Candidates and party volunteers are busy pounding the pavements prior to the first elections to Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council (BCP) in May. But what prize are these candidates after? What opportunities does the new council offer for Dorset’s coastal conurbation? Ahead of ‘vesting day’ on 1 April, we thought we would find out from someone intimately involved in the process.
Bournemouth’s Cabinet Member for Local Government Reorganisation, Cllr Philip Broadhead, has been central to the creation of BCP. He also holds the Economic Growth portfolio and is excited about the transformative potential of the new council.
Starting with the clearest change, BCP will have the scale to bring in major funding and investment. On their own Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole are three separate, small to medium sized towns. Individually, these three councils have been easy to ignore. Combined, BCP will be larger than Portsmouth and Southampton combined, with a population almost the size of Bristol. Cllr Broadhead is confident that with this increased clout will come greater recognition and an ability to attract funding commensurate with BCP’s size.
A striking example of this is the Government’s Transforming Cities Fund – £1.2 billion of funding for infrastructure to be split between 12 cities. Bournemouth’s individual bid to the Fund was unsuccessful. However, a bid submitted on behalf of BCP succeeded, bringing with it more than £100 million of Government funding. As Cllr Broadhead says, this ‘local government reorganisation dividend’ is an immediate and significant benefit of BCP’s creation.
Infrastructure and Transport
In addition to attracting more infrastructure funding, BCP represents an opportunity for a better, more joined up approach to transport and other infrastructure planning. Currently the conurbation is covered by four different councils: two unitaries in the form of Bournemouth and Poole, one district (Christchurch) and one county council (Dorset). This creates silos, making it much harder to plan infrastructure across what is essentially one extended settlement. Under one roof BCP can become a ‘one-stop shop’ for transport and infrastructure planning.
As a more long-term goal, councillors are aiming to use BCP’s greater influence over transport in the area to hugely simplify how users pay for public transport across the conurbation. The vision is to create a unified public transport payment service for the entire area, similar to the seamless payment system users experience in London.
In an era of ever-decreasing funding for local government (Bournemouth has lost £80 million of funding over the last five years) and increasing demands on services, BCP represents a chance to review and update service provision, with clear potential for savings.
Councils in the conurbation have already been sharing some services in response to financial pressures. One visible example is Bournemouth and Poole’s beach cleaning operation, which previously used two tractors cleaning two swathes of beach arbitrarily separated at the councils’ border. Now there is one for the entire Poole-Bournemouth stretch. Under the new authority, there will be many more areas where improvements and savings can be made.
It will be important however not to disrupt the level of service provision residents currently enjoy. Councillors’ initial aim is to reach 2 April without any disruption to services. The next stage, beginning in the years following the Council’s formation, will be to work out exactly where services can be improved and made more efficient.
Development and Planning
One important service changing in year one of BCP is planning. Rather than having three separate ‘area’ committees, the constitution for BCP (passed by the Shadow Authority on 21 February) sets out that there will be only one committee. This Board will be responsible for considering only major or significantly contentious applications, with an enhanced scheme of delegation seeing more decisions being made by officers.
An associated opportunity will be the potential for more holistic planning decisions. As there will be one authority for the entire conurbation, councillors and officers will be able to consider applications with effects across the area – unlike before when each council operated its planning functions separately. A current example of this is the ongoing development of Bournemouth University’s Talbot Campus, which is actually within Poole Borough but clearly has impacts on the neighbouring Bournemouth ward of Talbot & Branksome Woods.
From its inception BCP will also need to start work immediately on a new Local Plan, which could be the catalyst to review and update outdated policies and bring in policies that would continue BCP’s growth. BCP’s Local Plan needs to be in place by 2024, so in the period between now and then existing policies (Poole have just passed their Local Plan) will stay in place.
BCP (and Dorset) will be the first place to go through such extensive local government reorganisation in 10 years. At the crest of a new wave of change in local government, eyes in council halls across the country and Westminster will be on BCP to see what they make of the wealth of opportunities now on offer.