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The bizarre legal challenge that went against all advice

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

Following the failed High Court bid by Christchurch BC to challenge the government’s decision to reorganise local government in Dorset, eight of Dorset’s nine councils involved in plans to form two new unitary councils in the area said they were “delighted but unsurprised” by the judge’s ruling.

In a joint statement the councils said there was “respect” for Christchurch’s choice to challenge the decision but also noted that it had cost a “very significant amount of council taxpayers’ money” to do so.

“The High Court has rejected that challenge and we hope that all Christchurch borough councillors will now accept that judgement,” the councils’ statement added.

However, Christchurch leader David Flagg (Con) has already said the council is considering an appeal, pending a response from judge Sir Ross Cranston.

Cllr Flagg said: “We are disappointed by today’s judgment.”

Today’s ruling found that former housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid had acted legally in making his decision. Mr Javid had said the “Future Dorset” deal would produce “significant cost savings” - estimated at around £28m per year.

Why, then, should Christchurch’s leader feel disappointed when he had been warned for months that there was no legal basis for a challenge? Deputy leader Trish Jamieson (Con) said in March, following legal advice, that Mr Javid’s decision was “not challengeable”.

“Members should determine whether spending any further money on continued resistance to the changes proposed is in the best interests of taxpayers,” Cllr Jamieson said at the time.

Cllr Jamieson was responding to a letter from the council’s own barristers, which found “absolutely no arguable error of law, and thus any arguable cause of action” against Mr Javid’s decision.

In January, Cllr Flagg said his council rejected reorganisation because it wanted to retain sovereignty.

Two months later, however, and Cllr Flagg admitted that a legal challenge would incur “further and potentially significant costs”, seeming  “imprudent at best, irrational at worst”.

The ‘Awkward Squad’

Enter local MP and a leading member of the Tory Party’s “Awkward Squad” Sir Christopher Chope. Sir Christopher, who famously blocked a private members bill in June that would have made it illegal to take a photo up a woman’s skirt without her permission. is also unapologetically the only MP in support of Christchurch’s legal bill battle.

Sir Christopher told the Dorset Echo in June that he had been “instrumental” in securing the High Court case, which government lawyers said was “an absurd intention to impute to Parliament” and “constitutionally inappropriate”.

In a joint statement issued today by Bournemouth and Weymouth & Portland BCs, Dorset CC, Borough of Poole, and East Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, and West Dorset DCs, the councils said they are making “excellent progress towards creating two new councils” in Dorset.

“We are optimistic this matter is now behind us, and we can look forward to working together to create the best new local councils we can, to protect public services as much as possible, and to secure future growth and prosperity for our areas,” the councils said.

For the sake of residents, one can only hope that if Christchurch’s councillors agree to another legal challenge they will fund it out of their own pockets and not from the public purse.

By Robert Cusack, reporter

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