LETTER: ‘Merger by stealth' heralds less accountability
WHEN I wrote to the Blackmore Vale Magazine earlier this year to announce I was standing down from Dorset County Council, I raised a concern that is increasingly proving to be the case, namely the new structures being erected within and between our local councils.
Witness the goings on in Wimborne last week, where a 5,000-plus petition against removing professional paid staff from the Tourist Information Centre was ignored by East Dorset councillors.
Yet on 7th August a press release appeared on the councils' 'Dorset For You' website with an opening statement ‘The Christchurch and East Dorset Partnership is reviewing the way it provides tourism information now and in the future’. It included a statement by a senior manager employed by the partnership on behalf of the two districts. That partnership will apparently be closing the East Dorset council offices and thus concentrate things even further east, away from the rural areas of Cranborne Chase and the Stour Valley and Corfe Mullen areas.
Former East Dorset Council leader Councillor Anne Holland of Corfe Mullen rightly points out that any moves to amalgamate Poole, Bournemouth and Christchurch councils will have a knock-on effect on East Dorset. Actually Anne, it will go much further than that. North Dorset is already tied to its eastern neighbours via the three-way Stour Valley Partnership to manage money and other central services.
Buy One Dorset Cream Tea (1 large scone, clotted cream, jam and a pot of tea for 1) get one FREE. Why not try our delicious ginger & treacle scones with plum jam?
Terms: Offer available Thursdays and Fridays only. Please note that we are open 10am-4pm. Offer only available to each customer once throughout the period. Check our website for Christmas opening times
Contact: 01929 500509
Valid until: Friday, January 31 2014
Two things must also be borne in mind - Christchurch always grabs at Dorset Councils' coat-tails in order to resist the logical merger of its services with its giant urban neighbour. The creed in the pocket-sized Borough - having come into Dorset with Bournemouth from Hampshire as recently as 1973 - is 'anywhere but Bournemouth'. Secondly, the 'political gravity' created by this merging in Eastern Dorset is leaving North Dorset and Purbeck isolated, given that Weymouth and West Dorset have set up a similar Partnership for the West and South of Dorset.
Whither our local democracy? Christchurch for example has just two parts of its Borough with parish councils. At county hall their councillors had difficulty understanding the role of parishes and town councils. The vested interests will not surrender more real power to the parishes and towns to balance increasingly remoteness. 'Big Society' my backside! Pass down the power and some of the cash.
Moreover the lines of accountability become blurred in the public mind. Note the terms used in that press release on 7th August -" The.... Partnership is reviewing the way it provides tourism services.." Does that mean the councillors, or the managers, or both, or what? How can the ordinary person see through that fog, that smokescreen which can all too easily allow councillors to remain remote and less accountable. Folk already moan that things are out for consultation only after being decided in Dorchester, or in Whitehall, or now Christchurch - which so often seems true. But now we will need to know what cabinet councillors sent to negotiate with their neighbouring colleagues get up to, appointing extra committees and creating those new structures. Transparency and simplicity are critical in guaranteeing accountability and effective public scrutiny. It's getting worse than Brussels, perhaps? Cue Bill Woodhouse.
The streamlining of the councils towards a single rural Dorset authority would clarify things, and strength accountability. But discussion of that will be stymied by the two new power blocs, many of whose members also serve at county level. Purbeck and North Dorset will not be best served. Like I asked in April, what does Highcliffe have in common with Hazelbury?
So all in all, I'm glad I stood down from the county council.
Sturminster Newton town councillor