On 1 April 2019, there will be many failed attempts to write funny April fool stories in the morning papers, and the map of English local government will change for the first time in a decade. In Dorset, Suffolk and Somerset, and probably Buckinghamshire, new merged councils will take over.
Successive governments of both parties have wanted larger, unitary local councils, but failed to deliver it – generally by attempting to change the whole country at once, allowing wide opposition. That did for the Redcliffe-Maud proposals, commissioned by Wilson but scrapped by Heath who did something more modest. In the 1990s Michael Heseltine got Sir John Banham in, but local opposition meant he ended up recreating County Boroughs.
Since then governments have had more success by picking off one area at a time, in areas where locals have suggested change. The most recent changes in 2009 saw Cornwall, Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire become unitary counties, while Bedfordshire and Cheshire formed two unitaries.
Biggest of the changes next year will be in Dorset, involving the first time that unitary councils created in the 1990s have been altered. Bournemouth and Poole, which became unitary in 1997, will merge with Christchurch; the remaining five districts will form a Dorset unitary council. Local consultation found this to be most popular, but Christchurch remains opposed: a referendum in December had an 84% vote against, and the borough council failed in a last ditch judicial review.
A decision is imminent on Buckinghamshire, where there is less consensus. The district councils want two unitary councils (north and south), while Bucks county council thinks there should be a county unitary. In March, then Secretary of State Sajid Javid was minded to go with the county; one last round of consultation finished in May.
There are also three mergers of districts. Taunton Deane has agreed to merge with West Somerset, England’s smallest population district which has accepted it is not financially viable. In Suffolk, Forest Heath (Newmarket and Mildenhall) merges with St Edmundsbury (Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill) to make West Suffolk; Suffolk Coastal merges with Waveney (Lowestoft) to make East Suffolk. In each case the upper tier county council remains.
For people trying to get permission for developments, there are advantages in dealing with a unitary council or larger district. You are likely to deal with a larger team of planning officers who have more experience. It avoids county-district disputes over transport impact, or section 106 contributions to education. It may also mean a scheme with intense local opposition is decided by councillors elected from areas many miles away.
It is not unalloyed good news. Merging councils is often seen as a way to get rid of housebuilding allocation and shift all the housing target into one area. Merged councils inherit planning policies from previous districts until their own is ready, but some new unitaries take their eye off the ball: Cheshire East went several years without a plan as previous ones expired long before a replacement was ready, and local opinion has little confidence in the council as a result. Central Bedfordshire has submitted a plan opposed by a majority of consultees.
Before 1986, everywhere in England had two tier councils. After 2019 only about 38% of the population will. That proportion is only going to fall further, as central government turns its attention to the next county.