Poole People councillors will be voting against the proposed merger between Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole councils at the Full Council meeting later this month. The Poole People party recognises that the success of the area in the future depends on creating a vibrant economy across the conurbation and that a merged council could give the area more leverage with government and visibility to investors. However, on balance, we do not believe that the current proposal would be beneficial for Poole’s residents for the following reasons:
- The merger would result in an increase in Council Tax for Poole’s residents of 3.99% (the maximum currently permitted) every year for the next 20 years in order to harmonise rates across the conurbation. No business plan has been presented or proper explanation given as to how the money raised would be spent. Poole Council is being forced to raise Council Tax at present by cuts in government funding and rising adult social care costs, but we fear that surplus tax raised in the future may be used inefficiently and channelled towards central Bournemouth.
- As Bournemouth lies at the centre of the conurbation, there is a danger that services and the merged council’s focus will become centred on Bournemouth resulting in the creation of a "city centre", and relegating Poole to a district centre. No consideration has been given as to how Poole’s identity and character would be protected.
- We fear that harmonisation of Council Tax across all three authorities will not result in harmonisation of service provision. Bournemouth Council currently has a higher level of government funding than Poole Council. Bournemouth is therefore able to offer better services. Given the on-going withdrawal of such funding and the absence of a plan to deliver equal service provision, Bournemouth's dominant position within the merged council would in all likelihood see its residents continuing to benefit from superior public amenities at the cost of Poole’s residents.
- The merger would create a democratic deficit at local level. Councillors would inevitably be more distant from their constituents as they would be required to consider issues affecting a wider area. They would probably meet and transact business in Bournemouth. There is no provision for any local committees or other similar forums for the public to express their views.
- Although the inclusion of Christchurch within the merged council would help to limit the dominating instincts of Bournemouth, Christchurch’s elderly population is already imposing a heavy burden on Dorset County Council in terms of adult social care costs. We do not feel that the consequences of taking on these growing costs have been considered in enough detail.
- We do not have confidence in the results of the consultation that the authorities carried out to gauge the public’s view on the merger. The questionnaire channelled people into focusing on cost-saving and the materials supplied have justified merger on the basis of cost-saving. However, the disadvantages of merger have not been properly presented or worked through. Without proper consideration of wider issues, the new council is unlikely to be more efficient or accountable. We did propose a referendum when the merger was first suggested, but the Conservatives rejected this.
In summary, the merger proposals have been developed solely with the purpose of balancing budgets. The merger proposal has been driven by the Conservative leaders of the respective councils and has lacked appropriate scrutiny as a consequence.
There is no pressing need for a decision on merger to be made now. Most of the cuts that the councils need to make to balance their budgets have to be implemented before the proposed date of merger in 2019. Therefore, councillors have the time to step back for reflection, and if they decide that merger would be advantageous, to design a structure that would be coherent, accountable and sustainable.