One Suffolk could scupper Ipswich hopes

IT would become the third largest unitary authority in England. However Political Editor Graham Dines wonders if One Suffolk is what the Government really wants as it shakes-up local government in the county.

Graham Dines

IT would become the third largest unitary authority in England. However Political Editor Graham Dines wonders if One Suffolk is what the Government really wants as it shakes-up local government in the county.

NOTHING in British local government is ever easy. That's why we have two types of all-purpose council with virtually parallel functions and powers - unitary councils and metropolitan authorities.

In the list of councils by population size, Suffolk county is ranked 16th biggest council. It is dwarfed by the Greater London Authority, Kent county, Essex county, Hampshire county, Lancashire county, Surrey county, Birmingham metropolitan, Hertfordshire county, Staffordshire county, Norfolk county, Northamptonshire county, Nottinghamshire county, West Sussex county, Derbyshire county, Leeds metropolitan and Devon county councils.

Local government functions in Suffolk are currently divided between the county council and the seven districts of Ipswich, Forest Heath, St Edmundsbury, Babergh, Suffolk Coastal, Mid Suffolk and Waveney. Strategic powers are the domain of the county with local services provided by the districts.

But if the Conservatives on the county council get their way, Suffolk would become a unitary county to make it the third biggest all-purpose authority in population terms behind Birmingham and Leeds.

Most Read

The county's plan, which is to be lodged with the independent Boundary Committee for England this week, is the council's response to the Government's proposals to work up “unitary solutions” for the way local government is administered in Suffolk.

However the Government, which blocked Ipswich's bid to become an independent unitary, is known to favour urban population centres having control over their own destinies instead of being administered by counties dominated by rural areas.

To county council leader Jeremy Pembroke, his One Suffolk makes eminent sense. “The unitary debate is a distraction and one which I would rather not have. The county and its districts work well.

“But I am under no illusion that within two years, Suffolk county council will no longer exist. It will be replaced by a unitary system and I believe that the most cost effective way to deliver that would be the creation of just one authority for the whole of Suffolk.

“It would save fragmentation. Transitional costs would be zero. A Suffolk unitary would be sustainable and would serve the people of the whole of the county - and the vast majority do not care who provides their services as long as they are efficient and reliable.”

If that's the case, why didn't he propose such a solution when the Government started the unitary bidding war two years' ago? Ipswich sought to break away and be given such powers, but Suffolk and the other six districts opted for the status quo with a money-saving “pathfinder” grouping to cut costs.

Both bids were rejected at the last minute when the Government asked the Boundary Committee to work up unitary proposals for Suffolk, Norfolk, and Devon to go-alongside newly created all-purpose counties in Northumberland, Durham, Wiltshire, Shropshire and Cornwall.

“We believed the pathfinder proposals were workable and cost effective,” says Mr Pembroke. “But we are now in a different ball game and a unitary county will be a golden opportunity to start with a clean sheet of paper and invent a better system of local government for our county.”

The Pembroke plan includes neighbourhood empowerment, with executive councillors chairing forums which would comprise of doctors, dentists, local volunteers and community representatives to find solutions to area problems.

“One Suffolk would be the brand with which everyone in the county will be able to identify. But I must stress this is not Suffolk county council attempting to perpetuating itself - we would cease to exist and be replaced with a new authority.

“The central executive would be small. It doesn't matter where it's based - Ipswich, Lowestoft or Bury St Edmunds - because neighbourhood committees would be delivering the services.”

As attractive as such a proposal might be to council tax payers - duplication and uncertainty over “who does what” would be eliminated and staff numbers and councillors would be slashed - there would still be critics who feel they were being government by a remote, faceless bureaucracy.

And One Suffolk does not meet what the Government has set out to do - give all-purpose powers to large urban centres.

The newly created unitary counties do not have major population centres - Truro, Morpeth, Durham City, Shrewsbury and Devizes could hardly be described as dynamic, thrusting, and visionary city regions - and it makes sense to amalgamate their shire districts with the county councils.

Ipswich, like Norwich and Exeter, are city regions - population, employment, entertainment and shopping centres which attract new businesses, shoppers and tourists from surrounding areas - which ministers believe should be responsible for their own council-run services from education and social care to street lighting and parks, just as the old county boroughs used to do before they were abolished.

Suffolk's districts are putting the finishing touches to their proposals, but already it is clear there is overwhelming councillor support from Forest Heath and St Edmundsbury for a West Suffolk unitary and Ipswich is keener than ever to want goodbye to what it sees as rule by the county's squirearchy.

Only Mid Suffolk has come out in support of One Suffolk.

Should Mr Pembroke manage to convince the Boundary Committee that his is the right solution, he will find it a much harder fight to overcome the people who matter - Government ministers who can impose their own decision.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter