Christchurch BC is to hold a £50,000 postal referendum on local government reorganisation, despite being warned this will involve potentially unlawful spending.
Councillors voted 13-9 to ballot residents on whether Christchurch should join Bournemouth and Poole BCs in a new unitary. Another unitary would be formed for the remainder of Dorset. The proposals are currently with communities secretary Sajid Javid who will decide whether they can proceed.
This came in the face of warnings from chief finance officer Ian Milner that he was “of the opinion that incurring expenditure…is not a good use of public money and would request that council do not proceed with the recommendation to undertake such a referendum”.
He said holding the referendum would “directly conflict with the fiduciary responsibility of this council to safeguard the use of public money”.
Mr Milner explained that since the poll would be held only in Christchurch it would “carry little weight” with Mr Javid when he decided whether to allow the two unitary model to proceed, particularly as Christchurch residents had already participated in a Dorset-wide public consultation, which supported the reorganisation plan.
He warned councillors: “This expenditure could be challenged by a local elector…whereby the external auditor could be requested to consider whether the expenditure was reasonable and therefore lawful”, which in turn could lead to qualification of the council’s accounts.
Acting leader David Flagg (Con) said: “Holding a referendum will allow us to find out if residents are for or against being part of a unitary authority with Bournemouth and Poole and once we have this information we can decide the best way forward. Although not legally binding, the result of the referendum could be incorporated within representation to the secretary of state.”
East Dorset and Purbeck DCs have also opposed reorganisation.