At 7pm on Monday 20 November, the first public meeting before the postal referendum on the merger took place in The Priory. It began with the Rev. Charles Stewart, Priest in Charge, reminding us that originally there would have been no seating in the church, as it was a public space where the community could meet. He was therefore delighted to welcome this meeting to this public space, held under the auspices of the residents’ association. As a final caution, he told us to respect each other and the place.
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Sue Bungey, Chair of the joint-residents’ association, opened the meeting. She did an excellent job and quite a difficult one at times, as some Councillors could be rather chatty!
She said: The decision we make will be forever. There’s no going back. We have been assured the government will listen, so however you vote, please in fill your ballot papers. Only 289 people in Christchurch said they wanted to merge with Bournemouth and Poole in the public consultation.
This referendum is a vote for democracy.
The audience were then able to ask questions. These were not aimed at particular councillors, and various members elected to respond throughout the evening.
In the previous questionnaire it had been very difficult to select stay as we are. In addition there had been very few responses for the population. There was considerable interest when she described the nature of the referendum. There will be one choice about joining with Poole and Bournemouth to form a unitary authority. The ballot papers will be sent out at the beginning of December.
Margaret Phipps (St Catherine’s & Hurn Ward) responded to a question expressing concern about the reduction in the number of Councillors potentially representing Christchurch in this larger authority. Currently Christchurch has 24.
She responded by telling us that it will be based on population distribution rather than area, and quoted figures of Bournemouth 38, Poole 29 and Christchurch 9.
We thus will have fewer because our population is smaller, but representation will still be proportionate.
Quote: This proposed new authority will make all the decisions on absolutely everything in Christchurch. Whatever we do, there will be opportunities. You need to decide if you want to be part of a borderless city by the sea.
Sue Spittle (also St Catherine’s & Hurn Ward) compared our situation after a merger with that of the unitary authority of Torbay. This consists of three towns, Torquay, Brixham and Paignton, a similar situation to ours. Questioners had felt that we could be ‘submerged’.
She stressed that there has been no loss of identity within these Devon towns, and it has been a success.
On a more pertinent note, she later pointed out that the referendum would carry little weight with the government, set against the benefits of Future Dorset.
This would be a brand new council working for the whole area. Is this all about councillors losing their jobs?
Cllr Jones (below) said that the Secretary of State has confirmed that he will pay attention to this result.
David Jones (West Highcliffe Ward) was keen to make the obvious point that with fewer Councillors, if in a Unitary Authority, Christchurch would naturally be less effective with local issues. This received some enthusiastic applause.
As a County Councillor, he was able to reassure the public that the County is prepared to change the structure as required to aid efficiency. There does not have to be a ‘merger’ to make these efficiency and cost savings.
There is some collaboration already. In 2009 Highways, Rights of Way, Planning, Licensing were separate departments. Now there is only one.
Tellingly, Cllr Jones said that it is not true that no attention will be paid to this referendum:
If we say we don’t want this and he sticks to his word, then we carry on as we are.
He said: The system of local government we now have is not fit for the modern digital age. You need services but not at any cost. That’s why we need to change … The current two tier system isn’t working. Running an urban council is much more efficient than running a rural one. All I see is opportunity.
Too many see this only as Project Fear, but he sees it as an opportunity. He said that the current structure was designed in the 1600s. and we need to progress. Services will still be supplied, but not at any cost. Lost jobs will be a fact of life, but the losses will be in management.
He also criticised local education, mentioning in particular portakabins in use in some schools. There was mild amusement when Cllr Jones responded, telling him that secondary schools in the Borough are all Academies, so the County is nothing to do with them anyway. Further education required, he said, glancing at Cllr Nottage! Cllr Jones also pointed to the magnificent building, saying that not all that is old is has to be changed in today’s world.
Cllr Lofts answered that only residents would be able to vote. Mr Trenchard was concerned about traffic, but it was stressed by another Councillor that many of the problems were the responsibility of Bournemouth.
He had never known change for change’s sake to save money: it is all achieved by structured managerial change.
Colin Bungey (Jumpers Ward / Hon Freeman) said that Christchurch is efficient, debt-free and has £50m in assets. Bournemouth have had the Surf Reef, the Imax and the failed Bank of Bournemouth. Look what a mess they have made of the Iford roundabout!
He was puzzled why, in the original questionnaire, Option 1 could not have been selected.
Asked how services will be paid for, his answer was the no second-tier authority is allowed to.
Peter Hall (Town Centre): It is worth noting that a strong round of applause followed his reply to a question about services that the Dorset Waste Partnership have combined and work well and economically together.
Note that other Councillors were present, but unfortunately my (non-existent) shorthand could not cope! Apologies to them, and thanks to all who took the time to answer questions. It was a useful meeting.
Comments are allowed below. If you attended the meeting and think I have missed something, please add the details, or contact direct at confer@ThisIsChristchurch.com
Finally, here is a link to the Echo report.