Suffolk: Money not available for council shake-up

Mark Bee, leader of Suffolk County Council, is not in favour of a unitary authority

Mark Bee, leader of Suffolk County Council, is not in favour of a unitary authority - Credit: Ashley Pickering

SUFFOLK County Council leader Mark Bee has been through debates on unitary twice already – but is not expecting the issue to become a major one again, at least before the next election.

He said: “Before Christmas council leaders went down to London for ‘fireside chats’ with [Local Government Secretary] Eric Pickles.

“The question of unitary was raised – but Mr Pickles made it clear that he did not see it as an important live issue.

“He wants councils to look at ways of becoming more efficient – of sharing services and staff like we are seeing in Suffolk and in adopting more flexible means of delivery.”

Mr Bee said the problem with major restructuring was that the shake-up itself cost a great deal of money – introducing new departments, paying redundancy, buying and selling buildings.

Savings may emerge in a few years’ time, but the immediate cost would be high.

“We have not got the money for this kind of work – we cannot spend a lot now if we don’t get it back for five years,” Mr Bee said. “Eric Pickles made that point. We need more efficiency now.”

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At the time of the last attempt at bringing in unitary government, Mr Bee was leader of Waveney District Council in the north-east of Suffolk.

He did not support the “one Suffolk” concept then – and has not changed his mind.

“It’s a long way from Corton [to the north of Lowestoft] to Haverhill – and if everything is run by one organisation it is difficult to get a ‘local’ feeling,” he said.

With districts coming together to run joint administrations, savings and efficiencies were coming through – while retaining local control.

“We are working with them and there are further savings and joint working that can be achieved – things like the health boards,” Mr Bee said. “That is more realistic than a wholesale restructuring which would cause considerable disruption.”

Ipswich council’s Labour leader David Ellesmere said he was emotionally in favour of a unitary authority for the town – but he did not think it would happen in the foreseeable future.

He said: “The current Government is not going to change the system. We have to accept that. I would like to see Ipswich managing all its own services, not relying on the county council. But the fact is that is not going to happen any time soon.”

Mr Ellesmere said if a unitary Ipswich was created, it should not be substantially larger than the current town.

He said: “There are particular issues that affect an urban area like Ipswich, and I don’t think a council concentrating on the town could have the expertise to deal with issues in rural areas as well.”

Ipswich MP Ben Gummer said the thorny issue of local government reorganisation could “scar” politicians who took up the battle.

He has particular experience because his father, former Suffolk Coastal MP John Gummer (now Lord Deben) was the Environment Secretary who introduced controversial proposals in the 1990s.

Mr Gummer said: “I haven’t picked up anything about this idea being revived.

“It’s scarred politicians from both parties – and I really don’t see it as a priority compared with other efficiencies that councils are introducing.

“If it ever did happen in Suffolk, I would be in favour of a unitary Ipswich and two other councils for the east and west of the county, but I don’t see it as something that is in any way a priority.”