Babergh/Mid Suffolk merger back on again as two councils plan link
Six years after residents of south Suffolk rejected proposals to merger Babergh council with neighbouring Mid Suffolk, council leaders are preparing a new bid to link the authorities.
The last merger proposal was put to voters in 2011. Voters in Mid Suffolk backed the link-up, but those in Babergh rejected the proposal, largely because of fears that council tax bills would rise.
However while there was no political merger – with separate councils representing voters in the two districts – a joint administration with a single chief executive was formed.
That administrative merger will be cemented next month when most officers move to new accommodation in Suffolk County Council’s Endeavour House headquarters in Ipswich.
Now it has emerged that senior councillors are preparing to try again to merge the political side of the council.
There was a group meeting of Babergh Council’s ruling Conservative group on Tuesday night which heard details about a possible merger that could be proposed to the Secretary of State for Local Government in 2019 with the first elections for the new joint council two years later – on the same day as the next county council elections.
Crucially current rules mean that the merger would not have to go to a new referendum.
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We understand several councillors are uneasy about reversing the decision taken by the referendum without going back to the voters either in a new referendum or making the issue the main question in the 2019 local elections although there was little dissent in the meeting.
There was no formal statement after the meeting because Conservative council leader Jennie Jenkins felt there were not enough councillors present to fully represent the views of her group – and a second meeting has been arranged to discuss the issue in early September.
Opposition Liberal Democrat councillor David Busby was not surprised that the Conservatives were making another attempt to merge the two councils.
He said: “They have said this was not on the agenda in the past, but it’s looked as if they are moving in that direction – I think its what opposition councillors had expected.”
Merger plans are expected to be discussed at Mid Suffolk soon – but that council has always been keener on the move than Babergh.
After the news of the talks emerged, the councils issued a statement about the issue:
“It is entirely correct and proper that in the context of Babergh & Mid Suffolk District Councils’ highly successful shared working arrangements over the last 5 years, which includes a fully integrated workforce and a Joint Chief Executive, we are of course considering all of our future options for even closer and more effective working. Our neighbouring districts in the East and West of Suffolk see strong merit in pursuing merger options and so it is prudent that we give similar serious consideration to this.
“At this time, both Mid Suffolk and Babergh District Council Administrations are currently beginning to debate and explore a number of options for the future of the two Authorities. Amongst these includes the dissolution of the two Authorities and the creation of one new single District Council. These discussions are at very early stages, and as such, a merger proposal may not emerge as a favoured option across both Districts.”
Nick Gowrley, Leader of Mid Suffolk District Council said:, “From a personal point of view, I see many benefits for residents across both Districts of bringing forward a proposal for the two councils to come together as one new Authority.
“The financial landscape is quite different for local authorities now and the challenges are more acute than they were at the time of the referendum in 2011. The case for pursuing such a proposal is even stronger now, and aligning this with the timing of the Boundary Commission Review changes taking effect in 2019 would be sensible. All of the options will of course have to be debated fully by my Group first though.”
“Similarly, as indicated, the Leader of Babergh District Council has not yet had the opportunity to include all of her Administration in such discussions and so it would not be right to assert support of any one option at this stage. The next Group meeting has been set for early September.”
Jennie Jenkins, Leader of Babergh District Council commented that, “It is important that all Councillors have a comprehensive debate before any options are pursued. I am also very clear that public engagement in this process is absolutely critical, and I wouldn’t endorse an option which didn’t fully take in to account the views of our residents or our wider stakeholders.“