The new Dorset Council: Why we had to make a bold decision

In April, Dorset Council was officialy formed. One new unitary authority replaced six county, district and borough councils. Dorset Council now serves 377,000 people, making it one of the largest unitary authorities in the country. Matt Prosser, the council’s chief executive, shares the journey to create a new unitary authority, and makes the case for bold decision making.

This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and one we had to seize. I am incredibly proud of what we have achieved. The programme to create Dorset Council has been ambitious, fast, and of enormous scale. Bringing together services across six councils has been complex and, in the short timescale, unprecedented. However, I never doubted our ability to achieve it. This is down to the thousands of employees and the elected members involved in the programme who I thank enormously. This is an incredible moment in Dorset’s history and a huge step forwards for local government. I strongly believe it was the right decision for Dorset.     

We chose to replace six councils with one to protect services for residents and deliver a financially sustainable council. Like many councils across the country, we face ongoing financial pressures. However, last month, we set our first budget which protects and invests in frontline services. We were able to provide a balanced budget, with no cuts to existing services and an increase in funding to a number of priority services, including £5.8m towards the care and education of children; £900,000 towards an increased number of foster carers; over £1.37m towards rubbish, recycling and street cleaning services; £1.5m towards services for the vulnerable adults; and £150,000 towards tackling homelessness. This investment would not have been available without the reorganisation of our councils. We had no choice but to be bold.

We have been bold before, but not to this extent. We have set up a range of partnerships over the years such as Dorset Councils Partnership, Christchurch and East Dorset Councils, and also several multi-agency bodies. We have experience of reorganisation and are fortunate in that many colleagues have worked on similar programmes before. The scale of this challenge, however, cannot be underestimated. This programme has seen over 500 services engaged, each producing implementation plans. Cross-council teams have progressed their plans together. Teamwork, determination, and positivity has got us over the line.

Much of the programme has focused on disaggregating services at Christchurch and East Dorset Councils. The transfer of Christchurch-based services from Dorset County Council to Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council (BCP) includes children, adult and community, libraries, health and wellbeing, community safety, leisure, housing, and registrations services. There are examples where services in Christchurch will continue to be delivered by Dorset Council for a short period, such as waste collection and winter services. This gives us further time to plan what is best for residents in that area, working in collaboration with our neighbour BCP Council. We are also doing the same with the newly-created Weymouth Town Council.

We have recently confirmed Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment (TUPE) arrangements for Christchurch and East employees. The TUPE work has been an important strand of the programme, and we recently sent out over 8,000 TUPE letters so that every employee knows where they will be working and who they will report to. Most will have no change to either, but we are having to do some restructuring now so that we have a management structure in place, which means it is a challenging time for some of our colleagues. We are building Team Dorset: we have a highly-experienced new executive team in place and we will soon be interviewing for corporate directors.

We want the transition for customers to be seamless so that, for example, there will be one system in place for online transactions. The districts’ cash receipting systems have been migrated into one, which is now live and accepting payments made to Dorset Council. We are using the SAP financial system, and training sessions have been arranged for users such as those who order goods and services or monitor budgets.

Local residents will go to the polls to elect the first members of the new Dorset Council on 2 May. There will be 82 councillors representing 52 electoral wards across the Dorset Council area. This is a reduction from the 204 seats we had across the six preceding councils, which has resulted in a cost reduction of £500,000. This follows the completion of the boundary review which set up new ward boundaries ahead of the May elections.

The process will now be simpler with all ballot boxes transferred to one location – Redlands Leisure Centre, Weymouth, where all the votes will be counted the following day. As returning officer, I will be announcing each new councillor. Many more people will be standing in the town and parish council elections which are taking place on the same day. We have also adopted a new constitution for Dorset Council, which includes a proposed committee structure and a scheme of delegation, which has been supplemented by a template for service teams to draft their local schemes.

In future months, we will see important capital projects progressed – but this is very much for the new members to take forward following the elections. We have big ambitions for Dorset and our economy is growing. We are attracting interest from businesses and I am confident that our new council will give more opportunities to create jobs and boost overall prosperity. Our Jurassic Coast is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which draws visitors from all over the world, and we must protect and promote that. We are very much looking at a place-based approach and, where possible, harmonising our services to ensure consistency for customers.

We are embracing all that Dorset has to offer and are creating opportunities where we can. From six councils to one, together we are now Dorset Council.


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