Suffolk council leaders still hopeful on merger – but not until early 2020s

Babergh council leader John Ward with his opposite number from Mid Suffolk, Nick Gowrley. Picture: P

Babergh council leader John Ward with his opposite number from Mid Suffolk, Nick Gowrley. Picture: PAUL GEATER - Credit: Archant

Leaders of Babergh and Mid Suffolk councils still think that a merger of the two authorities could be on the cards – but it won’t happen until 2020 or 2021 at the earliest.

The initial public consultation on the possibility of a merger between the two authorities is due to end on Monday. That includes an online survey and a public opinion survey organised by pollsters Comres.

Mid Suffolk leader Nick Gowrley said this was not a survey on whether the councils should merge at this point – it was just “taking the temperature” about whether people were prepared to consider it.

If they feel there is a desire to go ahead with more discussions on merger, a business case for the merger will be drawn up in the spring – and if that shows there would be clear benefits there would then be a referendum in Babergh.

Newly-elected Babergh leader John Ward felt that although the merger proposal had caused something of split among councillors in his authority, it was not a foregone conclusion that it would be rejected by voters.

He said: “If the business case stacks up and it goes to a referendum, I think people will consider it very carefully. I’ve had a lot of people coming up to me saying ‘just get on with it,’ or ‘I thought you were merged already.’

“I know there are some vocal opponents – but there is more than one side to this argument.”

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That was backed up by Mr Gowrley. Mid Suffolk voted in favour of merger when a referendum was held in 2011 – and he was also hearing that voters wanted the councils to follow up their administrative merger with a political union.

They agreed there would not be enough time to get the referendum held, government approval, and the two existing councils dissolved in time for a new authority to be elected at the next round of local elections in 2019.

But if the plan does win public backing, it would be possible to complete the merger the following year or in 2021.

The timing of a referendum in Babergh still has to be agreed – its organisation could only be planned after the publication of the business case.

But Mr Gowrley remained confident: “When all the information comes back I think a merger will be backed – I still say ‘when we merge,’ not ‘if we merge the councils.’”

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