SPECULATION is today mounting that a second Conservative government could look again at unitary government in 2015.

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Finance would be key

THE issue of finance is expected to be key to the Government’s thinking on whether to press ahead with restructuring local government.

And it may be that ministers feel that at this time the issue does not add up.

When restructuring was last considered in 2008, Suffolk County Council argued the case of creating a single authority – claiming it would result in savings of £90million over five years after paying for the cost of the change.

However, the squeeze on local authorities has been much tighter than that since the coalition came to power in Westminster – many of those savings have been achieved in other ways.

Key to this has been the merging of services between district and borough councils.

Waveney and Suffolk Coastal, Mid Suffolk and Babergh, and St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath have all largely merged their administrations – and all these councils now share chief executives.

That means that instead of seven district and borough administrations there are now effectively four – only Ipswich retains its independence and even it shares some services, like revenue collection and building control, with other districts.

Council chiefs have pointed out that even if there were unitary councils, there would still need to be managers responsible for services like housing, planning, waste collection and leisure services and that therefore savings might not be that great.

And that could mean a new attempt to shake up Suffolk’s councils – which have remained unaltered despite two attempts at reform in the late 1990s and again 10 years later.

Now after years of council cuts and attempts to streamline bureaucracy – which have seen districts and boroughs sharing officers and merging departments – speculation is growing that a new government could look again at the structure of local government.

In Suffolk this could lead to a major change with three main options likely to be considered:

1) One council for Suffolk – effectively the existing county council taking over the functions currently undertaken by district and borough councils. This is the option that was introduced in Cornwall four years ago.

2) Two councils for Suffolk – a unitary “Greater Ipswich” including communities like Kesgrave, Pinewood, Rushmere, and Martlesham, and a single council running services throughout the rest of the county. This is similar to the structure introduced in Wiltshire in 2009.

3) Three councils for Suffolk – a Greater Ipswich and two rural councils, East and West Suffolk, running services elsewhere in the county.

While there have been no firm proposals brought forward for this change at present, it is understood that some Conservative back-office staff are looking at the question again.

However, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles is understood to be unconvinced – believing that councils should concentrate on making themselves more efficient rather than preparing for major structural change.

However, the promise of long-term savings could be attractive to other politicians looking for a more radical overhaul of local government.

If there were to be changes, politicians in Ipswich would be keen to ensure the town has its own authority – but the prospects of joining “Greater Ipswich” would not go down well in those communities on the edge of town where residents would be concerned at the prospect of their council tax bills increasing.

There could also be political pressures – traditionally Ipswich has more often than not elected Labour councils, but expanding the town’s boundaries and bringing in more prosperous private estates could change the political balance.

There is, however, no prospect of the town getting unitary status with its current boundaries – a population of 134,000 would not be seen as large enough by the government, although a “Greater Ipswich” with a population of 170,000-180,000 could be viable. If there were a “two council” solution there would still be significant geographical challenges for the rural authority – it is about 70 miles from Lowestoft to Haverhill and the roads are not very good!

Having a single authority running all services in Suffolk would be the most financially efficient system – but it would be seen by many as being the least satisfactory from a democratic point of view.

Ipswich has a very different character from the rest of Suffolk, and people in the town could soon feel that their concerns are being overlooked by rural councillors if the town did not have its own authority.

The only county where a single authority runs all its services is Cornwall – and that has no towns or cities with a population greater than 22,000 (about the size of Stowmarket).

Splitting the county between east and west with a separate Greater Ipswich unitary council would in a sense restore the position that existed before 1974 – without the rural districts.

It would restore Bury St Edmunds’ position as the county town of West Suffolk which would be welcomed there – but creating three local authorities would not create the kind of economies of scale that would be seen from a more radical overhaul.

From a financial point of view, any savings would be much smaller – and would take many more years to come through.

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