Q1: In the EM (4.8), you say: “These Regulations made under section 15 of the 2016 Act would provide that Part 1 of the 2007 Act is to be varied in its application to the case of the Dorset councils so that those councils can make proposals for structural change in their area to the Secretary of State without an invitation having been received and allowing the Secretary of State to implement those proposals by order under section 7 of the 2007 Act. As such a proposal would not be made in response to an invitation and the discretion to request the advice of the Commission or the requirement to consult all affected authorities does not apply.” Why has the S of S not issued an invitation to these councils? Is this a mechanism to avoid the need for the S of S to consult all affected authorities?
A1: Government policy on establishing unitary councils as set out in the Department’s Single Departmental Plan published on 14 December 2017 is “to consider unitarisation and mergers between councils where requested”. Accordingly, the Government’s approach for Dorset is that proposals for unitarisation should be locally led at the initiative of councils in the local area, rather than in response to a Government invitation.
The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 (the 2016 Act) provides the statutory mechanism for taking forward such an approach. During this Act’s Parliamentary passage, Baroness Williams stated “The Bill allows, by more straightforward processes, the local governance of a place to be simplified”.
The purpose of this 2016 Act mechanism is not to avoid consultation. Indeed, wide ranging public consultation is an essential element of the approach the Secretary of State and the Dorset Councils have taken. When deciding whether it would be appropriate to implement the Dorset proposal an important consideration for the Secretary of State was the extent, quality and results of the consultation which the councils had undertaken. Moreover, the Secretary of State provided that after announcing his minded-to decision there was a period for representations and received 210 representations during this time, including substantive representations from all the councils concerned.
Had the Secretary of State been following the processes of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 (the 2007 Act), unmodified by regulations under the 2016 Act, the affected authorities which he would have been obliged to consult would have been only Christchurch Borough Council, Purbeck District Council and East Dorset District Council (the only affected authorities that did not submit the proposal). In the event, all of the nine councils plus local businesses, other public sector partners, voluntary organisations and many members of the public made representations.
Of the three affected authorities that the Secretary of State would have been obliged to consult, East Dorset District Council stated in their representation that “the council now accepts the [Secretary of State’s] decision, and works towards getting the best deal for the residents of East Dorset” and Purbeck District Council stated that “the Council decided to withdraw its opposition to the proposed reorganisation of local government in Dorset”. Christchurch Borough Council made a substantive representation, totalling some 29 pages, plus supporting annexes, setting out their opposition to the proposal and putting forward an alternative.
Q2: In the EM (8.6), you also say: “When the proposal was submitted in February 2017 it was supported by six of the nine councils in the Dorset area. Christchurch Borough Council, East Dorset District Council and Purbeck District Council were not supportive of the proposal. Following the Secretary of State’s “minded to” decision, East Dorset and Purbeck made representations to the Secretary of State - East Dorset District Council now support the proposal, and Purbeck District Council have withdrawn their opposition to the proposal. Christchurch Borough Council remains in opposition to the proposal.” What is the latest statement by Purbeck DC in relation to the proposal? What grounds has Christchurch BC given for opposing the proposal? What is the S of S’s justification for proceeding with a proposal which is opposed by one of the councils affected?
A2: In a letter to the Secretary of State of 5th January 2018, Purbeck District Council stated that “the Council decided to withdraw its opposition to the proposed reorganisation of local government in Dorset”. At their meeting of 20 March 2018, it was “Resolved that Council agrees to the making of the Dorset (Structural Changes) (Modification of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007) Regulations 2018”.
Christchurch Borough Council state, in their representation of 4 January 2018 that they have two key concerns about the proposal. The first relates to the impact on residents, their quality of life and the services they receive if the proposal goes ahead. The second relates to the credibility of the evidence on which the “Future Dorset” submission is based, and on which Government has been asked to make a decision.
The Secretary of State concluded that there is a compelling case for implementing the proposal, being satisfied that that the proposal fully meets the publicly stated criteria for unitarisation – namely that if implemented, the proposal is likely to improve local government in the area, has credible geography and commands local support. His assessments of the Dorset proposal against these criteria were made in the round across the whole area subject to the proposed restructuring. This was the approach made clear to Parliament when Marcus Jones stated on 28 February 2017 “I will carefully consider any proposal made by one or more councils in an area for reorganising that area’s local government, and reach a judgement in the round as to whether the proposal, if implemented, is likely to improve the area’s local government, commands a good deal of local support in the area, and whether the area itself is a credible geography for the proposed new structures”.
The provisions in the 2016 Act provide for regulations to be made even if not every council in a two tier area consents. Whilst the Bill was being taken through Parliament, it was made clear in debates in the Lords that it should not be possible for one council to act as a veto for an entire area. Baroness Williams’s comments during the debate about provisions on unitarisation included “councils not being able to veto the wider wish” and she explained how the Act’s provisions were underpinned by the consideration that “where there is a sensible structural change to be made……it should not be possible for any one council in an area to effectively veto the consideration of such a proposal”.
Q3: In the EM (8.8), you also say: “During the period of representations, Christchurch Borough Council held a local advisory poll to inform the Council’s representation to the Secretary of State, declaring the result on 14 December 2017. The poll had a 54% turnout, of which 84% voted No to the question “Do you support the current proposal for a single Council covering Christchurch, Bournemouth and Poole?” Following the results of this poll, Christchurch Borough Council made a representation to the Secretary of State containing an alternative proposal which the Secretary of State did not consider to be implementable.” What was the alternative proposal? Why did the S of S consider this not implementable? Given that one of the criteria for such proposals is that it should command “a good deal of local support in the area”, and a local poll found 84% opposition, how can the S of S deem that the proposed change to Christchurch BC meets this criterion?
A3: Christchurch Borough Council proposed an alternative option in their representation of 4 January 2018. The essential elements were:
The Secretary of State considered that this was not an implementable option. First, a key element of Christchurch’s preferred approach involved the retention of a two-tier structure in most of Dorset. That would be likely to undermine the very purpose of, and support for, the proposed reforms. There seemed to be no realistic basis, on the information available, for thinking that any such alternative proposal would improve local government across the area, or command a good deal of local support, as demonstrated by the original consultation all the councils, including Christchurch, undertook. Secondly, the other key element of Christchurch’s preferred approach involved a merger of two unitary councils wholly out with the area of Christchurch. The Secretary of State has previously been clear that one of the criteria he intended to apply to any proposed merger of district councils was that the merger is proposed by all the councils which are to be merged. This merger would have been proposed by neither of the councils concerned; and indeed both councils had positively stated that they did not support it on efficiency grounds.
The Secretary of State concluded that there is a compelling case for implementing the proposal, being satisfied that that the proposal fully meets the publicly stated criteria for unitarisation – namely that if implemented, the proposal is likely to improve local government in the area, has credible geography and commands local support. Ministers have made clear that they will apply the criteria for local government restructuring “in the round” for the area subject to reorganisation, rather than considering whether the criteria would be met in relation to each individual council area. The Secretary of State was strongly of the view that there is a good deal of local support in the round - as evidenced by the consultation that Dorset carried out and the numerous representations from Dorset MPs, political groups, local businesses, town and parish councils, councillors, voluntary organisations, public sector bodies and members of the public. The Secretary of State concluded that he was satisfied that not only the majority of the public across the area of Dorset support the proposal, but that the poll, involving only some 6% of that area’s population, does not undermine his judgment that the local support criterion is met.
17 April 2018