|Happy New Year
Our Chairman possesses a certain level of guile and cunning and has used that to once again evade our clutches and write an annual report. Masochists can find it at www.wcresidents.co.uk and click on “latest updates”
Proposed Marsh Lane School
The Marsh Lane Action Group succeeded in obtaining over 600 objections to the new school on pre-printed pro-forma sheets. This stirred our local MP Chris Chope to write to the Secretary of State requesting that the planning application be “called in”.
“Calling-in” refers to the power of the Secretary of State to remove decision making power on the planning application from DCC. When a planning application is “called-in”, there is a public inquiry chaired by a planning inspector, or lawyer, who will make a recommendation to the Secretary of State. He can accept the findings or alternatively choose to reject the recommendations if he wishes and take the final decision himself.
As the proposed school would be built on the Green Belt we believe this would have happened anyway without his intervention.
Sadly, the MP’s letter is not balanced. It does not mention the high number of residents in favour or the Facebook page set up by the parents who need a school for their children. He uses conjecture to support his own parochial views. He does not explore the potential impact of delay given the building pressure for reorganisation of Local Government or the effect upon our children and grandchildren.
The group representing the parents reacted by sending a letter of their own to our MP. You can read both letters at www.wcresidents.co.uk and click on “latest updates”
Meanwhile the school is still needed and the children continue to suffer
Proposed Merger with Bournemouth and Poole
Much has happened since our December newsletter!
More from Chris Chope MP
Not content with getting involved in the new school our MP decided to make his views on the proposed merger known. Here’s an extract of what he had to say:
I do not believe that a merger of Poole and Bournemouth with Christchurch and East Dorset could be viable in any circumstances. This is because such an option would necessitate slashing the income of the County Council substantially and undermining its finances at the very time that it is experiencing unprecedented pressure on its existing budget.
This is the “Dorset Rump” argument – see our November 2015 Newsletter. He fails to cite any evidence to support this presumably personal view or perhaps a diktat from on high?
Any change to structures or boundaries must clearly be in the best interests of the residents of Christchurch.
Yes, but what is “best interest”. Is it measured in terms of level of taxation, level and scope of services delivered, level of autonomy, etc.? These questions go to the heart of the matter and there are no easy answers. Platitudes are not very helpful.
If any change is proposed, it should not be implemented unless or until it is approved by the people of Christchurch. I say this, not least, because none of this agenda was discussed with the public either prior to the District Council elections or the General Election. The Conservative Party manifesto referred only to the possibility of devolving ‘far reaching powers over economic development, transport and social care to large cities which choose to have elected mayors’.
Yes, this is the “You do not have a mandate” argument – see our October 2015 Newsletter. We thank him for supporting us in what we see as an important point.
Meanwhile things were happening where the real power lies - in the Treasury
The pressure exerted by Central Government was racked up several notches. In November the Government published its Spending Review and Autumn Statement, indicating that the withdrawal of Rate Support Grant would be phased over four years, leaving all councils mainly funded by just council tax and business rates. DCC for example made a planning assumption that it would lose 30% of the grant over each of the next three years, and the remainder in year four.
However, the provisional financial settlement was announced mid-December and is quite shocking as far as DCC and CBC-EDDC are concerned. For CBC the Grant will fall by 56% to £310,000 in 2016-17 and reduce to zero in 2017-18. This effect when combined with changes to the amount retained by CBC of Business Rates puts CBC into a projected funding deficit in 2018-19. The same is true for EDDC.
DCC was already looking for additional savings to balance its books but now looks like losing 45% of the grant next year and the rest of it the following year. This would mean DCC (still £3 million adrift for 2015-16) would need to find an additional £7.4 million (on top of the £13m already planned) in order to balance its budget in 2016/17, and then more in 2017/18.
Central Government are thus reducing Support Grant to zero AND retaining a higher percentage of Business Rates. The total reductions handed out to DCC, CBC and EDDC are amongst the highest in the country: a squeeze indeed and services will be cut – rural buses are first on the agenda.
The CBC portion of Ordinary Council Tax is likely to rise by nearly 2% in April but the DCC portion could well be more than that - special provisions will apply to funding Adult Social Care. Clearly this will increase pressure to both (a) raise other income and (b) reduce levels of expenditure - by reorganising perhaps!
Certainly the pressure to reform has increased. It should also be noted that Central Government will have new reserve legislative powers once the Cities & Local Government Act comes into force to impose change should it choose to do so. Whilst it is saying it has no intention of doing that, such protestations are rightly being taken with a pinch of salt.
If You Can’t Take the Heat!
One of the original “Gang of Four” decided it was a bit hot in the kitchen. EDDC Leader Ian Monks threw in the towel and resigned as Leader and as a Councillor! With luck a new Leader will be in place shortly.
Following that EDDC Councillors voted NOT to support the fact-finding mission but rather to do nothing for a year. To remind you all 9 Councils are being asked to approve a proposal to explore 3 options (1) merging CBC with Bournemouth, East Dorset, and Poole leaving a rump of Dorset to possibly form their own Unitary Authority (2) merging all 9 councils in Dorset into a single Authority (3) doing nothing.
The national Local Government Association has been asked to assist in the process with another body called Local Partnerships. They have agreed to do the analytical work free of charge and to complete a high-level financial analysis by the end of March 2016. This skimpy analysis will supposedly provide an evidence base to inform political debate. It will not be a business case as most business people would understand that term.
This withdrawal by EDDC potentially throws a massive spanner in the works and in our opinion is not sensible. EDDC are going to elect a new leader during January. That leader will then have an option to suggest that EDDC reviews its position in the light of Government actions described above. If they fail to do that the project to explore options will be put in question. As it is the delay is most unwelcome. We must hope that EDDC sort themselves out quickly.
Elsewhere in Dorset
Other Councils have to come to grips with all of this. The Leader of Purbeck Council for example considered that the recommendation that only the three options set out above be examined did not go far enough and that further options should also be investigated to ensure that the “best option for Dorset” was chosen.
Additionally, he expressed his regret that the prospect of the establishment of unitary authorities had drawn focus away from the creation of a Combined Authority for Dorset and further consideration of devolution as proposed by the Government.
There’s support for those views in both CBC and EDDC – see for example letter to ACRA from Councillor Jones on the website www.wcresidents.co.uk and click on “latest changes”
What of ACRA
Mike Collard (SAMRA) and Jim Biggin (WCRA) had a productive meeting with CBC CEO David McIntosh. We must make it clear that no opinion expressed in this newsletter should be attributed to David who admirably stuck to giving us facts and resisted all our invitations to stray into conjecture.
It became clear that the initial "business case" is going to focus solely on financial data and is in our opinion not going to be particularly thorough. The intent appears to be to contrast the 3 stated options to hopefully highlight the so called "best" option so that a political path can be set and a more thorough plan developed. This appears to us to come close to "box ticking" in response to Government pressure. It could place some Councillors in a very difficult position when called upon to vote on the proposed way forward.
David M welcomed our offer of help in the future, said he would continue to keep us informed and hoped that we would continue to keep local residents abreast of developments. To that end Mike and Jim have contacted ACRA members and will be meeting with them with the objective of discussing a plan of action.
We at WCRA have formed a group of three local residents (retired business people with extensive experience) to review the “business case” as soon as it is placed in the public domain. If you have relevant experience and would be willing to help please get in touch.
What do you think?
A specific point that has been raised in the context of merging with Bournemouth and Poole is the difficulty in identifying what exactly local people mean when they talk of "loss of identity", "loss of control" and "loss of heritage". What do these phrases mean to you? What facilities and functions could be moved "away" whilst still retaining Christchurch's sense of identity? Are these things important to you? Please take a moment to tell us what you think.
Public Consultation – Dorset Police
Martyn Underhill, Dorset Police & Crime Commissioner, has launched a consultation to seek your views on whether to raise the Policing element of the Council Tax for 2016/17. The consultation can be found here.
Christchurch Relief Road
DCC, the Highway Authority which is responsible for our roads, has allocated funds to look into the possibilities of a Christchurch relief road. They have agreed to appoint consultants to undertake a Christchurch Relief Road Study. It is hoped that the results of the Feasibility Study will be available in April 2016.
DCC Cllr Margaret Phipps said: “We are delighted that the County Council has agreed to undertake this Study which will include identifying possible route options. The consultants will identify which option might fit in with the existing strategic road network; appraise the economic case and viability of a scheme; and take into account future housing and employment outlined in our Local Plan and for the wider conurbation.
I really do hope that this is the start to finding a robust solution to traffic congestion in Christchurch. A relief road is extremely important not only for our residents but for the future growth and development of our local economy.”
There is a concert is in aid of Prostate Cancer Awareness and PSA testing being held at Highcliffe Methodist Church, Highcliffe on Saturday the 23rd January 2016 at 7.30pm.