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Why Sajid Javid's decision on Dorset has limited significance

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

On a stretch of southern Britain lies the Jurassic Coast where landscapes, cliffs, fossils, and beaches provide an insight into the world dating back about 185 million years.

Much of that prehistoric life as we know it is extinct now, of course, but another struggle for survival continues on the south coast.

Yesterday, the communities secretary announced he was “minded to” approve proposals to abolish Dorset’s nine councils and replace them with two new unitaries and also expressed support for a merger bid from Suffolk Coastal and Waveney DCs.

The decision has been a long time coming – nine months since the bid was officially submitted and many more since the concept was conceived. But the fact it has come at all seems, on the face of it, significant.

Simon Edwards, director of the County Councils Network, said the decision on Dorset signalled “a new direction in government policy”.

It certainly didn’t take long for rumblings about reorganisation to re-emerge in other parts of the country – the Eastern Daily Press carries a report today in which Norfolk CC’s leader Cliff Jordan (Con) advocates a unitary authority with five ‘hubs or pods’ dotted around the county to deliver services.

The BBC’s political editor in the south Peter Henley reported Portsmouth City Council’s leader Donna Jones (Con) was “delighted” with Mr Javid’s decision on Dorset as she believes it sets a precedent for other areas where some object to reorganisation. Cllr Jones presumably had neighbouring Hampshire in mind where the county and its districts have competing visions about the future structure of local government for the area.

But Local Government Association chair Lord Porter (Con) told LGC before the general election that Theresa May would need a Commons majority of at least 50 seats to get any reorganisation proposals approved.

That obviously did not happen and, as such, much of the noise surrounding this policy went quiet in the following months. Until last week, that is, when LGC heard rumours an announcement on Dorset was due.

That in itself was a bit of a shock, but even more so given the fact the Future Dorset proposal does not have universal local support.

LGC has learned next steps are being considered by opponents East Dorset and Purbeck DCs, and Christchurch BC where local Conservative MP Christopher Chope has regularly voiced his opposition to the proposals in Parliament.

Indeed, LGC reported in June that an intervention by Mr Chope was said to have led to the government delaying a decision on the Future Dorset proposal.

As Mr Javid’s decision is still subject to consultation until 8 January and then parliamentary approval, the proposals’ main proponents might be wise to hold off from celebrating just yet.

After all, the parliamentary arithmetic has hardly got any easier and, thanks to a multitude of recent events, there’s speculation the Conservatives’ ‘majority’ might only get smaller. With the prime minister needing all of the support she can muster at the moment that provides plenty of scope for Mr Chope and chums (should there be any) to kick up a bit of a fuss and make life (even more) difficult for Ms May should they think it will help their cause.

There’s a lot of water still to pass along the Jurassic Coast before this comes to a conclusion, while it is perhaps telling that Mr Javid has not yet managed to find time to decide on reorganisation proposals in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire where there is even less consensus between local leaders and MPs about the best way forward.

As such Adam Lent, director of the New Local Government Network, told LGC Mr Javid’s decision on Dorset will only have a “limited” impact in the wider context, largely due to how “difficult and fraught” the process can be.

Even then all of the effort might not be worth it. He said: “Reorganisation can be important but it’s not a panacea to the challenges local government faces…

“We get obsessed in local government with structures when it’s the culture and values [of a council] that can deliver as much change.”

While it is encouraging the communities secretary has shown himself prepared to take a difficult decision, it remains to be seen whether he will will have the back-up required to get it through Parliament. Other proposals may yet remain in the long grass.

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