the last eight weeks , almost 86 per cent of South Hams residents said they were against a merger betwen South Hams and West Devon councils.

But last week a Conservative-dominated overview and scrutiny panel refused to back a motion that South Hams District Council should abandon the merger when it meets to make a final decision.

Instead, councillors simply supported the way the council consultation exercise had been carried out – and bemoaned the fact only four per cent of South Hams residents able to take part in the consultation made their voices heard.

A council spokesman said: “The purpose of the panel meeting was to focus solely on the consultation process that was undertaken on the One Council proposal.

“It was made clear to all members, and emphasised on a number of occasions, that a final decision on whether or not the proposal was supported for submission to the Secretary of State would be a matter for the special council meeting on October 31.

“While a motion was still put to the meeting recommending that the council did not proceed with the proposal, some members made the point during the debate that this was somewhat premature for consideration at this meeting.”

At the meeting, Cllr Keith Baldry proposed a motion for the panel to make the following recommendation to full council: “The results of the consultation indicate that South Hams residents and the parish and town councils that represent them are opposed to the merger. This panel therefore recommends to full council not to proceed with the merger.”

Cllr Baldry’s motion was rejected by four four votes to five – a margin of just one vote with three councillors abstaining. The panel was not asked to vote for or against the merger proposal. Any decisions on the proposal will be made at a meeting of the full council on October 31.

Totnes Lib-Dem district councillor John Birch said: “The process was not perfect but it has thrown up an overwhelming majority against the merger.”

And he added: “It will take a brave councillor to ignore the overwhelming view of all those who participated. I cannot understand any reason for the procrastination of members of this panel.”

Cllr Baldry said: “The public has spoken and we can’t ignore their wishes.”

And he warned that even if the district councillors ignore the survey results and back the merger at the end of this month it will not be the end of the row.

He pointed out that the merger would still have to get the backing of the Government through the local government department which will face major local opposition.

“It will not be a campaign led by the Liberal Democrats, the Greens or Labour,” he warned. “It will be a campaign by members of the public – many of whom are Conservatives – who are absolutely appalled about this.”

Cllr Baldry added: “I am absolutely appalled that South Hams councillors are not listening to the public.”

The consultation over the proposals to form one new South Hams and West Devon council was run over an eight-week period, during which almost 70,000 postcards were sent out, one to every household. The councils held more than 27 events across South Hams and West Devon.

The councils also used social media, issued press releases, put up videos online, issued posters and took part in more than 30 town and parish meetings.

Details of the results of the consultation process were presented to the overview scrutiny panel at a Follaton House meeting last Thursday where the figures showed that just 4.01 per cent of the voting population in the South Hams and 3.11 per cent in West Devon actually made their voices heard in the process.

Across the whole range of surveys a total of 85.9 per cent of people in the South Hams who took part said no to the merger.

However, in West Devon a much smaller majority said no – 55.46 per cent.

And in a telephone survey – designed to be statistically representative of the local populations through age etc – 58.6 per cent said no in the South Hams while a majority – 61.1 per cent – in West Devon said yes.

When the two council survey results are combined, the telephone survey on its own comes up with a 51.15 per cent vote in favour of the merger.

But when all parts of the consultation surveys are combined, it shows 76.39 per cent against the merger.

The most popular comments expressed during the survey were concerns about one council being penalised at the expense of the other; the need to avoid loss of identity; the merger will provide no benefits; and that council tax should not go up.

The scrutiny panel councillors questioned the way many parts of the survey had been carried out, amid concerns that some of the way the questions had been presented has been “biased”.

Marldon district councillor Trevor Pennington went further, as he said: “This is the worst kind of consultation I have ever seen.”

Committe chairman Cllr Michael Saltern made it clear that the scrutiny panel was there to look at the consultation process. He proposed the successful motion supporting the consultation exercise but also pointedly “noting” the difference between the online and telephone surveys and saying that the panel was “disappointed’ with the low response.

Totnes Green Party district councillor John Green said after the meeting: “The consultation implied that the creation of One Council was the only option for which firm figures could be provided to overcome the council’s funding gap.

“However, South Hams councillors have since met and there is general agreement that many changes can be made to tackle the deficit.

“The issue is what will happen to West Devon Borough Council, as they could be forced to make severe cuts to services if the One Council option is not pursued.

“This could have an impact upon South Hams District Council, in that we may have to take on some additional staff that are presently shared.

“However, I believe that this extra burden would be a fraction of the additional council tax which South Hams residents will be asked pay if we create One Council.”

The recommendations that were approved by the panel were:

1. That the panel are satisfied that the single council consultation process has been conducted in an open and transparent manner with full independent overview to ensure best practice has been applied. In reaching this recommendation, the panel ask council to note the strength of the independent adviser report.

2. That the panel are of the view that the process contained a full range of participative options to enable residents, businesses, town and parish councils and stakeholders to express their views.

3. That the panel note the distinct difference between the online survey outcome and that of the independent telephone survey.

4. That the panel is, however, disappointed at the level of response with 96 per cent of electors in the South Hams choosing not to participate.