All the councils in Dorset are discussing future options for local government in the county.

This has come about as a result of the Chancellor and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government calling on leaders of councils to come forward with proposals to meet the challenges councils are facing.

We look at the options being considered and what they might mean for the future of local government in Dorset.  

What's happened so far?

On September 17, leaders of Poole, Bournemouth, Christchurch and East Dorset councils announced they had been in talks over a new unitary council for their areas, including the services currently provided by Dorset County Council.

On October 12, a meeting took place involving all the leaders and chief executives of all nine councils in Dorset.

The issued this statement: “The Leaders of all nine Councils in Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole met to discuss options for the future of local government in the area. In doing so they agreed that they would work together to seek agreement on the future shape of local government in Poole, Bournemouth and Dorset.

All Leaders are committed to working in the best interests of residents and businesses in the long term and recognise the need to be pro-active in developing new solutions with the opportunity of devolution and the prospect of continuing austerity.

Until such time as decisions are made on this, all the Councils will continue with existing plans to deliver services and encourage economic growth.”

Why are they doing this?

Well, with continuing cuts to council funding, this is a move to ensure sustainable public services in the face of cost-cutting measures, the councils say.

A report to Christchurch council's scrutiny committee said by 2020 all revenue support grant funding (money from the government) will have ended.

This means the council will have to rely on council tax, business rates and other forms of income such as parking, in order to continue working.

The authorities are also taking advantage of the government encouraging local autonomy and potential devolved powers for local authorities.

What is being looked at?

There are three options on the table...

1 - Pan-Dorset unitary authority

This will include all nine councils in Dorset and if it proceeds would make it the third largest authority in England behind Birmingham and Leeds.

2 - Unitary council for South East Dorset

This is the 'super council' to include Bournemouth, Poole, Christchurch and East Dorset and parts of Dorset County Council

3 - No change

How are they going to decide what to do?

Firstly, the benefits need to be looked at - particularly whether any change will improve services for residents.

Other partnerships will also be looked at, including Dorset Police, schools, fire services, health services and Dorset Local Enterprise Partnership.

Universities and colleges could also be brought in.

Will this fit with the proposed combined authority in Dorset?

Firstly, the combined authority for Dorset is seen as a strategic level of government responsible for developing the economy and transport issues among others.

It is believed any revised structure to local government would work with the combined authority.

What if things stay the same?

This is one of the options being considered by the councils.

It will look at the uncertainty caused, costs of making change, and potential loss of identity.

However, it will weighed up against financial pressure and other opportunities.

Parish and town councils could see their roles enhanced to combat concerns over identity.

If Christchurch joins up with Bournemouth, Poole and East Dorset, what will happen to the rest of Dorset councils?

Well, if this was to happen, and a lot of people have already expressed concerns about this arrangement, a new structure would have to be put in place for the rest of Dorset.

Who is involved?

As well as all the nine councils, the Local Government Association will act as a 'critical friend' to councils as a group and individually.

The LGA has asked Local Partnerships to help out. They have recently helped on a similar study in Wales and have offered to do it free of charge so they can develop a scheme to help in other cases.

What are the key issues?

One of them will be the equalisation of council tax rates for the different areas and a timescale to deliver this.

All the councils say they recognise this is a huge challenge and the biggest project any council has been involved in.

When will the public get to have their say?

Talk has already been heard at various discussions across the councils, that the public need to have their say.

In the report to committees, officers say a public engagement and research exercise will take place in "due course".

This could include postal surveys, online questions and meetings.

A plan will be formed in the New Year.