RED-faced council leaders are investigating after hundreds of thousands of people across Somerset received a link to an "offensive" spoof website.

The site "trashed" Somerset County Council, its leader and staff, and a local MP.

The link was sent out along with a ballot paper for an unofficial referendum on the future of local government in the county.

The poll has been created by the four district councils - Somerset West and Taunton; Sedgemoor; Mendip and South Somerset.

Under the banner Stronger Somerset, they are lobbying the Government to create two unitary authorities - Western Somerset and Eastern Somerset.

Somerset County Council's One Somerset proposal would see one council covering the whole county.

Despite opposition to the referendum from the Government, the districts have spent a combined £310,000 asking people in the county to say which set up they would prefer.

The spoof website link is included in documents mailed to people across the county.

It mocks County Hall leader Cllr David Fothergill, Taunton Deane MP Rebecca Pow and the county's programme director Dr Carlton Broad.

A "disgruntled resident of Taunton" said: "The spoof website makes Mr Fothergill look like an imbecile and Ms Pow look stupid with childish comments and videos.

"Somebody in the local councils has approved that website. It's dreadful.

"That has been put in a document for all the taxpayers of Somerset to see.

"There was a lot of work involved and somebody's spent money making that spoof website."

Four of the county's MPs have come out in opposition to the vote, saying the inclusion of a spoof website mentioned in the literature shows the vote is ‘clearly not’ impartial.

A spokesperson for Somerset County Council said: “This costly and confusing poll has trashed the reputations of Somerset County Council, our leader, one of our MPs, and hundreds of hard-working staff and councillors.

"We call on the district councils to apologise immediately, set the record straight and declare the poll null and void before further damage is done.

"The spoof website is still live, residents are still being directed to view it, and it is still causing offence, upset and confusion."

Sedgemoor District Council leader Cllr Duncan McGinty told the BBC: "We have taken every measure we can to rectify the situation and hopefully the poll is still valid.

"The site is nothing to do with us, although it is unfortunate that it is there.We have done everything that we can to have it removed."

He labelled the website "an affront to democracy" that undermines the intention to give the people of Somerset a say in how government services are run in the future, but said it did not make the vote "worthless".

In a joint statement, the four councils said the leaflet was drafted by an independent third party but stated "more efforts should have been made when the documentation was being produced and independently verified to ensure all information was correct".

Four of the county's MPs have come out in opposition to the vote, saying the inclusion of a spoof website mentioned in the literature shows the vote is ‘clearly not’ impartial.

James Heappey (Wells), Marcus Fysh (Yeovil), Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) and David Warburton (Somerton and Frome), are all against the Stronger Somerset plan and have seized on the error.

In a joint statement, they said: "Hundreds of thousands of Somerset residents today received ballot papers for an advisory referendum on the future of local Government in our county.

“The official consultation on this issue has now closed, however the district councils decided to carry out their own research and have sent letters relating to this to all electors in Somerset.

“Whatever one’s view on which model for local government is preferable, it is questionable whether Government money should have been spent on this exercise.

“The literature refers readers to a highly offensive spoof website to gain information about the One Somerset (unitary) proposal, which is deeply misleading, and has corrupted this process.

“The leaflet clearly states that the text for this literature was drafted by an independent law firm, but the inclusion of this spoof website demonstrates that this is highly misleading, biased and shows that

the process has been corrupted.”

But Bridgwater and West Somerset MP, Ian Liddell-Grainger, hit back, saying the One Somerset campaign itself approved the literature - including the ‘spoof ’ website.

“Needless to say the One Somerset campaign is blaming everyone except themselves,” he said. “But it is their own incompetence that’s responsible for this mess.

“Their supporters, including some of my Parliamentary colleagues, are now demanding that the referendum is scrapped. That is ridiculous.

“I note that the spoof website is being described as ‘offensive’. Perhaps One Somerset has lost its sense of humour.

“The people of Somerset have, at long last, been given the chance to vote on how local government could be reformed.

“The referendum will not be undermined by a miniscule misprint. It must take place and it jolly well will.”