Dorset council threatens legal action over proposed merger

Christchurch Borough Council is preparing to take legal action if plans to merge a number of councils in Dorset are fully approved by the DCLG.

In November last year, communities secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that he was minded to agree to the plans, which would see two unitary authorities created in place of the current two-tier system.

Christchurch – which currently sits with East Dorset council on a joint committee – has been opposed to the project since the process began but has registered further concern after a local poll found that most residents do not support the merger.

Under the plans the council would become part of an ‘Urban Dorset’ authority alongside Bournemouth and Poole councils. However, it has instead put forward an alternative proposal, which would see the other two parties merge into a unitary authority while the rest of the county stays in the current two-tier system.

In a meeting of its Extraordinary Full Council, the authority agreed by a majority of 13 to pursue its own plans with the DCLG.

Councillors also approved an initial budget of £15,000 to take legal advice and if necessary initiate legal proceedings to protect the authority’s interests.

Cllr David Flagg, leader of Christchurch Borough Council, said: “Having carried out the local poll it was clear that residents of Christchurch do not want to be part of a new authority with Bournemouth and Poole.

“Christchurch Borough Council wishes to retain our sovereignty and we believe that retaining the existing two-tier structure in Dorset presents a credible alternative that the secretary of state will take time to consider.

“With Bournemouth and Poole already sharing a number of Corporate Services, the suggestion of them becoming a single unitary authority would take this one step further and our representation offers estimated savings at the same level as those of the Future Dorset model.”

In response to Christchurch’s actions, Matt Prosser, chief executive of Dorset Councils Partnership, said: “I remain confident that our proposal to replace nine councils across Dorset with two new authorities will be approved by the Secretary of State. The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP has already said he is convinced by the evidence presented to him and is minded to approve the proposed Future Dorset reorganisation.

“We have recently seen East Dorset District Council and Purbeck District Council respectively giving their support and removing their objections to the creation of two unitary authorities, and numerous business and stakeholder organisations have, during this representations period, reiterated their support for the proposal.

“It is absolutely critical that the Secretary of State makes his final decision as soon as possible following the receipt and due consideration of all the representations received. The timetable for creating the two new councils is already extremely challenging and any extension to the stated eight-week period will frustrate the process further.

“Christchurch Borough Council has had a year to formulate detailed and evidence-based proposals and it is therefore not reasonable for a request for further time to be considered at this late stage.”

Future Dorset claims that the change will yield savings of around £30m-a-year to run services in the county, a figure which Flagg believes can be retained under the plans Christchurch have put forward.

Members also agreed that, should Javid announce that he will approve the Future Dorset submission, the council will oppose the passage of the Structural Change Order through all appropriate means.

In December 2016, Christopher Chope, the MP for Christchurch, called the consultation on future mergers ‘inadequate and untruthful’.

In particular, he said his constituents were not aware that Christchurch Borough Council would be replaced with a new town council, based in Christchurch, which would be funded by adding an extra £150 a year to Band D council tax.

However, more recently Purbeck council announced that it would be withdrawing its opposition to the merger, making it more likely that the proposals could go through.

PSE has contacted the other authorities involved in the merger but has received no response.

Top image: Chris Ison

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Bernard Davies   05/01/2018 at 16:08

Christchurch Boro Council is now the only one of 9 councils in Dorset to oppose change.

Dee   05/01/2018 at 19:12

Well done Christchurch, in Wiltshire we were forced to a unitary authority and the needs and aspirations of most locals have since been completely subsumed to the will of a Council that has no interest in Witlshire's rural population and exhibits a centralism that beggars belief and that worse serves no-one outside "HQ". Local democracy has been greatly eroded and the best interests of the residents have been woefully ignored in the pursuit of political dogma and a refusal to fight central government cuts. Keep your independence and if you can genuinely save the same level of funding as the merge proposal there is no reason at all for DCLG or the minister to eliminate an entire tier of local democracy (wasn't localism a key tenant of the Tory Government ?? Good luck Christchurch.

Cllr Carol Holmes   08/01/2018 at 12:22

East Dorset District Council should have held firm on its desire not to join a new rural Dorsetshire council. My own council, West Moors Parish Council fears the same outcome as has been experienced by the previous commentator in Wiltshire. We were not involved, consulted nor considere in the process.Is the Communities Secretary aware of the vital role that town & parish councils play in local democracy. We have written to him to ask him to consider again. East Dorset District Council has been a model of good practice and we are proud to be associated with this well run,highly regarded council which is due to dissappear through this reorganisational process.

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