On the rocks: the BCP disaster movie blunders on

In a previous article on these pages, Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council (BCP) was likened to a shopping trolley, smashing from one side of the aisle to the other. Based on recent events, it looks like we’re gonna need a bigger metaphor.

Yes, the south-coast disaster movie continues to amaze and astound. Even the council’s flagship plans seem to be hitting the rocks – and BCP residents have witnessed a pile-up of policy breakdown in the last week alone.

First up, the BCP Local Plan. This project is supposed to unify the planning policies of the three towns, and thrust the region into a bright new future. To support this, a residents’ consultation survey was launched by BCP early this year. But the survey attracted criticism from the start, after BCP provided a gargantuan online form which needed 10 hours and a course of painkilling injections to complete. Under pressure from a residents’ petition, BCP extended the survey period and allowed non-form responses.

For months, BCP leaders refused to give any details about those responses, despite repeated questions from the Bournemouth Echo, and even Freedom of Information requests from the public. But then, very quietly, a Cabinet information pack was published on BCP’s website.

A scroll through the Cabinet paper suggests why Conservative BCP leaders Drew Mellor and Phil Broadhead might have been reticent. From a population of 400,000, only 831 people managed to submit an online survey. The vast majority of residents who began a survey, gave up trying – this damning analysis from a leading BCP commentator explains more.

The public feedback wouldn’t have improved their mood. The item that attracted most criticism was the leadership’s own vision statement (“We aim for Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole to be the UK’s newest city region”). This must have been awkward for deputy Broadhead, the man most associated with the ‘City Region’ project. Next year’s voters may not agree with him.

Perhaps this explains the other Local Plan bombshell. As predicted here, the whole scheme is now severely delayed. What was a two-year project just a few months ago, is now a three-year project, with a new end date of December 2024. And the first draft of the future Local Plan won’t be released until after the 2023 local elections. Perhaps Cllrs Mellor and Broadhead are more scared of those voters than we thought.

They have more reason to fear voters in Christchurch after last week’s movement on biodiversity. First, deputy Broadhead loudly announced the launch of a Biodiversity Net Gain policy, which targets a biodiversity uplift across the region. But this was quickly followed by news that BCP leaders had crushed attempts in the Christchurch ward of Highcliffe to protect its most cherished biodiversity sites. Most of them are protected from destruction by local policy (such as Jesmond Wood, the subject of recent controversy), and Highcliffe parish councillors had intended to grant them continuing protection into the future. But now, following BCP’s intervention, this will not happen. Twenty sites are affected in all.

With three other Christchurch parishes planning to follow in Highcliffe’s footsteps, the coming year could be fractious. Conservative BCP leaders have already been publicly accused of bias in the way they deal with planning and environmental issues. So, is the new Net Gain policy just greenwashing? Time will tell.

But the biggest story of all came this weekend. Oh, where to begin …

At the start of 2022, BCP leaders announced a ‘non-traditional’ plan to raise £50m by selling the council’s 3,600 beach huts to itself. Council leader Mellor praised the plan’s financial report from audit partners KPMG, calling it “a massively in-depth piece of work”. He was so confident about this report that he refused to share it with opposition councillors, scrutiny committee members or the public. Six months later, with the mythical KPMG report still not released, a council vote on the plan was shelved until the autumn.

Of course, in BCP politics, there’s always a twist. On Sunday the UK government made a brutal intervention, in a story first scooped by the Daily Telegraph. The Levelling-Up Secretary announced that he was outlawing this exact type of fund-raising arrangement, describing it as “a loophole”. With tacit reference to Mellor’s beach hut plan, minister Greg Clark released a letter to all English councils, stating:

“It’s not right that some councils have attempted to abuse a loophole to do dodgy deals which only benefit the bottom lines of consultancies and accounting firms.”

Local MP Chris Chope went even further, revealing that Government ministers had been “strongly advising the council not to do this” for some time, but BCP’s stance had forced their hand. And so, just two weeks after deputy Phil Broadhead had himself photographed in Westminster with Secretary Greg Clark, the same minister trashed this ‘dodgy deal’ in the most humiliating way.

Where does this leave Broadhead and council leader Mellor? The beach hut sale was intended to fund BCP’s city-vision transformation plans – a vision that no-one asked for. But they have neither the money nor the public support. So, will they take stock of the situation? Or will they double down and labour on, loading BCP with more debt? Mellor’s Conservatives recently permitted themselves to treble BCP’s debt ceiling to £1.3bn, and there are fears among opposition councillors that they intend to use it.

Whatever happens, it won’t be plain sailing. Which brings us neatly back to the question of which metaphor to use. Is a shopping trolley enough? A rollercoaster? No, on second thoughts, the Jaws analogy may be just perfect.

This looks like a sinking ship.