Unitary debate: One council or two?

THIS week, the EADT is giving you the chance to have your say on the future shape of local government in Suffolk. Political Editor Graham Dines outlines the options>ONE council or two?That's the stark alternatives being offered to the people of Suffolk under a review of the way local government services are administered in the county.

Graham Dines

THIS week, the EADT is giving you the chance to have your say on the future shape of local government in Suffolk. Political Editor Graham Dines outlines the options>

ONE council or two?

That's the stark alternatives being offered to the people of Suffolk under a review of the way local government services are administered in the county.

When the Government last year rejected bids by Ipswich and Norwich to become independent unitary authorities, it instructed the Boundary Committee for England to come up with “unitary solutions” for Suffolk and Norfolk.

In July, the commissioners revealed their favoured options. Two unitaries in Suffolk - one based on Ipswich and Felixstowe and the other covering the rest of the county - and one whole county unitary for Norfolk and also incorporating Lowestoft.

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The Committee has not ruled out a whole county unitary for Suffolk and crucially, following hundreds of objections from Lowestoft, the Committee has now said it will consider leaving the town out of the Norfolk unitary.

There are just four weeks left for Suffolk residents to have their say on the future administration of local government services. Unitary authorities provide them all - schools, cemeteries, refuse collection, libraries, pavements, consumer protection, and old folks' homes - instead of the current split in which 80% of functions are undertaken by the county council and 20% by the local districts.

Unitary councils have two compelling advantages. Firstly, economies of scale mean savings can be achieved by eliminating duplication, reducing back office costs, and cutting the number of councillors and senior administrators.

Secondly, a unitary system would end confusion among the public who are uncertain whether services are county or district functions. A unitary council will administer everything.

The only exceptions will be the fire service and waste disposal. A whole county unitary would control the fire brigade and waste, but if two unitaries are set up in Suffolk, a joint fire authority and a joint waste disposal board will be established composed of councillors from both authorities.

The down side of unitaries in rural shire counties is remoteness. The challenge to whichever councils are created will be to ensure that decision-making is made as local as possible working to a uniform policy.

It would be a nonsense, for instance, if a single county unitary allowed one planning policy to operate in Haverhill and a totally different one was implemented in Saxmundham.

The Boundary Committee's proposals took the district and county councils by surprise. Most had assumed that the county would be split between West Suffolk and East Suffolk, with a stand alone Greater Ipswich.

The Committee says Ipswich does not relate to its surrounding rural hinterland in the same way that Norwich influences Norfolk, and that's why it is recommending the Ipswich-Felixstowe council.

It's likely that the Committee felt that an East Suffolk unitary, devoid of Ipswich and Lowestoft would not be viable, as would neither a Greater Ipswich excluding Felixstowe.

Councillors in the west of the county believed they had a strong case for the re-creation of the former county of West Suffolk. But the Committee seems to have taken the view that one unitary covering the market towns and rural areas of Suffolk was the better solution.

There is a major flaw in the Boundary Committee's proposals. It has not taken into account the one issue which is likely to affect eastern Suffolk in the decades to come - coastal erosion and rising sea levels.

It seems unbelievable that under its preferred option, the county's coastline will be administered by three unitaries whereas now, it is covered by one county council.

Even if Lowestoft is reprieved and stays in Suffolk to become part of the rural unitary, there will still be two councils responsible for the coastline and the fight against the encroaching waves.

This issue alone makes the case for a single county unitary.

It also plays into the hands of those who want an east and west split rather than the two under consideration. Would the difficulties faced on the coastline become secondary to the priorities of a rural unitary headquartered in Bury St Edmunds?

If local government is reorganised, with Lowestoft remaining in Suffolk, the town's isolation must be combated urgently. The road links to both Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich leave a lot to be desired, there are no direct bus services, and there is a railway, much of it single-tracked, with just nine trains a day.

Unitary councils would not affect the status of Ipswich as Suffolk's county town. An Ipswich-Felixstowe council - which locally has been given the working title of North Haven - would be based in Ipswich. And so would a whole county unitary, if for no other reason than the town has all the administrative offices needed.

It's likely that if a rump rural unitary for the rest of the county is created - stretching from Haverhill and Newmarket to Aldeburgh and Southwold, and from Stowmarket to Beccles - the administrative headquarters would be centred on Bury St Edmunds.

You can make your views known direct to the Boundary Committee for England. In writing to: Trevelyan House, Great Peter Street, London SW1P 2HW

Or on-line via the web site:

Any comments and emails sent to us will be forwarded to the Boundary Committee before the September 25 deadline.>

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