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Suffolk councils put merger plans on hold until 2020

Two Suffolk district councils have put their merger plans on hold until a review of the local government structure has been carried out.

Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils have previously argued that the preferred option for the area is to dissolve the existing local authorities and replace them with a new single district council in the centre of Suffolk.

Public engagement during December 2017 and January this year showed “clear support” from residents, stakeholders and partners in the area, and a detailed business case is expected to be published shortly.

However, any new district council could not be created before May 2020 and the councils have said that it would be “illogical” to submit the draft business case for detailed consideration by their Overview and Scrutiny Committees and Councils or hold local poll in Babergh at this stage.

Meanwhile, the leader of Suffolk County Council has separately commissioned think tank ResPublica to conduct a review in the region. But Mid Suffolk District Council, alongside district and borough council leaders in Suffolk, have said that they do not support this work, claiming that they had no opportunity to assess, understand or inform the detailed specification for it.

“Given ResPublica’s previous published reports we do not believe that this can be an objective or independent review of Suffolk,” the councils said.

They have called for the review to be stopped immediately and be replaced with a joint review with the county council and wider public sector.

Nevertheless, the authorities accepted that the commissioning of the review is a “signal that the county council is keen to re-open the debate about unitary authorities in Suffolk.”

Creation of one or more unitary council in the county was discounted as the preferred option in October 2017 on the basis that it did not appear possible that it could be delivered in the foreseeable future – but Babergh and Mid Suffolk councils have maintained that they would support some form of unitary arrangements for Suffolk.

Cllr John Ward, leader of Babergh District Council, said: “I made two commitments to the residents and councillors of Babergh when I became Leader in January 2018. 

“These were that I would personally prefer to see some form of unitary arrangements be brought forward for Suffolk, but that in the absence of any viable unitary plans I see real merit in creating a single district council in the centre of Suffolk to replace Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils.”

He acknowledged that this is a big decision and that a recent move into new single headquarters, an electoral boundary review underway and Suffolk County Council’s change of position mean that it is not currently the right time to actively pursue a merger with Mid Suffolk District Council.

Cllr Nick Gowrley, leader of Mid Suffolk District Council, added: “We remain convinced that merging with Babergh, to cement our long-standing relationship, is the right thing to do and something that we could deliver.

“It would be good for our residents, would save tax payers money, and protect the services that residents value most.

“However one of the alternative options that we also favour is the creation of unitary councils. Whilst it makes sense for the district and borough councils in East and West Suffolk to complete their mergers which will come into effect from 2019, it would not be sensible for us to start the process of a merger given the county council's new willingness to consider other options.”

These announcements follow news from February that Sajid Javid was minded to approve a new ‘super council’ in Suffolk, essentially meaning two new single district authorities will be created called East Suffolk and West Suffolk.

Top image: whitemay

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