Babergh/Mid Suffolk merger off after Suffolk launches unitary bid

Babergh council leader John Ward with his opposite number from Mid Suffolk, Nick Gowrley. Picture: P

Babergh council leader John Ward with his opposite number from Mid Suffolk, Nick Gowrley. Picture: PAUL GEATER - Credit: Archant

Proposals to merge Babergh and Mid Suffolk Councils have been put on hold after county council leader Colin Noble relaunched the “unitary Suffolk” debate last month.

Results of a public consultation exercise run by the two districts earlier this year were published in March showing that a majority of those consulted were in favour of a merger.

However that was trumped by the news that Mr Noble had separately commissioned the ‘think tank’ ResPublica to conduct a review in Suffolk.

A statement from the leaders of Babergh and Mid Suffolk says they cannot support this ResPublica work.

However they say they cannot ignore that the commissioning of ResPublica is a signal that the County Council is keen to re-open the debate about unitary authorities in Suffolk.

Given that any new district council could not be created before May 2020, the councils believe that it would be illogical to submit a business case for detailed consideration by or hold a referendum in Babergh at this stage.

Instead they will work to further expand the ‘Working Together’ partnership between the councils.

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Babergh leader John Ward said: “I made two commitments to the residents and Councillors of Babergh when I became Leader in January 2018.

“These were that I would personally prefer to see some form of unitary arrangements be brought forward for Suffolk, but that in the absence of any viable unitary plans I see real merit in creating a single district council in the centre of Suffolk to replace Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils.

“In all the circumstances, however, having just moved into our new single Headquarters, with an electoral boundary review already underway, with Suffolk County Council’s change of position and with our own elections just 12 months away, now is not the right time to be actively pursuing a merger with Mid Suffolk District Council.”

Mid Suffolk leader Nick Gowrley, Leader of Mid Suffolk District Council, said: “We remain convinced that merging with Babergh, to cement our long standing relationship, is the right thing to do and something that we could deliver.

“It would be good for our residents, would save tax payers money, and protect the services that residents value most. However one of the alternative options that we also favour is the creation of unitary councils.

“Whilst it makes sense for the district and borough councils in East and West Suffolk to complete their mergers which will come into effect from 2019; it would not be sensible for us to start the process of a merger given the County Council’s new willingness to consider other options.

“There is more that we can be doing together as two district councils for our residents and communities; so that will be our focus between now and our next elections in May 2019.”

Those opposed to the merger welcomed the news. Rebel Babergh Conservative Simon Barrett said: “I think this is the sensible decision.

“Personally I think there is a great deal of merit in a unitary council to reduce management costs. Now we can look at that.”

And Labour councillor Luke Cresswell said: “The Tory leadership knew it would struggle to win any referendum and has bottled it. This is a victory for local people and those of us who opposed the district merger.

Mid Suffolk LibDem group leader Penny Otton also welcomed the delay. She said: “Hopefully we can concentrate on the issues that actually effect the people of the district.”

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