How will Babergh and Mid Suffolk councils cope with constitutional crisis?
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
Babergh and Mid Suffolk councils are facing their biggest crisis since they formed a joint administration 10 years ago - with both officers and senior members not knowing how it will pan out.
The immediate cause of the crisis is a controversial plan to increase the salary of senior officials for the joint administration - but that is just a sign of the tensions that exist both within and between the two political organisations.
After the 2019 local elections the Conservatives remained in leading positions of both authorities - but neither has a stable political leadership.
In Mid Suffolk the council is perfectly balanced and the Tories effectively remain in power thanks to the chair's casting vote.
In Babergh there is no majority and the Conservatives remain in power with the support of some independent councillors brought into the cabinet.
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The issue that has caused the flashpoint this time is the salary debate. This was due to be presented to both councils last week with a recommendation that they should approve a proposal to raise the salaries of senior officers.
However, Babergh councillors rebelled against the officers' recommendation and their own political leaders to reject the proposal - which led officers and councillors to accept they did not know what would happen if Mid Suffolk backed the rise.
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Babergh council leader John Ward said: "I really don't know what would happen then, that's unchartered territory. There's no way we can separate the organisation now.
"To be honest the merged administration was set up as the first step towards a full merger - it was never looked on as a permanent solution - but the merger never happened."
The administrative merger went ahead in 2011, but in a district-wide referendum voters in Babergh rejected a political union with the neighbouring authority.
Mid-Suffolk voters did back it, and between the two councils there was a majority in favour of it - but voters in both individual districts had to both back the move before it could be introduced.
A fresh merger attempt was effectively halted by Babergh councillors in 2018 and completely sunk when the Conservatives lost their overall majority in 2019.
But that does leave both officers and leading politicians scratching their heads about how the current situation can work in the long term.
After Babergh rejected the proposal to pay more to senior staff, it was removed from the agenda of Mid Suffolk council later in the week - if that had passed it as they were being advised to, it would have caused a huge constitutional crisis between the two councils.
It's not clear when, if ever, the proposal will return to a council agenda - which will not cause too many sleepless nights.
But this has left a very difficult question for councillors and officers: what happens the next time the councillors from the two nominally-separate authorities disagree fundamentally on an administrative issue like this? Can the one-administration/two-councils model really survive indefinitely?
The new Secretary of State for Local Government is Michael Gove. Could he resist getting involved if the councils force themselves into a stalemate?
In the end we could reach a situation where central government takes a hand and reforms local government in the heart of Suffolk whether the individual councillors like it or not!