The former chairman of Dorset County Council and current Gillingham county councillor Andrew Cattaway says he fears that Dorset’s rural areas, including Gillingham and Shaftesbury, will continue to be Dorset’s ‘poor relations’ under plans for a new unitary authority structure set to be approved by Secretary of State Sajid Javid in January.
And in a bold move he is calling for Christchurch to become part of Rural Dorset under the unitary structure to ensure ensure the new authority does not get left behind in terms of funding.
Councillor Cattaway, who is also North Dorset district councillor for Motcombe and Bourton, says rural Dorset has historically been ‘starved of infrastructure investment funding’ and that the current way of dividing Dorset into Rural and Urban unitary authorities will simply ‘perpetuate’ that inequality.
Though he backs plans for a new unitary structure, he says that the proposals as they stand will leave the new Urban authority of Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch getting the ‘lion’s share’ of investment once the new system comes into place in April 2019.
‘Areas of rural Dorset such as Gillingham and Shaftesbury and surrounding villages will continue to be the poor relations,’ he told Gillingham & Shaftesbury News. ‘A lot of people here will recognise the fact that the roads are better around Bournemouth, there’s an airport down there and so on. The huge danger is that this will be perpetuated if this plan goes ahead.’
As an example of the disparities in Dorset the councillor points to the way the county’s Local Enterprise Partnership operates. This received around £75 million in government grants a few years ago. ‘How much of that has gone into North Dorset or West Dorset, in other words the future Rural Dorset? The answer is precious little,’ he says.
Councillor Cattaway’s solution is therefore for the Borough of Christchurch to be taken out of the proposed ‘Urban’ Dorset unitary authority and added to the proposed Rural Dorset area. Although Rural Dorset will be vastly larger than the Urban area in terms of area, under the current division its population will be more than 30,000 smaller. Switching Christchurch and its 48,000 residents to the rural authority would give the latter more clout when it comes to seeking funds and the new authority could become ‘Greater Dorset’.
Councillor Cattaway says it would also avoid Christchurch getting ‘sucked into’ the Bournemouth area and would allow the borough to retain many of the traditions it values. Christchurch has already said it does not want to be part of the new Bournemouth-dominated Urban authority and the borough is launching an unofficial postal referendum ahead of the 8 January deadline when Mr Javid has said he will make his final decision.
But Councillor Cattaway says the best solution for the borough and Rural Dorset would be for Christchurch to stay in Dorset.
‘Rural Dorset needs Christchurch,’ he says. ‘If not there is a danger of Rural Dorset quickly becoming “Rump Dorset” and remaining the poor relations and lacking infrastructure investment while the conurbation gets the lion’s share of the funding. The geographic reality is that Christchurch is not part of that conurbation, it is the rural end of East Dorset.’
Councillor Cattaway says he will be making a formal response to the Secretary of State as part of the consultation period following Mr Javid’s decision last month that he was ‘minded’ to agree to the unitary authority structure as currently constituted. ‘I shall be putting my case as strongly as I can.’
He says he is hopeful that even at this stage Christchurch could be added to Rural Dorset given the strength of feeling in that town. ‘The deepest feeling in Christchurch is Greater Bournemouth – no!’
Councillor Cattaway says though he has argued privately for this change, he felt that while he was chairman of the county council – he stood down in May – it would have been ‘inappropriate’ to have spoken publicly against the party and partnership line. ‘I now feel that I am in a position to stress what I have in private been arguing for the last two years,’ he said.
His views have already received support from other senior Conservatives. North Dorset district councillor Mike Gould from Gillingham said it was ‘vital’ that Rural Dorset did not get left behind in terms of infrastructure investment and that adding Christchurch would be a positive move.
However, a spokesman for North Dorset District Council, part of the Future Dorset partnership of councils that backs the current plan, said while adding Christchurch to Rural Dorset had been one of the options that was consulted upon but it was not the favoured one. ‘We still feel that the current proposal is the strongest proposal,’ he said.