Article - Local Council Unification

As any regular reader of this column will know, I have written on several occasions over the past few years about the coming unification of the County Council and a set of District Councils, including our own West Dorset District Council into a single “unitary” council for rural Dorset. 

I am glad to say that this proposal, which at one time looked like a pleasing fantasy, is now very real. There have been many hurdles along the way, but they have now all been jumped, and we are on the finishing straight. This coming spring, we will all be able to vote in a new, Dorset-wide council. 

As I have previously said, this will offer huge opportunities to run things more efficiently and to get more value for the taxpayer’s £. 

As I have also said in an earlier column I have very considerable faith in the newly appointed Chief Executive, Matt Prosser. Mr Prosser has a done a formidable job of bringing together three district councils in our part of Dorset over the past few years, and I’m sure he will do an equally good job in this even more arduous role. 

But mergers of these kinds inevitably have unfortunate effects on some individuals whose jobs are amalgamated - so I think we should spare a thought for the outgoing Chief Executive of Dorset County Council, Debbie Ward. 

There has been criticism from some quarters about the redundancy payment that has been made to Mrs Ward - but I, at least, certainly don’t agree with those criticisms. In my experience, she has been a fine public servant who did a great deal to improve adult social services when she was responsible for that vital department of the County Council; and she went on to run the County Council with considerable aplomb. She then consciously put her own job at risk by energetically pushing forward the creation of the new unitary council for Dorset - simply because she thought that was the right thing to do. 

One really can’t ask more of people who go into the public services than that they should put the interest of the public above their own interest. This, she has done. She accordingly deserves our thanks rather than unjustified criticism. 

Perhaps Mrs Ward herself will take some slight comfort from the fact that these criticisms are part of a pattern, rather than being something aimed just at her. But I think that the rest of us should be even more worried about the pattern than about the particular, personal injustice - because we all have a lot to lose if it becomes established in the public mind that officials doing senior jobs in the public service should not be paid anything like what they could earn in other occupations. 

The truth is that jobs like being the Chief Executive of Dorset County Council are mind-numbingly difficult to do and make huge demands on the individuals who do them. If we want to continue to attract people of Mrs Ward’s calibre to do these jobs then we have to pay them properly. 

I am conscious as I write these words, that they will undoubtedly be unpopular. But I think it is important for those of us who hold elected positions to be willing to put up with unpopularity if that is the price of helping to lead public opinion in a direction that actually serves the public interest. 

If we don’t do this, one has to ask: who will?