Is a unitary Suffolk really such a great idea for county and its people?
- Credit: Archant
With all the concern about local government finances circulating again, it was perhaps inevitable that the question of a unitary government for Suffolk would appear on the political agenda again.
Suffolk County Council leader Colin Noble has invited the think tank Respublica to take another look at changing the structure of local government in the county – and it will not come as a surprise that many people will see this as an attempt to build a case for a “One Suffolk” unitary solution with the county council running everything.
After all Respublica was last year hired by the County Councils Network to produce a report looking at the future of local government in England.
Its conclusion was that having unitary councils would save the public purse a total of £2.9bn a year. So you don’t have to be a genius to work out why some people think bringing in the same organisation to look at Suffolk will bring a similar result!
I do feel I’ve seen and hear all this before – most notably when John Gummer was Environment Secretary in the mid-1990s and during the Labour government a decade later.
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And I must admit it’s a subject that I’ve found very difficult to decide on myself – I can see the benefits of all sides and I realise that there are absolutely no simple answers.
For someone who doesn’t know how local government works, the current system looks like an expensive mess. Why should we have one bunch of elected councillors deciding on things like housing, planning and bin collections while another group works out how to run our roads, social services, and waste disposal? It looks bonkers – and expensive bonkers at that.
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Surely it’s better to put all the services into one organisation with a single bureaucracy to cut back-office costs and duplication – allowing more money to be spent on delivering the services and less on red tape.
The local accountability would be diluted – but how important is that really to the majority of the people? So long as their services are being provided efficiently, who is really worried about who is making the decisions?
But – and it’s a big but – if you are interested in local democracy, is it really good enough to have a democracy that isn’t truly local?
There are massive differences in character between a city (and I use the word to reflect size, not ceremonial status) like Ipswich and the market towns and villages that make up most of the rest of Suffolk.
Shouldn’t the urban nature of Greater Ipswich (probably including the Felixstowe peninsula) be reflected with a stand-alone authority as proposed by the Orwell Ahead group?
From a democratic point of view that seems eminently logical. The rest of the county could become a single “rural” authority – or be split between East and West Suffolk.
But from a financial point of view – and it is finance that is driving the current rethink – I’m not sure that this will stack up.
The same goes for the idea of having two (or three) authorities served by a single administration.
Babergh and Mid Suffolk have found that is a problematic model – hence they are looking for a full merger. Why should it work the for whole of Suffolk?
Coming back to the idea of “One Suffolk,” I do worry about how those services provided by districts and boroughs – especially those in Ipswich – would be managed by a large authority.
What would people in Haverhill or Mildenhall think about subsidising the Ipswich Regent? Why should Stradbroke residents pay to maintain and develop Christchurch Park? How would those services fare when the next central government squeeze comes along in five years’ time.
If the county was presented with the choice between buying extra care home places or refurbishing the Regent, who would win? And would a Suffolk-wide authority in a county where many districts have got rid of their council houses really be prepared to invest in new homes in Ipswich?
Ipswich council is being quite entrepreneurial by using property investments to provide an income stream.
An authority the size of Ipswich can do that – a county council like Suffolk would never be able to raise enough to make such a strategy worthwhile.
The current local authority make-up in Suffolk is a mess that only a minority of people understand – but I remain to be convinced that any other system would actually be better for the county and its residents.