The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, has decided to implement plans to replace the existing nine councils in Dorset with two unitary authorities.
However, one of the councils affected – Christchurch Borough Council – said it would be holding an extraordinary general meeting following the announcement and that its lawyers were examining whether there was an arguable error of law.
In November last year Sajid Javid said he had been “minded to” back the Future Dorset proposals, inviting representations on the changes.
Under the model, one 'urban' unitary would be created through the merger of Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch. The other 'rural' unitary would be established from East Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, West Dorset and Weymouth & Portland. The county council would cease to exist.
In January 2018 councillors at Christchurch agreed to write to the Secretary of State, to set out their vision of an alternative. They also approved an initial budget of £15,000 to take legal advice “and if necessary initiate legal proceedings to protect the interests of Christchurch Borough Council and its residents”.
In a written ministerial statement issued yesterday the Secretary of State confirmed his final decision to implement the reorganisation, which is subject to Parliamentary approval.
Javid said: “I am satisfied that these new councils are likely to improve local government and service delivery in their areas, generating savings, increasing financial resilience, facilitating a more strategic and holistic approach to planning and housing challenges, and sustaining good local services. I am also satisfied that across Dorset as a whole there is a good deal of local support for these new councils, and that the area of each council is a credible geography.”
The Secretary of State said he now intended to prepare and lay before Parliament drafts of the necessary secondary legislation to give effect to his decision. The intention is that if Parliament approves this legislation the new councils will be established on 1 April 2019 with the first elections to the councils held on 2 May 2019.
The minister also now intends to make and lay before Parliament an Order to delay for one year, as requested by the borough council, the May 2018 local elections in Weymouth & Portland so as to avoid members being elected for only one year if Parliament approves the legislation establishing the new councils.
The Secretary of State added that he would ask the leaders of the Dorset councils how they would like to proceed with their combined authority proposal in the light of his decision on the Future Dorset proposal.
The Leaders of North Dorset, West Dorset, Weymouth & Portland and East Dorset all issued statements welcoming Javid’s announcement.
However, Cllr Trish Jamieson, Deputy Leader of Christchurch, said the authority was disappointed at the Secretary of State’s final decision.
“This decision comes despite Christchurch Borough Council putting forward an alternative to the Future Dorset submission and 84% of Christchurch residents who voted in the local poll not supporting the proposal for Christchurch to become part of a unitary council with Bournemouth and Poole councils,” she said.
“We will be calling an Extraordinary Full Council meeting to allow us to consider our position moving forward and the opinion of the legal professional as to whether there is any arguable error in law. We are committed members of the joint committee and our priority now is to focus on getting the best for the Christchurch residents who elected us to represent them.”
In a letter to Christchurch’s Leader, Cllr David Flagg, the Secretary of State said he had “carefully considered” the advisory poll which Christchurch undertook. “In short, I am satisfied that not only the majority of the public across Dorset support the proposal, but that the poll, involving only some 6% of the area’s population, does not undermine my judgment that the local support criterion is met.”