Ipswich's solo bid sparks council wars

IPSWICH is on collision course with the rest of Suffolk after deciding to seek unitary status for the borough, breaking away from what it sees as the “stranglehold” of the rural-dominated county council.

By Graham Dines

IPSWICH is on collision course with the rest of Suffolk after deciding to seek unitary status for the borough, breaking away from what it sees as the “stranglehold” of the rural-dominated county council.

The borough council is to take up the challenge of Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly and will apply to become an all-purpose authority by the deadline of January.

However, the move has been branded “difficult to understand” by Suffolk County Council leader Jeremy Pembroke, who said the impact on the districts surround Ipswich had not been taken into account.


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They are bidding to scupper the proposal because of the impact on the rest of the county through the loss of the council tax revenue.

The Government will shortlist the councils which have applied for what is in effect a return to the county boroughs scrapped by the Conservatives in 1974 and ministers will decide whether the councils have the right mix of a big enough population and sufficient regional status.

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Ipswich has been working closely with three other authorities - Norwich, Oxford and Exeter - to work up a business case for the Government to consider.

A unitary Ipswich has the backing of all three major political parties on the borough council. Liz Harsant, the Conservative leader of Ipswich Borough Council, was elated at the Government's announcement.

“We have a strong case and want to cut duplication, waste and confusion. Many residents do not understand which council delivers various services under the current two-tier system,” she said.

“We also want to kill the myth that Ipswich is not big enough to become a unitary council. We are the fastest growing urban centre in the East of England and are bigger than many successful unitary councils.

“We are a major regional centre, play a key role in the Haven Gateway and Regional Cities East and can meet a lot of the Government's housing and jobs targets for Suffolk.

“Ipswich is in the stranglehold of Suffolk. The county does a marvellous job for the rural areas, but Ipswich does not get a fair crack of the whip.”

Mrs Harsant - whose husband Russell is the only Tory county councillor for Ipswich - stressed that one council for Ipswich would bring greater accountability. “Ipswich people should decide on Ipswich policies. Likewise, Ipswich people should not decide what happens in Lowestoft or Bury St Edmunds.”

She rejected the notion that setting up an Ipswich unitary would mean higher council tax and leave a burden on the remaining two-tier neighbours. There would be financial savings and a vibrant unitary Ipswich would bring more money in for the rest of Suffolk, she said.

A unitary Ipswich will, however, come at a price. The new council would have to appoint highly paid chief officers to be responsible for education, children and young people; social care and services for older people; consumer protection; and libraries and heritage.

The current Suffolk fire service, which is the responsibility of the county council, would become a stand-alone fire and rescue authority in recognition of its need to have members from both Suffolk and Ipswich.

The current headquarters of Suffolk's library service in Northgate Street, Ipswich, would become the responsibility of the new unitary authority, which would leave the county council needing to establish a new headquarters for lending and reference works.

And Suffolk's headquarters would no longer be within its administrative area. Endeavour House is located opposite the borough's Grafton House in Russell Road, although it is unlikely Suffolk would either want or could afford to up sticks and move to a new site outside Ipswich.

County council leader Jeremy Pembroke said Ipswich was the county town and the rest of Suffolk would find it strange that the borough wanted to go their own way which would lead to two chief education officers, two chief social services directors and other duplication.

“We want to see the business case Ipswich is putting forward. We can't support it without knowing the costs involved. And what has to be taken into consideration is the impact on and the implications for the districts bordering on to Ipswich.”

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