Consultation on Unitary Authorities and the possible deferment of County Council elections

There is much talk about the creation of a unitary authority (or to be more precise, two unitary authorities) for Dorset. I am not against this. In many ways I can see the advantages, especially if bureaucracy is reduced and the residents of Dorset better understand who is responsible for what. My concern is with the supposed consultation – with the appearance of the public being consulted as to what they think about the changes, and especially about the move to defer the County Council elections due next May.

The consultation ‘road show’ arrived in Bridport on Wednesday 31st August – before notice of the roadshow appeared in the local press. Town councillors were only informed the day before. I did go manage to go along though, but discovered very little information other than the outline options Dorset’s councils want us to choose between. When I asked for details about how this will work in detail and at the local level, about what will be the role of Town and Parish Councils, I was told that this was only an outline proposal, and that the details will be added later. The trouble is that, according to their own timeline, there are only three months between the end of the consultation period and the date they plan to submit their business case to Government. The devil, they say, is in the detail. Is three months sufficient time to add the detail? If the detail is being worked on now, what does this presuppose about the consultation?

Of even more concern is the attempt to defer the County Council elections due to take place in May. The minutes of the meeting of the full Council for 21st July (Item 67) record that “Officers clarified that there may be insufficient information for a submission to be made to the Government to request a deferment of the elections planned in May 2017, by the time of the next meeting of the County Council on 10 November 2016. It would be for the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and a submission would be required by 30 November 2016.”

Despite this, the Council resolved (point 6) “That the County Council do not wish the elections to take place in 2017, as the Council wishes to pursue Local Government reform, subject to the results of the public consultation.”

I take this to mean that if the Council applies to the DCLG for a deferment of the May elections they need to do so before 30th November. However, if they do this they will be applying before the leaders of the nine councils meet to consider the responses to the public consultation (scheduled for December) and before Dorset’s councils agree on a final approach and submit a business case to the Government (scheduled for January). Making such an application strongly suggests that they have already decided on their response to the public consultation and have already agreed on the approach they want to submit to the Government.

Moreover, if the elections due for 4th May do not take place they will be cancelled before the regulations approving the councils’ business case are laid before / debated by Parliament, let alone approved. If this happens it strongly suggests that the Government has already made its decision! In other words, if the elections are deferred the only obvious explanation is that the public consultation is a complete sham, that the councils’ and the Government have already decided what will happen, and that the views of the public are irrelevant!


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