Could new boundaries weaken Haverhill's position in Suffolk?
- Credit: Archant
Nearly three months ago proposals to radically change most parliamentary constituencies in Suffolk were published - and these have now led to fears one of its largest towns could effectively be "cut off" from the rest of the county.
And in both political and business circles there are growing concerns that the creation of a "cross-border" constituency linking Haverhill with Halstead in Essex could impact the integrity of the county.
Cross-county constituencies do exist in other parts of the country, but they are not common and there are fears this could weaken the structures that bind Suffolk together at the time when the county as a whole is bidding to be be part of a devolution trial.
At present there are seven MPs in Suffolk - but the county's population is growing faster than some other parts of the region. Therefore to even up the numbers of voters in each constituency a new seat needs to be created.
However the growth is not large enough to justify a whole new seat - so the Boundary Commission for England has recommended the creation of "Haverhill and Halstead".
That would cross the Suffolk/Essex border with about 60% of the population in Suffolk and 40% in Essex. Most of the Suffolk population would be in the Haverhill area although it would extend as far north as the A14 between Rougham and Barrow.
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If the proposal goes ahead the MP for the seat would have to work with both Suffolk and Essex county councils as well as West Suffolk and Braintree districts.
Haverhill is the fourth largest town in Suffolk with an official population of 27,000 - although including the villages just outside pushes this up to just over 4,000. But from both a political and business point of view it can sometimes feel rather detached from the rest of the county.
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The main links for the town are west - the A1307 to Cambridge is the main road link and many of its residents look to Cambridge for jobs and as the nearest metropolitan area.
Road links to the county town of Ipswich are very poor - the most direct 36-mile route via Sudbury takes 68 minutes and the fastest 44-mile route via Bury St Edmunds takes 62 minutes according to the AA.
Cambridge is 20 miles away and drivers can expect to complete the journey in 40 minutes - which has made it popular with commuters to a city which has a reputation for very high property prices.
But Haverhill is in Suffolk and is seen as vital for the county's economy. Despite fears that an MP split between Suffolk and Essex could weaken its links to this county, business groups are determined to maintain its identity.
Steve Elsom, chair of the local Chamber of Commerce, said: “Suffolk Chamber has many members in Haverhill and believes that the town has a great future ahead of it, not least thanks to the diversity and energy of its business base.
"We continue to work with others for upgrades to the infrastructure, not least the road network, in and around the town to ensure that it can take full advantage of its proximity to economic centres in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex.”
On a political level the idea of a split constituency has caused head-scratching as it prepares its bid to take part in the government's latest devolution trial which ministers have said has to be based on existing county boundaries.
Those involved with the bid are puzzled that the government is, on the one hand, saying it wants to strengthen counties' administrative identity while its Boundary Commission is going across county boundaries when drawing up new constituencies.
This is only the first draft of the proposed new constituencies, and there has already been an opportunity for people to comment. There had been calls for a cross-border constituency to link Suffolk with Norfolk rather than Essex - but it seems unlikely that will be accepted.
The Norfolk constituencies are far more "average" sized than some in Suffolk and Essex - and to start unpicking the proposals would require redrawing boundaries across three counties and 35 new constituencies.
However there is one huge question mark over this - the earliest the new boundaries could be introduced, so long as they are approved by MPs, is July 2023 in time for a May 2024 general election.
But if PM Boris Johnson wants to go to the country a year early, the election will be fought on the old boundaries and the process could have to start all over again.