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Councils must take themselves seriously – after all, no-one else seems to care!

PUBLISHED: 05:34 09 November 2017 | UPDATED: 08:44 09 November 2017

Nick Gowrley , leader of Mid Suffolk District Council and Jennie Jenkins, leader of Babergh District Council - but will Babergh backbench opposition drive the two councils apart? Picture: ASHLEY RILEY

Nick Gowrley , leader of Mid Suffolk District Council and Jennie Jenkins, leader of Babergh District Council - but will Babergh backbench opposition drive the two councils apart? Picture: ASHLEY RILEY

Phebe Donovan

Suffolk’s local council landscape has been more or less the same for the last 43 years – but things are set to change in 2019.

Babergh Council chairman Peter BurgoyneBabergh Council chairman Peter Burgoyne

But how much they change is still up in the air, and frankly the behaviour of some councillors is making them look more like comedy caricatures than tribunes of the people.

One thing is clear. The Government in Westminster really isn’t interested in local authorities’ structures. They’ve got Brexit, sleaze, and the latest foreign affairs foul-up by Boris Johnson or Priti Patel to worry about.

They don’t want to hand over any money to local government and are quite happy for councils to merge if costs are cut – but Whitehall and Westminster has no further interest in reform.

In Suffolk, four of our local councils are well on the way to merging to form two super-councils in East Suffolk and West Suffolk.

The long-time Babergh District Council HQ in Corks Lane, Hadleigh, in 2010. Picture: Simon ParkerThe long-time Babergh District Council HQ in Corks Lane, Hadleigh, in 2010. Picture: Simon Parker

These mergers of Waveney and Suffolk Coastal and of St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath have been achieved reasonably painlessly and will provide a strong voice for the two sides of the county.

But what a mess is developing in the middle – thanks mainly to Babergh’s dysfunctional Conservative group that doesn’t appear to know the meaning of the word discipline!

Frankly, Babergh and Mid Suffolk councils are too small to operate as individual identities.

In the old days, when Whitehall channelled millions of pounds to them every year, they could go plodding on in the same way as they had always done and spending all their time worrying about whether Mrs Miggins could build an extension on her cottage or how much people should, or should not, have to pay to park.

Things have changed since then. And far too many councillors, especially in Babergh, seem to have failed to notice this.

To be fair, up the road in Mid Suffolk realism does seem to have won the day – and I get the feeling that many members of that council are getting fed up with South Suffolk shenanigans.

Part of the problem with Babergh is that until now everyone has tried to be so accommodating and conciliatory that no-one has been prepared to say anything that might upset the backwoodsmen, sorry backbenchers, who don’t seem to have a clue about the real situation facing local government.

From that point of view I’ve got a lot of time for council chairman Peter Burgoyne, who launched a broadside against many of his colleagues – telling them they needed to grow up and start behaving like a real political group.

He may well be facing a vote of no confidence for his comments – but in Mid Suffolk I understand he’s seen as something of a hero for making a point that the political leaders at Babergh have failed to put across.

Because, in Mid Suffolk, councillors are at their wits’ end. They accept that the current situation of one administration with two councils cannot continue indefinitely. It is inefficient, incomprehensible to most voters and was never really more than a stop-gap solution after the 2011 merger had to be abandoned.

Mid Suffolk’s Tory councillors accept the authority isn’t large enough to survive on its own and some have even spoken about looking for another alliance if Babergh councillors really do want to defy logic and plough a lone furrow.

The problem is, there’s nowhere else really for Mid Suffolk to go. Historically the east/west Suffolk boundary ran right through the district and it is as difficult to imagine Stradbroke and Claydon in West Suffolk as it is to imagine Woolpit and Walsham le Willows in East Suffolk.

The Government has made it clear it will not agree to councils trying to cut themselves in two to achieve a merger.

I even had one Mid Suffolk councillor suggesting merging with Ipswich council. Borough leader David Ellesmere squashed that idea firmly!

So Babergh’s troublesome Tories have left the future of two sevenths of Suffolk in a really difficult place. You can’t blame the opposition councillors at the district for the mess – it is the duty of the LibDem, Labour and Independent councillors to oppose what the council wants to do.

But for a large number of Tories to frustrate their own leadership’s attempts to modernise does look very counter-productive.

Then again, we are getting used to weak Tory administrations failing to keep troublesome members in order, whether in the local government offices or in Westminster!

Suffolk’s Tory MPs look set to vote together to support Theresa May in Wednesday night’s confidence vote on her leadership – but in Essex the picture is somewhat different.

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