The Unitary Authority

The proposal was that Christchurch, Bournemouth and Poole would merge, to become a Unitary Authority. The definition of a unitary authority is one in which an administrative division of local government is established in place of a two-tier system of local councils. Thus Christchurch was managed by the Borough Council and Dorset County Council – that is, it was a two-tier authority.

There are well over fifty unitary authorities in England. They exist for administrative efficiency, and are not dependent on size or population. For example, Rutland only has a population of around 40,000, whereas a few are over half a million. It is thought that by simplifying the administrative structure, staffing and service/supply costs can be reduced, with those services throughout the area combined, and economies of scale achieved.

The proposal was made in February 2017. A consultation began on August 30 and finished on October 25. It consisted of a postal survey sent to around 20,000 randomly-selected households, an open online survey, various public meetings, and a few telephone consultations with some of Dorset’s largest companies.

Here are the options in the survey:

Christchurch BC Consultation

Here is a link to the complete survey questionnaire (pdf, opens in a new window)

And here is a breakdown of the responses:

Christchurch BC Consultation

The full text of Sajid Javid’s statement about the proposed merger:

I am announcing today that, having carefully considered all the material and representations I have received, I am ‘minded to’ implement the locally-led proposal for improving local government in Dorset. This was submitted to me in February 2017. In the Dorset area, there are currently two small unitary councils (created in the 1990s) of Bournemouth and of Poole. They are surrounded by a two-tier structure of Dorset County Council and the district councils of Christchurch, East Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, West Dorset and Weymouth & Portland.

I am satisfied on the basis of the information currently available to me that this proposal if implemented is likely to improve local government across the area, establishing two new councils with a credible geography, and which would command local support. The existing nine councils will be replaced by a single council for the areas of Bournemouth, Poole, and that part of the county of Dorset currently comprising the Borough of Christchurch, and by a single council for the remainder of the current county area.

I understand that all the councils in the area are already working together in joint implementation committees. However, further steps are needed to secure local consent, and I hope this announcement will facilitate the necessary discussions to conclude this.

Before I take my final decision, there is now a period until 8 January 2018 during which those interested may make further representations to me, including that if the proposal is implemented it is with suggested modifications. It is also open to any council in the area to come forward with an alternative proposal. The final decision would also be subject to Parliamentary approval.

Once I have made my final decision on the Dorset proposal, I will also decide whether to implement, subject to Parliamentary approval, Dorset councils’ proposal for a combined authority to facilitate collaboration on certain matters between whatever councils are to be in place in Dorset.

And here is the response of Christchurch:

Christchurch Merger Plan

Plan for the Merger – Christchurch Courier, Spring 2018

On 30 July 2018, therefore, a Judicial Review was heard in the High Court. There had been a lot of debate about whether this review should take place at all, especially as the cost would be around £200,000.

Just two of the more-restrained comments on social media give only a mild indication of the strength of feeling:

  • Good luck Christchurch. A lot of people who believe in democracy and local representation is hoping you will win the day.
  • And the rest of us, who don’t appreciate taxpayer funds being wasted in frivolous cases designed to oppose the efficient delivery of services, fully expect you to lose.

The Review was denied. Here is what the Bournemouth Borough Council said about it:

Christchurch Borough Council has spent a very significant amount of council tax payers’ money in pursuing this legal action. The High Court has rejected that challenge and we hope that all Christchurch Borough Councillors will now accept that judgement, and fully take part in planning for and making decisions about the new council.

We are optimistic this matter is now behind us, and we can look forward to working together to create the best new local councils we can, to protect public services as much as possible, and to secure future growth and prosperity for our areas.

Debate continued about the possibility of an appeal, but after taking advice, finally the merger was accepted. This is the statement of Christchurch Borough Council Leader, David Flagg:

Having been refused leave to appeal by the judge it was important that the advice of Counsel and Officers was considered when deciding the best way forward. In light of the decision we feel that the best way for us to proceed is to focus our work on getting the best for our residents as we move towards local government reorganisation on 1 April 2019.

Whilst we are of course extremely disappointed with the decision of the judge the Council has fought to represent the wishes of our residents throughout this process.

Having pursued every avenue available to us we must now accept that the Council will be abolished next year. We apologise that we were not successful in keeping Christchurch independent and thank all the residents who supported us in our attempts.