Tories 'will scrap council shake-up'

CONSERVATIVES will scrap legislation to abolish Suffolk County Council if the party wins the next election, it has been announced.

Graham Dines

CONSERVATIVES will scrap legislation to abolish Suffolk County Council if the party wins the next election, it has been announced.

Tory leader David Cameron wants to keep and “enhance” the current two-tier council set-up, rather than the radical shake-up being proposed

Conservative MPs and peers have been told to vote against orders to abolish the county and seven districts, and will scrap the plans altogether if they come to power and the legislation process is not irreversible.

But the announcement has threatened to split Tories in the county, with councillors claiming they were legally obliged to work on the proposals for unitary government and accusing national politicians of not understanding local authorities.

The Conservative pledge of preserving the status quo, which also applies to Norfolk, is its answer to plans drawn up by the Boundary Committee following the Government's demand for “unitary concepts” to reform local government in the two counties.

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The committee has proposed the creation of an Ipswich-Felixstowe unitary and a rural council covering the rest of the county and its market towns except Lowestoft, which would become part of a single Norfolk unitary.

The seven districts and the county council are led by Tories, and all with the exception of Babergh are Conservative-controlled. They are under a legal obligation to cost the Boundary Committee's proposals.

Bob Neill, one of Mr Cameron's local government spokesmen in the Commons, said: “I have written to all Tory local government leaders in Suffolk, telling them that the Conservative Party in the House of Commons and House of Lords will vote against any orders that seek to abolish the county and its districts.

“We will not support any changes without a local referendum having taken place. There is no indication of how much public backing there is for the upheaval.”

Mr Neill - a former leader of the Tory group on the Greater London Authority and a one-time barrister practising at Ipswich Crown Court - added: “I give this pledge on behalf of the party - a Conservative government will scrap the proposals if they have not reached the stage of having been irreversibly signed off under the Parliamentary process.”

Mr Neill said the Boundary Committee's public consultation was flawed because the status quo of keeping the county and seven districts had not been put forward as an option.

“Big unitary councils will make local government remote. The best solution for Suffolk and Norfolk would be to enhance the present two-tier system, letting it grow organically with the councils working in collaboration.”

Bury St Edmunds Conservative MP David Ruffley said he supported the status quo option.

But Nick Ridley, the Tory chairman of Babergh district's strategy committee, said the official party line was “not helpful” to councils who were obliged to work on the Boundary Committee's plans.

“It's all very well the party resisting the proposals but we have to work to the legal process,” he said.

Liz Harsant, the Tory leader of Ipswich Borough Council whose application for unitary status set the current process in motion, said: “The Conservative Party has to realise that all-purpose councils are the future for local government in the shires - all parties in Ipswich back it.

“Unitaries are already in place in England's urban areas, Scotland and Wales. It is the only way in which large cash savings can be made and as we know, the Government is squeezing the grants paid to councils.”

The Boundary Committee is asking for comments on its “draft” proposals for Suffolk, with the public consultation due to end on September 28, and has said it will consider changes suggested.