Councils vote to start merger of Mid Suffolk and Babergh districts
- Credit: Archant
The merger of two Suffolk districts is now firmly back on track as members of the cabinets of Babergh and Mid Suffolk voted overwhelmingly to start a consultation period that could lead to a full link-up.
The two districts have worked closely together since 2011 and share an administration and chief executive – but a plan for a full merger in that year was rejected by voters in Babergh.
Now the cabinets of the two authorities, meeting together at their new offices in Endeavour House in Ipswich, have put the project back on the agenda – and this time there would be no need for a public vote after the government rules changed.
However several backbench councillors from both authorities said it would be necessary to put any merger back to the vote because otherwise it would be seen as undemocratic.
In his presentation at the start of the debate, council chief executive Arthur Charvonia said the merger was one of five options that had been drawn up – but it was the preferred option because it would save £1m a year and would improve the councils’ resilience.
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A strong single council would also have a larger presence in the county that would soon have single East Suffolk and West Suffolk authorities on either side of it.
Babergh council leader Jennie Jenkins said: “We are very much in listening mode. We want to hear what the public say – but this is a way forward.”
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Her opposite number at Mid Suffolk, Nick Gowrley emphasised that this debate was about starting a consultation period. The earliest a merged council could come into existence was 2019 and there were many processes that needed to be negotiated.
Babergh’s cabinet, which is made up of all Conservative councillors, voted unanimously to back the start of merger consultations while only Green Party councillor Andrew Stringer voted against the proposal among Mid Suffolk’s cabinet.
His Green party colleague Rachel Eburne said that with consultations already going on about the joint authorities’ local plan and Boundary Commission changes, people were being asked to take part in too many consultations.
But Babergh’s Margaret Maybury said the process had to be started: “Doing nothing is not an option for us.”
Politicians have their say on the decision:
Jennie Jenkins, Leader of Babergh District Council, said: “The possibility of creating a single council to cover both Babergh and Mid Suffolk would help us offer our residents better services and better value, but it is not a choice to be made lightly.
“That’s why we’re now going to look at exactly what it would mean, at every level, before making any decision, and why we need to get the broadest possible range of views.
“We’ll now start public engagement and we will be encouraging everyone in Babergh to get involved in designing the council our area needs and deserves for the future.”
Nick Gowrley, Leader of Mid Suffolk District Council, said: “A single council in the heart of Suffolk would mean thinking differently about how we as councillors can work even better for our residents.
“We can’t make a decision this big without all of the facts, and it’s now time to gather all those facts.
“We will also be going out to our communities as well, asking for the views of our residents before coming to any decision on the future of the council; and I hope everyone will get involved and take part.”
Opposition councillors did not welcome the start of the consultation process.
Green councillor Rachel Eburne said: “There seems to be no detailed business case to support this rushed proposal, the councils are struggling at present to meet existing demand surrounding development, yet another distraction at this time will not help”
Her colleague Andrew Stringer said. “ We wholeheartedly backed the proposed merger six years ago, but the public narrowly said no. To me that means no, it appears high-handed in the extreme to ignore that message”
“The economic case for this is thin. Projecting shortfalls on budgets when Mid Suffolk has run six figure underspends every year for seven years as well as £11m pounds in reserve, simply does not warrant the dissolving of these councils.”
Babergh Labour councillor Luke Cresswell added: “Babergh Conservative cabinet members talk about the need to ‘re-educate’ the electorate as if adult voters in their area are ignorant or stupid.
“It’s a ‘we know what’s best for you’ attitude which betrays an amazing arrogance and sense of superiority. The consultation they now plan is a complete sham and nothing more than an attempt to be seen as listening, whilst continuing along their chosen path regardless.”