An article by Cllr DC Jones, MA, West Highcliffe and Dorset CC

All over Dorset councils are moving towards making a decision on the most crucial subject possible – whether those councils should continue to exist or whether two new “unitary” councils should be set up to provide local government services in Dorset.

Without approval from their councils, the nine Council Leaders and six Chief Executives have agreed to push for the setup envisaged in option 2(b) in the recent ‘consultation.’ This would create a “Dorsetshire Authority” and a “Greater Bournemouth Council” with Christchurch being absorbed by Greater Bournemouth.

And each council will have to decide whether it accepts this proposal or whether it believes it should keep its independence. At the moment there is no other alternative offered

For us in Christchurch, this is the most crucial decision since 1297 – and possibly before that. The 23 present councillors (one seat is vacant) will make the final decision on Tuesday 31st January, and on Tuesday 10th the working party on local government reorganisation set out some principles to help guide Full Council. Among others these say that it is up to those proposing the change to convince Council that the change should take place, not the other way round. It was also pointed out that it is the duty of Councillors to take the decision solely in the interests of Christchurch, not of any other part of Dorset.

Those who are proposing the change base their case on two main points – that the financial situation in which the Dorset councils find themselves is so grave that unless the steps are taken the whole of Dorset will face financial disaster, and in any event a Greater Bournemouth has overwhelming support, even from people in Christchurch.

Yet examination of these arguments shows that they are perhaps not so overpowering. Analysis by Mr MA Rodger and by Chris Chope MP (see Documents) has long challenged these figures, and a further blow was dealt over Christmas when the government decided that upper tier authorities (the County Council and the two existing Unitaries) could increase their council tax by more than the previous limit to deal with the increasing demand for social care. Without doubt, this is the main problem facing local government, but the government also announced its intention to review the whole basis on which social care is funded.

It can be argued that the whole financial case is built on assumptions and projections for which there is no real basis. Consider the effects on council tax. It is repeatedly said that there is no takeover: that the two new councils will be completely new authorities. If so surely they should be able to set the appropriate council tax from 1 April 2019. However, if they did so, tax payers in Poole and Bournemouth would be shielded from the perhaps unwise decisions of their present councils for 20 years, during which time the residents of Somerford, officially one of the most deprived areas in Dorset, would be subsidising the residents of Sandbanks. This might be felt to be not terribly equitable.

So, in the interests of sheltering Bournemouth and Poole taxpayers from unpleasant consequences, Christchurch taxpayers will be placed at a disadvantage. This is not an argument in support of the proposal.

Of course, on the establishment of a new council, all the debts and assets of predecessor councils would pass to the new body. In Christchurch’s case, the £49,000,000 worth of assets and reserves which the council holds would become the property of greater Bournemouth, as would the debts of both Bournemouth and Poole. Christchurch would have to trust to the goodwill of the new authority to get any benefit from these reserves –and with possibly only 5 out of 40 councillors in Greater Bournemouth, there would be no way in which this could be secured.

Another argument put forward in support of a greater Bournemouth is that the new council would ‘speak with one voice for the area’ and would be able to negotiate with the government for funds from a stronger basis. Accepting this, it has to be asked again what guarantee is there that these funds would be spent for the benefit of Christchurch.

It is also argued that a new authority could function with far fewer councillors, and therefore there would be savings. However, a Christchurch Councillor’s allowance is some £4,000 p.a. A Bournemouth councillor’s is £12,000. Would the allowance for councillors in the new authority be set at the level of Christchurch, Bournemouth – or higher? Given that the amount of work to be done would be the same if not much greater (given fewer councillors to represent the residents) it is likely that the post would have to become full time. Certainly there would be more meetings and therefore more travelling expenses. This is to say nothing about the lack of supervision of the Executive and of the officers.

Finally, on the financial side, we are promised that the costs and benefits have been carefully calculated –but both a Conservative local government minister (Eric Pickles) and a Labour minister (David Miliband) have admitted that the cost of unitary authorities has invariably been underestimated and the savings over estimated. This is borne out by Cornwall County council, a unitary authority set up in 2009. Eight years later, the full costs of reorganisation are still not apparent.

It is when we consider the intangible costs and benefits of change that the disadvantages for Christchurch become much more apparent. These were set out in full in a Memorandum submitted to Christchurch’s Scrutiny and Policy Review (now Overview) Committee in April 2016. (See Documents) A few of these are set out below:-

Control over the planning process would pass to Greater Bournemouth. All planning decisions would be taken by Councillors representing the new Authority – and there is no guarantee that there would be even one Christchurch councillor on the new Planning Committee. More seriously, the crucial Local Plan would come under the control of Greater Bournemouth. It is the Local Plan which protects our green belt, our coastline, housing density, open spaces, the historic buildings which don’t have National Listed Building status. It has been said that the present Local Plan will continue under a Greater Bournemouth Council – and that is true. What was not said is that there is no reason why on ‘Vesting Day’ the new Authority should not immediately lodge a ‘Review’ of the Local Plan to bring it into line with the needs of the new conurbation.

One of these is the need for a Gypsy and Travellers’ site. Dorset has one, at Piddlehinton, which enables Christchurch police to move on illegal traveller encampments. However, there is no Gypsy and Traveller site in Bournemouth or Poole.

A further problem is the Housing list. Christchurch has a policy of ‘Christchurch Homes for Christchurch People.’ In a Greater Bournemouth, the Authority would have one housing list, and, as has been said, Christchurch residents would be able to apply for any social housing in Greater Bournemouth. But what was not mentioned was that Christchurch’s homes would be open to those now living in Poole and Bournemouth.

So, at the end, Christchurch Councillors will have to ask themselves “What’s in it for Christchurch?” We know what’s in it for Bournemouth: land, assets, revenue from the Airport – possibly even a building for a Cathedral for the ’21st Century City by the Sea.’ We hear a lot about a conurbation authority being able to provide “Better Services” – but our strategic service providers are already working towards this, with the Dorset Waste Partnership, Tricuro, the Stour Valley and Poole Partnership.

All that the brave new world would mean is that instead of Christchurch providing 25% of services locally – including those that most affect local people – while 75% of services come from Dorset, 100% of services would be provided remotely. On the other hand, Councillors would be much less able to represent their constituents, there would be far fewer Councillors to control Officers and ensure that the wishes of the electorate were carried out, and there would be far more people for each Councillor to have to provide representation to.

So, please – we know why the Leaders of Bournemouth and (to a lesser extent) Poole are looking at Christchurch with the expression of a five-year-old gazing at the wrapped packages under the tree on Christmas Eve. But, before we vote on 31st January, can one of the many people who write to the Echo spouting platitudes about ‘It’s going to happen … it makes sense’ or any of the other slightly shop-soiled phrases, kindly use the Keep Christchurch Special site to explain to me, and to the other Christchurch Councillors, the answer to just one question: How the absorption of Christchurch in a Greater Bournemouth, and the total loss of control over vital matters, benefit the people of Christchurch.

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