Why has “One Suffolk” debate come to the fore causing chaos for councils?

Suffolk County Council headquarters Endeavour House (right) and Ipswich Borough Council's base Graft

Suffolk County Council headquarters Endeavour House (right) and Ipswich Borough Council's base Grafton House (left). Picture: SU ANDERSON - Credit: Archant

When county council leader Colin Noble dropped his bombshell that he had commissioned a report looking at the future of local government in Suffolk, he must have known he was letting off a firecracker in the world of the county’s public sector.

Will county council leader Colin Noble survive a leadership challenge next month? Picture: SIMON PAR

Will county council leader Colin Noble survive a leadership challenge next month? Picture: SIMON PARKER

He wrong-footed his fellow council leaders, who responded with the most withering put-down I can remember seeing in all my years of covering Suffolk politics.

The other members of the Suffolk leaders group, six of whom came from Mr Noble’s Conservative Party, effectively accused him of going behind their backs and commissioning a report without any prior consultation.

They recognised that while the report may look at all the options, it will be produced by Res Publica – an organisation known for producing reports saying that unitary counties are the way forward.

One district councillor suggested to me it was a bit like asking UKIP to produce a report on whether leaving the EU was a good idea!

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But beyond the unanimous disapproval of the leaders’ statement there are some cracks. The leaders of St Edmundsbury, Forest Heath, Suffolk Coastal and Waveney are clearly opposed to the idea of unitary government at this time.

They are in the process of preparing to merge into two larger authorities this time next year, and saw Mr Noble’s suggestion as a clear attack on their plans.

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However with Babergh and Mid Suffolk struggling to put together a merger proposal, their leaders are far more sympathetic towards the idea of One Suffolk.

They might not like the way Mr Noble raised the issue, but they’re prepared to consider the idea and have therefore put their own merger plans on hold.

From an opposition point of view, Ipswich Labour leader David Ellesmere is clearly enjoying the sight of leading Conservatives in the county knocking ten bells out of each other and is keen to protect what he sees as Ipswich’s interests – but is not really getting stuck in too much.

There is another dynamic at play here as well – Mr Noble’s position as leader of the county council is not looking particularly secure.

His Conservative group at the county council holds its annual meeting in May when the group leader and deputy leader are up for election. Ever since he took the helm of the county council in 2015, I’ve hear whisperings of plots against Mr Noble.

He’s always been a bit of a “Marmite” politician within his group – he has some firm admirers but there are many who don’t like him, and he’s upset some former supporters. There have been people chattering about plots in the past that have ultimately come to nothing.

However this year feels rather different and I have heard talk of a much more serious challenge that could emerge.

That has prompted some members of his group to suggest that Mr Noble’s sudden embrace of the unitary government debate could be a last-ditch attempt to gain extra support in next month’s leadership election.

If so it’s a very high-risk move and I would be very doubtful about whether Mr Noble, a very astute politician, would gamble to that extent.

Many members of his Conservative group at Endeavour House are “twin-trackers” – as well as being members of the county council they also sit on their local district or borough councils.

How do they feel about losing one of their council allowances? Will they feel loyal to their district or county council leader?

Which all raises the question. Why did Mr Noble raise the issue at this time? Why didn’t he talk to district leaders before announcing the consultation?

I suspect he realised that he was never going to get their backing and felt it was easier to announce it as a fait accompli than to press ahead despite their opposition which really would have been a red rag to a bull!

And he might have one eye on his legacy in Suffolk. If he does lose the leadership, would the new leader’s first action really be to tear up the contract with Res Publica? If the report is eventually published and leads to the emergence of a “One Suffolk” authority that would be quite a legacy.

But then of course, it might be that all the talk of plots and manoeuvrings at Endeavour House turns out to be just that – nothing but talk – and that Mr Noble’s leadership continues uninterrupted. In which case the unitary case would be firmly in play.

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