Change is coming to the Dorset countryside

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Alongside the drama of urban Dorset’s council merger, complete with High Court challenges and competition for seats leading to heavy weight councillors in Poole and Bournemouth not being selected, a quieter, but no less seismic, shift in local government is taking place in rural Dorset.

In April 2019, the current district authorities of North Dorset, East Dorset, Purbeck, West Dorset and Weymouth & Portland, along with Dorset County Council, will merge and become Dorset Council. For three authorities, the shock might be limited. North Dorset, West Dorset and Weymouth & Portland were already working closely together in the Dorset Partnership, sharing an officialdom led by Chief Executive Matt Prosser. Mr Prosser has been selected as the new unitary authority’s Chief Executive, beating others such as Dorset County Council’s Debbie Ward in the process. So, in a way, Purbeck, East Dorset and Dorset County are joining the club, which has been successful in saving significant sums through having one shared workforce and delivering services more efficiently.

The new Dorset Council is expected to have similar benefits to the existing Dorset Partnership, but on a larger scale. Supporters say that it will save £108m over the first six years, protecting frontline services, reducing costs and achieving better value for money.

East Dorset may be the authority that sees the biggest change. Since 2010 they have invested in a service sharing arrangement with Christchurch which has seen them working increasingly closely together, even jointly preparing a Local Plan Review. This partnership is now being broken up – adding to Christchurch’s list of complaints with the reorganisation.

Like in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, there will be a massive reduction in the number of wards as well as numbers of elected members. Currently, there are 206 district, borough and county councillors representing 122 wards in ‘rural’ Dorset. Under the new authority this will be cut by 60% to 82 councillors who will represent 52 wards.

There will not be a change in political leadership on the new council, as all six authorities are Conservative led and represented by Conservative MPs (the same situation as in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole). However, who will lead the new Council is uncertain.

As with neighbouring ‘urban’ Dorset, councillors will be readying their bids for the top spot. Unlike their neighbours, rural Dorset has six existing leaders who may each fancy standing for the top job. Rebecca Knox, the current Dorset County Leader, Graham Carr-Jones, from North Dorset, Gary Suttle from Purbeck, Spencer Flower from East Dorset, Antony Alford from West Dorset and Jeff Cant from Weymouth & Portland may all be preparing to step up. Things could get messy, but contenders will first have to make sure they are selected to stand again, before getting re-elected in May next year.

Cratus is keeping an eye on the major shifts underway in Dorset’s local politics and how it may affect planning and development across the county. If you are interested in finding out more about what local government reorganisation could mean for you get in touch with Southampton office team on [email protected] or 023 8214 0916.

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