THE Government has responded to a legal challenge against the planned merger of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole councils.

Christchurch council sent a formal 'letter before action' to Communities Secretary James Brokenshire earlier this month, and he has now written to acknowledge receipt.

The contents of this letter have not been disclosed, but the Echo understands it is a robust defence of the Government's position after it approved the merger in March.

Councillor David Flagg, leader of Christchurch council, said: "We have received a response to our pre-application protocol letter.

"Our legal team is now considering the contents of the letter and once we receive their advice we will consider our position moving forward."

The basis of the legal challenge is thought to be that the government does not have the legislative authority to implement the plan to abolish all nine principal councils in Dorset and allow two unitaries to be created.

The structural change order – the legislation that will enact the reorganisation of councils – is set to be debated at committee in Parliament today, and Christchurch MP Sir Christopher Chope plans to represent the borough's case.

The merger plan was rejected by Christchurch council, and campaigners against the merger believe the non-binding referendum on the policy at the end of last year, which saw an overwhelming vote against the plan, adds considerable weight to their claim that it does not have the universal support the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has claimed.

The claim that it is 'beyond powers' was first raised by Sir Christopher last month.

The new councils are supposed to be in place by next May and two shadow authorities are on the verge of being set up.

Although the challenge will be made to the government, all the other councils, which eventually backed the merger, are legally considered an ‘interested parties’ in the matter.

It is understood that all of Dorset's councils are urgently seeking legal advice.

The legal situation is somewhat awkward at Christchurch and East Dorset where the two councils have the same chief executive, David McIntosh, and senior management team, since East Dorset is backing the merger.

Mr McIntosh has divided officers into two teams between the two councils in a bid to avoid any conflict of interest.