Could an East Anglian “super council” be on the cards by bringing together Suffolk and Norfolk?

Suffolk County Council's headquarters, Endeavour House, Ipswich

Suffolk County Council's headquarters, Endeavour House, Ipswich - Credit: Archant

As talks begin over government plans for devolution to the regions, the possibility of bringing Suffolk and Norfolk County Councils together has been raised by Whitehall officials.

Council leaders from across the two counties are today meeting officials from the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership and Whitehall to re-think their bid for more powers after government officials told Suffolk that its proposals for a county-based expansion of services was “not ambitious enough.”

The government’s Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) is understood to believe that neither Suffolk (pop 730,000) nor Norfolk (pop 860,000) are large enough to be given extra powers – on issues like strategic planning, economic development, and health management – on their own.

However they have indicated that a joint bid could be successful.

If the bid is to be one of the first to be considered, and highlighted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer at this year’s Conservative Party conference in October, it will have to be submitted to the DCLG by the end of this week.

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The exact form of devolution that the government is looking for is very vague – which makes it very difficult for councillors or officials to draw up any plans.

But the Chancellor is known to keen to be able to unveil some proposals from shire counties as well as the well-heralded “Northern Powerhouse” of Greater Manchester at this year’s party conference – and the government is known to see Suffolk and Norfolk as a strong candidate.

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Little is clear in these discussions – but it is understood that one option being discussed is having a “combined administration” serving two separate political entities.

This is a similar relationship to that which exists between Mid Suffolk and Babergh and between St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath.

However they are all district or borough councils – and it has never before been attempted at county level, where departments are much more complex.

Another suggestion that has emerged is that a “super council” could replace the two counties’ political structures as well with a reduced number of strengthened district, borough, and city councils ensuring a greater degree of localism on issues like housing, waste collection, planning, leisure and local road maintenance.

This could see the creation of an east Suffolk district, a west Suffolk district, a greater Ipswich district and the re-emergence of the “Yartoft” proposal with a new council covering Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth.

In Norfolk there could be new councils for greater Norwich, North Norfolk, South Norfolk and Breckland, and West Norfolk and Kings Lynn.

Officially councillors, MPs, and senior officers from both local authorities and the LEP are being tight-lipped about the likely shape of devolution in the region.

Jennie Jenkins, chairman of the Suffolk Public Sector Leaders’ group, said: “The Suffolk devolution ‘bid’ was sent to Government on September 4.

“Over the next few weeks all eight participating Suffolk councils will be asked to support further discussions about it with ministers and civil servants.

“At the same time, we are also in talks with a number of other organisations, including neighbouring councils and other potential partners”.

County council leader Colin Noble said that while much of the emphasis on devolution had been on economic development and infrastructure projects, he was keen to bring in health issues and linking them with social care in the future.

But he insisted any devolution proposals would have to result in saving public money in the long-term.

He said: “I do not expect this to cost anything, in fact I expect the proposals to reduce the cost to the public purse – if that does not happen then there is no point in the exercise!”

Norfolk County Council leader George Nobbs said: “It is quite clear that the government is only interested in ambitious proposals that involve more than one authority.

“It is also clear to me that if we do not grasp the opportunity now, it will pass us by for many years and possibly forever.

“Those that embrace the government’s offer at this stage stand to be the winners and those that prevaricate will be the losers. I urge all my fellow leaders not to let this opportunity pass them by.”

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