Turmoil could lie ahead for Dorset’s local-level planning, experts have warned in the wake of confirmation that the county’s councils are to be merged into two unitary authorities.

Policy confusion and fewer staff are the main issues raised by stakeholders, who fear that the removal of district-level planning departments could lead to uncertainty and ‘rationalisation of staff’ - also known as redundancies.

Rebecca Horrocks, an associate at planning consultancy Barton Willmore, said that the decision to create two unitary authorities in Dorset - one covering the Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch conglomeration, the other the rest of the county - could cause major planning headaches.

“There will be short-term repercussions which could affect the delivery of housing and growth,” said Ms Horrocks.

“Many of the existing Dorset authorities are undertaking Local Plan reviews, few of which will be completed prior to this local government reorganisation. This could cause uncertainty for short- to medium-scale projects.”

A central planning department, based in Dorchester and with potentially fewer staff per capita, could also hurt the Weymouth business community, argued Claudia Moore of the Weymouth Business Improvement District (BID).

“If there are indeed going to be fewer planning officers, then this will surely have a detrimental effect on Weymouth and Portland and our town centre in particular,” said Ms Moore.

“They are already under-resourced as it is. It could mean fewer improvements enforced on owners who leave their premises in a state of disrepair. We are currently on the At-Risk Register with Historic England, and it would be a shame not to have the staff to work with them.

“I do, however, remain hopeful that we may benefit from the [reorganisation] and that by being ‘at the table’ we will be able to encourage investment in our area.”

The planning authorities set to be absorbed into the new authority comprise West Dorset, North Dorset, East Dorset and Purbeck district councils, as well as Weymouth & Portland Borough Council.

A spokesman for Purbeck District Council said: “Purbeck District Council is committed to completing the review of its Local Plan. The council plans to submit its Local Plan before it is replaced by the new unitary council in April 2019.

“The reorganisation of local government in Dorset is likely to result in fewer Local Plans in the longer term. The implications for the number of planning staff has yet to be assessed, but the savings in the business case for the creation of the two unitary councils were not based on the rationalisation of key frontline staff who provide essential services.”

The Dorset Councils Partnership - which is responsible for West Dorset, North Dorset and Weymouth & Portland - has been approached for comment.