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Council debates to change Dorset local government structure begin

Dorset councils will begin to meet this week to formally debate and scrutinise proposals to change the county’s local government structures.

This Thursday (5 January 2017), Poole council will discuss a report setting out the evidence for local government reorganisation, in the first of 24 public meetings across Dorset’s nine councils.

The report, authored by the councils’ six chief executives, recommended that Dorset’s current nine councils should be replaced by two new unitary councils, following “clear backing” from the county’s residents in a consultation last autumn.

“Members have had the full package of evidence – the financial assessment, the consultation results and the case for change – since 5th December, giving them good time to review and digest the content,” said Matt Prosser, CEO of the Dorset Councils Partnership and chair of the Dorset Chief Executives Group.

“These meetings are an opportunity for all councillors of every council to debate and discuss the evidence, in their sovereign councils, the report and its recommendations in public, with each authority’s full council making a final decision later in the month. Only once each council has reached a decision will we be able to submit a proposal to the [CLG] secretary of state.”

Dorset councillors have been advised to agree on the proposed composition of the new councils based on the weight of “public opinion, financial and other analytical evidence”.

The proposals would see one new unitary authority assuming responsibility for the urban areas of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, with the other taking over the rural areas currently overseen by East Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, West Dorset, Weymouth and Portland councils.

Any services currently provided by the wider Dorset County Council in these areas would also pass to the corresponding new unitary authority.

Despite the apparent support of the public, the overall decision of Dorset councils to endorse the restructuring has not gone entirely unopposed, particularly by representatives from Christchurch.

Christchurch Borough Council members voted that no change in local government arrangements was their preferred option, with the council’s leader Cllr Ray Nottage saying that the local authority’s responsibility was now to “take the recommendation through the democratic process to further review all the evidence presented”.

Christopher Chope, the MP for Christchurch, also said that the consultation process for the reforms had been “inadequate, biased and, indeed, untruthful” in concealing the fact that the change would be paid for by a rise in local council tax.

Council meetings to discuss the report will now take place throughout January, with the final set of meetings due to take place in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Purbeck on 31 January.

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