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Christchurch and East Dorset Councils: Proposed Abolition

Volume 617: debated on Thursday 1 December 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Heather Wheeler.)

It is a pleasure to introduce this short end-of-day Adjournment debate on proposals to abolish Christchurch and East Dorset Councils.

When a colleague saw the title of the debate, he wondered who was proposing such an outcome and why. I was able to assure him that it is not the Government, unlike 20 years ago when the Local Government Commission for England, under its then chairman Sir John Banham, was tasked by the Conservative Government at the time with abolishing the two-tier system and imposing unitary solutions. The commission, to its credit—I was a member of it—insisted that before any change to structures, there should be the fullest local consultation, including a survey sent to every household. A preliminary consultation on options for change was followed by a second consultation on a preferred option. As a result of that process, in Dorset separate unitaries were created in Poole and Bournemouth, but, following a robust defence by campaigners, particularly in Christchurch but also in East Dorset, the Government decided to retain a two-tier structure for the rest of Dorset, and in so doing recognised the importance of local community ties, identity and history—Christchurch can trace its mayoralty back to the 13th century.

The current Government have learned the lesson of the past and are not seeking to impose any structural change. I am grateful to them for that. Eighteen months ago, there were all-out elections for councillors in Christchurch and East Dorset—24 in Christchurch and 29 in East Dorset, of whom 11 are in my constituency. None of the candidates stood on a manifesto to abolish their council—quite the reverse. They campaigned to provide good-quality services at an affordable price by maximising economic efficiencies through partnership working. To their immense credit, they continue to do that successfully with approximately 100 fewer council officers than before, delivering ongoing annual savings of more than £1 million.

In autumn 2015, the leaders of Poole, Bournemouth and Christchurch Councils, and the then leader of East Dorset District Council, were pictured together on a beach to launch their plan to create a single council to replace those four councils. That created such hostility among East Dorset District Councillors, who were fearful that they were going to be bounced into losing their sovereignty and independence, and control over their own green belt, that their leader resigned because he was so out of touch and had not engaged with his own councillors.

The plan was never debated in Christchurch Council, because the Christchurch Council leader denied that he wanted such a super-council but wished only to be in the mix for the purposes of any discussion about it. Not surprisingly, Dorset County Council did not take kindly to the idea that two of the councils in its area were going to secede and join a rival grouping. That led to various discussions, and earlier this year all nine Dorset council leaders decided to work towards a public consultation on possibly reorganising local government within Dorset, but without any preconditions.

In parallel, Christchurch and East Dorset Councils, along with the other seven councils, went out to consultation on proposals for a combined authority to take effect from 1 April 2017, which will bring together representatives from all nine Dorset councils plus the Dorset local enterprise partnership to deliver on transport infrastructure and economic regeneration. The consultation document states:

“A Dorset combined authority would demonstrate our partnership approach and be a strong basis for us to request more responsibilities and powers from the Government”.

It also reassured consultees that

“combined authorities combine specific functions of two or more local authorities. The councils remain separate but they pool decision making over what services they want to combine, acting as one strong and accountable body representing and responsible for the area.”

That application was unanimously approved and is now on the Secretary of State’s desk. Contrary to some black propaganda, the proposal does not involve the creation of an elected mayor for Dorset.

It was disappointing that council leaders could not agree that key issues such as public transport, adult social care and children’s services should also be included within the remit of the combined authority, despite the obvious financial benefits. Adult social care and children’s services consume some 75% of the Dorset County Council budget. If included with similar services from the two other upper-tier authorities in the combined authority, Poole and Bournemouth, significant savings would be achievable without undermining local democratic accountability.

At the end of August this year, the nine Dorset councils launched a separate consultation on what they described as “reshaping your councils”. The consultation was meant to be presenting four options. The first was no change to existing structures, and the other three were for variations on the theme of abolishing the nine existing councils and creating in their place two unitaries. The options presented for consultation and the terms of the consultation paper were never approved by councillors in Christchurch or East Dorset. Indeed, it was only at the insistence of a minority of council leaders—including, I think, the leader of East Dorset—that a no-change option was included at all.

Last Friday, the Housing Minister visited Christchurch to discuss the issue with the leader of Christchurch Council. At the Minister’s request I was present at the meeting, which was also attended by the leader of East Dorset District Council. Despite the fact that Christchurch councillors have at no stage given approval to any suggestion that their council should be abolished, the leader of the council told my hon Friend the Minister:

“We don’t think option 1”—

no change—

“is really an option”.

Although he was immediately contradicted by the leader of East Dorset District Council, the Christchurch leader went on to say that if he did not receive a mandate from his councillors for the council’s abolition, he would be ready to defy that decision when discussing with other council leaders the preferred option for Dorset. In throwing aside the caution that he had been seeking to impose on all other councillors around the issue of predetermination, he said:

“What is expected cannot be achieved with the status quo”,

and he gave the Minister a paper setting out his expectation of Government that it should give

“support for the principle of changing to a two unitary model in Dorset”.

He thereby showed that his mind had been made up all along against keeping Christchurch independent and that the public consultation was effectively a charade.

My hon. Friend and I take diametrically opposed views on this issue. East Dorset covers part of my constituency. Does my hon. Friend recognise that all the district councils, the county council and the two unitaries are individually going to be debating a report over the coming weeks—the last debate will, I think, be on 31 January—which will then determine the views of each of those councils? It is not as if either East Dorset or Christchurch has treated itself less well. No council has actually taken any decision, but they will be offered a recommendation to either endorse or disagree.

Nothing my hon. Friend says is incorrect, but the situation is that the leaders of councils should—as the leader of East Dorset Council has said—enter into those discussions and negotiations having sought a mandate from their own councillors. That is not what is being proposed in Christchurch. For good measure, the Christchurch Council leader has also criticised the combined authority, despite being a party to submitting it to the Government. He said:

“We don’t think it would deal with the massive expectation”.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the public consultation has been so criticised as inadequate, biased and, indeed, untruthful. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) has been taken in by this, because the consultation was designed to mislead respondents into believing that no change in structures was not an option. The consultation questionnaire gave the impression that there was no alternative to abolishing the existing structure of nine councils, and stated that if the nine councils were retained,

“major savings would need to be found and it is likely that many council services could not be provided in future”.

The only argument it put forward in the consultation for retaining the nine existing councils was “familiarity”—nothing about control over one’s own destiny and all the rest of it.

No evidence is produced in support of the scaremongering in the document. Indeed, I have been informed by the councils’ chief finance officers that all

“authorities within Dorset are in a solvent position and have sufficient balances to remain this way for the foreseeable future”.

No, I will not give way again.

The consultation period was only eight weeks, during which time I attended five public meetings and had numerous meetings and discussions with constituents, voluntary organisations, councillors and former councillors, parish councillors and community groups.

On a point of order, On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am slightly surprised, so I seek your guidance. I wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) at the end of last week, giving the factors I just stated in my interjection, mentioning that part of my constituency lay within the boundaries of East Dorset District Council, and requesting that I be allowed to make a short speech. He refused my request but invited me to come and listen to his speech, which is why I am here today. Is it in order, therefore, notwithstanding his right to refuse my request to speak, and given that part of the area in question is in my constituency—as it is also in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson)—for him not to accept an—

Order. I am stopping the hon. Gentleman because he is eating into the time of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), whose choice it is; it is his Adjournment debate. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to put in for another Adjournment debate, and then it will be up to him who is allowed to speak.

I am most disappointed in my hon. Friend. I gave way to him and now he has taken up a minute or more of my precious time with a spurious point of order. This indicates his embarrassment at not being on top of the facts of this issue.

I was talking about the different organisations to which I had spoken. The Daily Echo was highly critical of the consultation, and its lead letter on 21 October was headlined “We are being manipulated”, which reflected the widespread opposition to council abolition among my constituents. The documentation and financial evaluation of options in the consultation were based on the presumption that a new town council would be created in Christchurch to replace the borough council following abolition. Even elected councillors were unaware of that.

No, I will not.

Nor did they realise that the funding for the town council would come from an extra £150 a year extra band D council tax. My constituents would forever, therefore, be paying higher council tax than residents in Bournemouth and Poole for the same level of service, despite the contrary having been asserted in the consultation document. The creation of a new town council replicating the borough council would also undermine the avowed objective of reorganisation of reducing administrative costs, cutting out duplication and simplifying local government.

I will not give way. My hon. Friend has already taken up my time in raising a spurious point of order, and I will not give way to him again.

When after seven weeks of asking questions I received the admission that the financial figures were based upon the creation of a new town council, I inquired as to why Christchurch would choose to create a new town council when the consultation document at page 3 assured its readers:

“The two unitary councils would deliver the services currently provided by the six District and Borough Councils”.

No clear answer has been given to my question about what extra services beyond those already being provided in Christchurch would be funded with an extra £150 per year band D council tax. With 21,332 properties paying band D, as an average this amounts to over £3.8 million a year from Christchurch, subsidising this proposition.

The guile exhibited in the consultation is such that it is hard to regard it as merely accidental. If it had been, one would have expected an immediate admission that the prospectus was false. Page 4 of the consultation states:

“Councils would need to make sure that, within an agreed period of time, all residents of one council area pay the same—a process called council tax harmonisation.”

Page 9 explains further:

“This assumes an approach in which over a twenty year period…all the council tax rates in all areas within a new unitary council eventually become the same”.

It is now clear, however, that on the basis of the consultation, council tax rates and bills for citizens in Christchurch will always be higher than for those in Poole and Bournemouth under two of the unitary options, and would always be higher than for those in East Dorset, North Dorset—in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset—Purbeck and West Dorset under the third unitary option. Not only is this fact not disclosed in the consultation; it is actively covered up.

The only justification put forward for abolishing Christchurch and East Dorset Councils is financial. The consultation paper states that option 1 would result in East Dorset having a cumulative shortfall of £0.3 million between 2019 and 2025, and Christchurch a surplus of £0.1 million. Such figures would certainly not justify abolition. Some council leaders argue, however, that because the shortfall across Dorset as a whole would be £30 million, reorganisation is justified. Now, £30 million over six years might sound like a lot of money, but when put into the context that Dorset councils are currently spending £920 million a year—£5.52 billion over the six years—it means we are talking about just 0.5% of total turnover. When set against the costs of reorganisation, estimated at £25 million, and the assumptions behind the figures of continuing to increase local government spending by 4% per annum—I think it extraordinary, but that is the assumption—the case for abolition looks incredibly weak.

I am grateful. My hon. Friend has mentioned Purbeck, which falls within my constituency, as does East Dorset. Does he accept two things? First, does he accept that there will be an opportunity for each and every council in Dorset to debate this and vote on it later in January? Secondly, does he accept that there is a range of views, on a spectrum perhaps from his views to those of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare)?

Exactly. I had a very civilised conversation yesterday with the deputy leader and chief executive of Purbeck Council. My hon. Friend is quite right that there will be plenty of opportunities, but what I am keen to do in this debate is to make sure that we have a discussion on the basis of the facts. The shortcomings of the consultation so far have meant that the facts have been covered up from the people.

As with all such possible changes, the beneficiaries are keen to shout loudest. Both Bournemouth and Poole Councils have chosen over recent years to freeze their council taxes, while Christchurch and East Dorset have been more realistic in their approach. It is insulting to my constituents that Poole and Bournemouth should now expect Christchurch residents to subsidise their councils—currently in the case of Poole £196 lower than in Christchurch and £161 lower in Bournemouth.

Council taxes in Christchurch and East Dorset are very similar to the national average, which was £1,484 in 2015-16, while the average tax in East Dorset over the same period was £1,720, the second highest in England, and £1,756—the highest—in Weymouth and Portland. Although only tangential to tonight’s debate, I am not sure how many people living in the Weymouth borough realise that under the proposals in the consultation paper they would continue to have to pay at least £150 extra each year compared with other parts of rural Dorset.

There are many other elements of the proposals for change that have not yet been sufficiently revealed. The first is that no savings are assumed across adult social care, children’s services and education—the three upper-tier responsibilities that consume the most money. Nor has the motivation of those seeking a unitary solution been highlighted as wishing to squeeze out local discretionary services provided by district councils so that that income is available to supplement statutory services such as adult social care. Most crucially, the consultation document does not make it clear that option 1 is the most financially beneficial option—unless Christchurch and Weymouth and Portland pay extra for town councils for no additional service.

A document from Local Partnerships headed “Overall Summary without Town Councils” seems to have been suppressed. What it shows, however, is that over the six-year period from 2019-20, the difference between the amounts of council tax forgone in the unitary option for a medium conurbation is £8 million higher on the assumption that there is no town council than it would be with new town councils. That is the extent to which the people of Christchurch are subsidising this proposed project. The financial merit of no change is that each council continues to have the freedom to maximise its increases in council tax in line with Government rules, should it so wish. Having been so cruelly misled by the documents—and, incidentally, at roadshows and focus groups—my constituents cannot have any confidence in the objectivity of the consultation process. Any purported outcome will be invalidated by the inadequacy of the process, and the inherent prejudice and bias in it.

If Dorset councils remain keen to progress the idea of creating new unitaries in place of existing structures, they should launch a fresh consultation based on objective data and with assumptions that are transparent. The process should also enable every household to express its opinion, which happened when the Local Government Commission for England undertook a similar exercise in 1995.

About four months ago, I led an Adjournment debate on the issue of beach huts in Christchurch. As a result of that debate, councillors were lobbied very strongly by people living in the town, and the beach huts proposal was abandoned. I hope that as I have this evening drawn the attention of my constituents to the gravity of the current proposal, they will again lobby their councillors successfully to reject it.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Christopher Chope) for securing this important debate on the proposals for reorganising the governance of Dorset. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue. My hon. Friend’s interest in these matters is well known. I recognise his long experience of local government and his ministerial experience: back in the 1980s, he was a Minister in a Department that was a predecessor of mine.

Let me say at the outset that what Dorset councils are doing is exactly what councils should be doing. They are looking into how they can deliver better services to the towns, villages and people of Dorset, how they can provide stronger, more efficient and more effective leadership, and how they can generate significant savings to support frontline services. None of that is to say that we have concluded that any of the proposals on which the councils have consulted, and will consult further, are the right ones. What is right is that there should be consultations, discussions and analysis. The councils may then decide that it is right for them to submit a formal proposal for governance change to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his consideration.

At this point, I should add that the nine councils have already submitted a formal proposal to create a combined authority for the area. They would like it to be established by April 2017. They think that it would serve as an effective mechanism enabling them to intensify their collaboration in the provision of economic development, regeneration and transport services throughout their areas. We are considering the proposal, and expect to respond early in the new year.

All this is taking place against a wider canvas of significant change throughout local government. At a time of fiscal constraint, and as the demand for services such as adult care increases, the best of local government is showing how it can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of services as well as driving the economic growth on which the prosperity of places depends, and that is what Dorset councils are doing. The Government strongly believe that local government should be as efficient, effective, transparent and accountable as possible. The right approach to any reform of local government is bottom-up: that is how councils figure out what is right for their areas and come up with locally driven solutions. It is the approach that underpins the provisions that the House considered some 12 months ago in what is now the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, and it is the approach that we are following for the purposes of both devolution and governance changes.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the responses from the councils, when they discuss the consultation and indeed the recommendations, do not have to be unanimous across all nine for a submission to be made to his Department, and can he also confirm—maybe this is rather good news—that unanimity does not need to be delivered between the MPs within the county as well?

Technically, my hon. Friend is right, but our Department is absolutely clear that we want any reforms to be locally driven, and once a local area has its blueprint for any reforms we will listen carefully, and the Secretary of State will decide whether the reforms are acceptable to him.

There are discussions about local government reorganisation across the sector. These include discussions about moving to more unitary structures, as in Dorset, and recently a detailed proposal has been put forward from Buckinghamshire to transform into a single unitary authority. We have also seen the recent research published by the County Councils Network looking at aspects of reorganisation. It has published two reports, which will contribute to discussions and debate about local government reorganisation. These point out financial benefits and savings that it is suggested may be possible if councils choose to unitarise. These reports suggest a saving of between £2 billion and £3 billion over five years net of transition costs, if all 27 county councils became single unitary authorities.

Dorset has told us that the options it is discussing, which include a reduction in the number of local authorities through unitarisation, could generate substantial savings of at least £108 million in the first six years. We are clear that appropriate governance reforms, which is what we want to have, must have the potential to deliver significant benefits, but reform, and in particular reform to include unitarisation, is not always going to be right for every area. It may not be right for Dorset, and it may not be right in Buckinghamshire, and it is certainly not going to be compulsory or imposed where there is no support for it.

The Government remain 100% committed to being open to innovative bottom-up proposals that will improve local services, enhance accountability and deliver financial sustainability. We welcome local government pursuing and discussing these ideas, particularly when done, as in Dorset, collaboratively and constructively.

The assurance I can give my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is that if Dorset does come forward with proposals we will consider them very carefully and fully. We will want to see evidence that any proposal submitted offers a better local service, greater value for money and stronger leadership, as well as putting in place a more financially sustainable structure and delivering significant savings.

Will the Minister emphasise the importance of trying to achieve consensus, because there has been a lot of workplace bullying in Christchurch Council and we have seen, perhaps, elements of it in the Chamber this evening? Surely it is wrong that what may be a minority should be oppressed; surely it is important that minority views can be heard?

I thank my hon. Friend, and in making my comments this evening I have made it clear these proposals must be bottom-up, not top-down, and we will certainly listen to views.

In concluding, I assure my hon. Friend once again that we will look very carefully at any proposal Dorset may or may not come up with. Once we receive it, we will study it and speak to those local authorities and to colleagues, because we are absolutely sure that proposals being brought forward should be valuable, but we are also sure that we need to be certain that they are right for local people.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.