Blog: 14 October 2019Collaboration key to success in new Dorset authorities

Luke Vallins

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Luke Vallins

Planning Associate

Southampton office

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Local government re-organisation is well underway in Dorset.

On 1 April 2019, the existing nine councils in the County were abolished and replaced with two new unitary authorities. Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) Council has superseded the areas formerly served by Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Councils, while Dorset Council has picked up the mantle from the former East Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, West Dorset, Weymouth & Portland and Dorset County Councils.

The first local elections for the unitary authorities were held on 2 May 2019, where Dorset Council became a Conservative administration, and after no single political party gained overall control of BCP Council, the ‘Unity Alliance’ was formed. The Alliance comprises a range of parties (excluding the Conservatives), with the Liberal Democrats being the most represented party.

As part of establishing the new authorities, both BCP and Dorset Council are required to adopt the first Local Plans for their areas by 2024. The latest timetables published by each authority make positive reading, with them both working towards adoption of their Local Plan some time ahead of this deadline. A comparison of the respective Local Plan timetables moving forward is as follows:

Stage

BCP Council

Dorset Council

Initial issues consultation

October 2019

 

Call for sites

October 2019

September 2019

Detailed issues and options consultation

Autumn/Winter 2020

September 2020

Publication

Autumn/Winter 2021

September 2021

Submission

Winter 2021

March 2022

Adoption

Winter 2022

Spring 2023

Six months on and despite the inevitable upheaval associated with the practical realities of local government re-organisation, the early stages involved in preparing each Local Plan have commenced. Dorset Council is undertaking a ‘call for sites’ exercise until 25 October 2019, while BCP Council is asking for initial views on the most important issues for the area, alongside undertaking a call for sites, until 18 November 2019.

It is welcomed that each authority’s timetable broadly align. This will hopefully allow the evidence base that informs each Local Plan to be prepared, or at the least considered, in unison. Will this assist each authority with fulfilling its requirements under the Duty to Co-operate when considering key constraints (i.e. green belt and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and the relationship of these to pressing cross-boundary issues, i.e. meeting housing (including unmet housing), employment, community and infrastructure needs, while conserving and enhancing the environment?

This underlines the importance of each authority – although preparing individual Local Plans within their respective boundaries – considering the wider spatial implications of their strategies. A joined-up spatial strategy that has regard to each other’s neighbour (while acknowledging that one is more urban and the other more rural) would likely contribute towards each authority delivering growth in an appropriate and effective manner. With this in mind, it will be important to ensure that neither authority runs too far ahead of the other, as this could undermine the benefits associated with joint-working and potentially lead to problems when attempting to justify the decisions that have been made.

This will inevitably be challenging. For example, in very basic terms, nine authorities, each with their own leadership, vision, priorities, needs and objectives has been reduced to two authorities. This requires the former authorities, including their local communities, to think and act differently to what they are used to. What was previously relevant to each authority in isolation now needs to be considered alongside the wider implications for each unitary authority as a whole – to strengthen the role of each conurbation in unity – although the value of the former individual authorities retaining their separate identities should not be understated.

Already difficult decisions could become even more difficult, principally due to the presence of a greater electorate to satisfy. However, this needs to be balanced against the planning jigsaw no longer being looked at in isolation, with each ‘piece’ being at the table, contributing local knowledge and expertise to achieve a common objective, which could result in a more efficient and co-ordinated strategy. A key part of this will involve unifying previously different and potentially competing interests and agendas to find common ground that will allow a shared vision to be agreed. How achievable is this? Political will is key, especially given the difference in political leadership in BCP and Dorset Councils, which includes achieving and maintaining political alignment on key cross-boundary matters.

Effective leadership, communication and collaboration will be key ingredients of success. It is promising that steps towards achieving this are in place, with BCP and Dorset Council’s approach to cross border working and strategic planning currently being revisited and the Statement of Common Ground prepared between the nine local planning authorities in Dorset in March 2019 due to be updated accordingly. How best can the way in which the new authorities work with each other – including the former authorities within each new unitary area – be subject to ongoing monitoring and review? Will this ensure that securing good growth and the most beneficial outcomes for the County remain the focus of attention and can be achieved?

Whilst challenging, exciting times lie ahead! It is hoped that local government re-organisation will provide the impetus for the new authorities to deliver positive, joined-up spatial strategies for the future development of the County. Ultimately, what will be key to their success is working together in a collaborative and mutually beneficial manner, which could set the standard for other authorities to aspire to across the country.

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Collaboration, Local Authorities, Spatial Strategy, Local Plan