The west may rise again!

WHEN West Suffolk county council was abolished in 1974 to be merged with East Suffolk and Ipswich to form one super authority, no-one would have forecast that Bury St Edmunds would ever again become the centre of power.

Graham Dines

WHEN West Suffolk county council was abolished in 1974 to be merged with East Suffolk and Ipswich to form one super authority, no-one would have forecast that Bury St Edmunds would ever again become the centre of power.

But that's now the very real prospect as the Boundary Committee for England puts the finishing touches to its plans for local government reorganisation.

While the competing interests of Ipswich, Suffolk Coastal, and Waveney have tried to convince the Committee that there should be a permutation of three competing concepts - an East Suffolk unitary, a Greater Ipswich, or a 'Yartoft' cross-border authority combining Waveney with Great Yarmouth in Norfolk - there is unity in the west that the opportunity should be seized and that West Suffolk should rise again as an authority in its own right.

The shock of 35 years' ago, when the Conservative government of Edward Heath - without any consultation - reorganised English local government outside London, took a long time to forgive in the shires.

County councils, county boroughs, and small rural and urban districts were swept away and in the shire areas were replaced by all-powerful counties with strategic powers, with districts looking after housing, planning applications, parks, refuse collection and disposal of the dead.

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In Suffolk, the proud, independent East and West county councils and Ipswich county borough were merged to form Suffolk county council, which was responsible for education, social care, libraries, and highways.

But thanks to Ipswich's unsuccessful unitary bid last year, the Government has decided that Suffolk councils should be reorganised on unitary lines and has sent in the Boundary Committee for England to suggest an outcome.

The BCE is mulling over its decision, but has surprised local government leaders by announcing it will not come up with alternatives - the only concept on the table will be its solution. The only unknown is just how many authorities will be created.

While Suffolk county council and Mid Suffolk want a unitary county, Babergh, Suffolk Coastal and Waveney prefer a unitary East, and Ipswich backs a Greater Ipswich, St Edmundsbury, Forest Heath and Babergh want a unitary East and West.

John Griffiths, the leader of St Edmundsbury council, is enthusiastic at the prospect of a unitary authority, linking with Forest Heath and much of Babergh to resurrect West Suffolk.

“We didn't seek the reorganisation of local government. It is a huge distraction when we should be concentrating on delivering services,” says Mr Griffiths. “But we are where we are and in St Edmundsbury, we agreed to make the best of it and having looked very carefully at the possibilities, we have no problem with unitary government for West Suffolk.

“All the political parties in St Edmundsbury believe that unitaries for Suffolk will deliver economies of scale, will get rid of duplication and confusion, and provide better services for everyone.

“However, the councils must be small enough to connect with local people. That's why we reject a unitary county as being too unwieldy and not accessible enough for local communities.”

Mr Griffiths said: “It is not for us to tell people in the east of Suffolk how their boundaries should be drawn. There are a number of possible concepts - if it's decided Ipswich should be a unitary, or if its boundaries are extended, and that is an acceptable solution for Ipswich and East Suffolk, then that's fine by us.

“We are concentrating on the future of West Suffolk. No decision has been made on exact boundaries - that is something to be worked out later.

“This is not about self preservation, it is doing what's best for Suffolk. The existing councils in Suffolk must get this right for all of the people who live in the county.”

In a statement, St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath point out the positives - West Suffolk has its own unique identity with its own priorities and needs. Council taxpayers want the money they pay to be spent in the west, and not on projects elsewhere, such as coastal erosion.

The rural unitary would give a strong voice for West Suffolk people's specific needs, concentrate on issues affecting market towns and rural and would be based at the new public service village being built in Bury.

Hence the campaign slogan: West Suffolk - Best for the West

The Boundary Committee will publish its solution on July 7. This will be put out for public consultation for two months and then a final report will be presented to Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, who is expected to give her verdict not only on Suffolk but also Norfolk and Devon.

The tight timetable envisages elections to the new authorities in May 2009, which will come into force on April 1 2010.

For 1973-74, the last financial year of its existence, West Suffolk county council set a budget of £15million, up from £12.5m in 1972-3. Education spending of £10m was up £1.9m.

Following central government grants and after raiding its balances, the council was left to ask ratepayers to cover £4,780,590 of spending, which meant an increase of 10% in the rates. The general county rate was set at 24.3p plus a special county rate of 1.5p which was not payable in Bury St Edmunds borough.

To mark its demise, a grove of oak trees were planted on Rougham Hill near Bury, a sculpture of King Edmund in crown and vestments was commissioned, and county councillors were presented with sets of old West Suffolk scenes.

But because of the economic climate - it was the time of the miners' strike, the three-day week, and Labour's defeat of Edward Heath's Tories - the council chairman Sir Joshua Rowley cancelled a planned farewell party.

MID SUFFOLK BEGS TO DIFFER

WHILE St Edmundsbury rejects a single unitary county, in the heart of Suffolk there is almost universal enthusiasm for a concept which is seen as saving millions of pounds at a stroke.

Mid Suffolk district council leader Tim Passmore and the authority's chief executive Andrew Good believe the Government's solution in sanctioning just one unitary county authority in each of Northumberland, Durham and Cornwall would work in Suffolk.

To back their case, they point out the cost of local government administration for Suffolk county council and the seven district authorities totals £24million a year, before a penny is spent on services.

But they reject any return to East Suffolk and West Suffolk. “All that would be achieved by splitting the county east and west is the creation of a fault line at Woolpit,” says Mr Passmore.

“One Suffolk would end duplication.

“Most householders don't care about who administers their local services - they want low council tax and high quality services. One Suffolk would deliver both,” says Mr Passmore.

“To set up two, three, or four unitaries in Suffolk would be grossly wasteful and we will all have missed a golden opportunity to replace the current inefficient system.

“Each unitary would need its own education, social services, and highways departments. It would be perpetuating today's bureaucracy.

“I have no problems with unitary government. One Suffolk would have the clout to fight for the county. For instance, most people in the county realise we have a diabolical transport system - unified lobbying is required to improve it.”

Mr Passmore doesn't believe a Yartoft unitary would solve any problems - splitting the county east and west would lead to the marginalisation of Lowestoft. “It is an integral part of Suffolk, its sporting loyalties are to Ipswich Town. Linking it with Great Yarmouth would be as unloved as counties like Avon and Humberside which have no sense of identity.”

Mr Good he is adamant that One Suffolk is not the green light for the leadership of the county council to carry on now. “It will be a fresh start for all local government in Suffolk.

“There must be no belief that a continuation of the county council's geographical fiefdom has been created by the Government.

“What we don't want is the impression that One Suffolk will be an unaccountable monolith. Mid Suffolk supports area forums and local committees dealing with issues such as planning and housing.”