The public consultation on the proposed mergers of Dorset's councils has now started. The basic proposal is that two new large unitary councils would be created to replace the current unitary, county and district councils. One would be focused on the urban conurbation and one on more rural areas. There are four options:
Option 1: no change, retaining all 9 councils;
Option 2a: large conurbation, including Bournemouth, Christchurch, East Dorset and Poole within the urban council;
Option 2b: medium conurbation, including Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole within the urban council; and
Option 2c: small conurbation, including Bournemouth and Poole within the urban council.
You can find out more information and have your say by completing the online questionnaire at reshapingyourcouncils.uk at any time up to 25 October.
Merger is on the agenda because all of Dorset's councils are experiencing severe financial difficulties as the government continues to cut funding to local councils. It is seen by senior Council officers as a way of making efficiencies and cutting costs.
At Poole People, we recognise the funding pressures and potential cost savings, and can see that a merger may bring additional benefits to the conurbation by raising its national profile and giving it more clout when competing against other authorities for funding and employees.We do have the following concerns, however:
- Insufficient consideration has been given to the non-financial consequences of merger. In particular, residents will inevitably be distanced from the decision-making process where a larger council is created unless local public forums are established beneath it. No such proposals have been made for Poole;
- Poole may become subsumed into a Greater Bournemouth as Bournemouth has a larger population and a higher profile nationally. This would not only undermine Poole's rich history, it would also potentially result in Poole's residents receiving inferior services to Bournemouth's;
- The merger process has been managed internally within the Conservative Party. All the councils have Conservative leaders and they have chosen (at least in Poole) to minimise the involvement of councillors from other parties. We suspect that the Bournemouth Conservative group is driving the process forward and therefore fear that Poole's interests may not be being properly represented.
We therefore believe:
- If there is to be a merger, it should deliver the most sustainable and viable conurbation possible. This would mean including Christchurch, and parts of East Dorset and Purbeck (Corfe Mullen and Upton in particular). A boundary review should therefore be included in the merger process, even it this results in a delay to the current schedule;
- A merger of only Poole and Bournemouth (option 2c) is likely to be damaging to Poole as Bournemouth councillors would have an inbuilt majority;
- More consideration needs to be given as to how the new council would be held accountable, and in particular to improving public consultation at a community level; and
- The public should be given the opportunity to vote on the final proposals.