BCP Council: a forced marriage
BCP Council has never been a happy authority, created in 2019 via a reluctant marriage between the three local authorities of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole. So much so, that many of the Christchurch Conservative councillors in situ at the time of the ‘merger’ stood for election to the new unitary body as Independents and have remained defiantly so ever since.
Pre-merger, all three local authorities were Conservative-controlled. But the two smaller authorities were fearful of their bigger brother: for Christchurch, which voted against the merger, it was fear of domination by high-spending, high council tax Bournemouth; for Poole it was also about domination, but in their case by what was forecast to be a pro-development, impregnable Conservative stronghold.
In fact, those first elections proved difficult for the Conservatives: favourites to emerge victorious, they ended up as the single largest party but were forced to concede control to a rainbow coalition of seven parties, headed by the Lib Dems and the Christchurch Independents (former Conservatives), none of whom would do business with the Conservatives. The results also confirmed significant wins for the Lib Dems in Poole and the Independents in Christchurch, strengthening the view that the Conservatives essentially represented Bournemouth.
But just like the real thing, a rainbow doesn’t last forever. The coalition was a) fractious, b) unwieldy (with tiny parties given important Cabinet seats to keep them on side) and c) had a tiny majority. And within a year, following the death of a coalition councillor, the Conservatives called for a vote of confidence, touting their strength and experience in a time of crisis. They lost that vote in June 2020 but were back for another attempt in September, following the loss of another coalition member, and this time they were successful.
Cllr Drew Mellor (Conservative) was elected leader in October 2020. Despite him pledging to work with all parties, none would join his administration. Since then, little has changed: geographic and political divisions are as strong now as they were then.
The Local Government Association (LGA) published a report in March 2023 into the workings of BCP Council and its progress towards integration. It was scathing, noting that the authority is ‘beset with difficulties’ which do not reflect well on its reputation. In a stinging rebuke, the LGA commented that ‘the council has continued to struggle to establish effective governance arrangements and the member to member, and sometimes member to officer relationships, leave much to be desired’. It went on to claim that reaching consensus among members ‘remains very difficult’.
The Conservative administration has struggled on, surviving: the defection of four Conservative councillors to form Poole Engage after they failed to be re-selected for the forthcoming elections; the scandal of two Conservative councillors turning up to vote while [allegedly] testing positive for Covid in order for the party to survive a vote of confidence; intervention by central government to prevent BCP from selling its beach huts to its own special purpose vehicle; funded largely by debt; near collapse of the Council’s finances as it attempted to fund its transformation programme; the introduction of emergency financial measures to stave off bankruptcy, including cuts to services, the sale of assets and a 5% council tax rise for 2023-24.
Valentine’s Day 2023 saw the resignation of Cllr Mellor as leader – he had attempted to limit the council tax increase by developing another revenue-raising scheme but the chief finance officer of BCP was having none of it. Rather, he urged councillors to set a balanced budget.
Election predictions are for a meltdown for BCP Conservatives this week, with a loss of as many as 19 seats. The rainbow coalition may be about to make a triumphant return but what most people will be wondering is whether it comes with a pot of gold.