One Suffolk idea back on agenda as county looks to save millions from budgets
PUBLISHED: 18:00 20 March 2018 | UPDATED: 09:18 21 March 2018
The prospect of a single council running all services in Suffolk is today back on the political agenda with county leader Colin Noble commissioning a new report.
But the proposal has already prompted flak from other council leaders in the county – from both political parties.
Ipswich Borough Council’s Labour leader David Ellesmere asked: “Would you want the authority that has left so many potholes in charge of our parks, the Regent, the Corn Exchange, and our council houses?”
And Waveney’s Conservative leader Mark Bee – Mr Noble’s predecessor at the county council – warned it could end up as a “Dog’s Breakfast” of a proposal.
Mr Noble has called in the think tank Respublica to look at options for local government in Suffolk over the next few years.
Respublica last year produced a report saying that unitary county councils could save the public purse £2.9bn across the country – and it also did some work which led to the creation of a new Combined Authority and mayor for Greater Manchester.
Mr Noble said: “We have saved £236m since 2010 and we have to save a further £58m over the next five years. We have to look at alternatives.”
As well as leading the county council, he is also a member of Forest Heath council which is to be merged with St Edmundsbury to form West Suffolk Council.
He said: “I love the local focus you get from working for a district council. But I’m really passionate about the county council and the work it is able to do to help the most vulnerable members of society.”
He insisted the report would not only look at creating a single unitary county council – it might also consider East and West Suffolk unitaries, an option including a Greater Ipswich unitary council, or enhancing the existing two-tier system.
The mergers of the districts in east and west Suffolk are due to be completed at next year’s election – but the proposed merger of Babergh and Mid Suffolk is further away.
Mr Noble said: “No-one knows what the report will propose – but if it does go for major changes and after consultation we seek to implement that we would look towards bringing it in at the next county council elections in 2021.
However he can expect opposition from councillors in his own party as well as the opposition.
Mr Ellesmere said: “We have seen what happens when Ipswich relies on the county council for services like filling in potholes. Would you want the authority that has left so many potholes in charge of our parks, the Regent, the Corn Exchange, and our council houses.
“The reason the county council is looking at this is because they are in a difficult position and are having to find more money for social care while the government is cutting back.
“If they were in charge of everything the services that we are able to protect would be at the mercy of their cost-cutting.”
There was a similar reaction from Mr Bee: “I am certain we are going to unleash something we do not know the result of – something which will cause a great deal of concern in councils across Suffolk.
“There are very different pressures faced by district councils and I do not expect this to be able to reflect that – I fear we could end up with an almighty dog’s breakfast.
“It is clear Colin Noble has had a defeat with the proposal for a directly elected mayor and there is a new proposal hear. I hope he will think again on this.”
Other counties are also looking at different proposals. Dorset is looking at splitting itself into two unitary councils while Buckinghamshire is planning to become a single unitary council.
There is still some way to go before any changes are finally approved. Mr Noble did not know how many options were likely to be included – but said there would have to be public consultation before any were pushed forward.
And there have been previous attempts to change the council map of Suffolk – in the early 90s there was a proposal to develop East Suffolk, West Suffolk and a new cross-boundary council containing Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, dubbed Yartoft.
That fell victim to public opposition while proposals for changes in the early 2000s never really got off the ground because the county council favoured “one Suffolk” while Ipswich campaigned for it to be given back powers it lost in 1975.
In the end the government of the day decided it was not worth trying to reconcile these views.
How do councils work?
In most of England, including Suffolk and most of Essex, there are two levels of major councils.
County councils have to make sure strategic services like road maintenance, social services, library services, the fire service operate – and that waste is disposed of properly.
Borough or district councils cover smaller areas and are responsible for housing, planning, rubbish collection, parks, car parks, and leisure facilities.
In many areas (but not all) there are also minor councils – parish or town councils – looking after smaller issues including making comments on planning and maintaining cemeteries.
In some places, mainly large towns and cities, there are unitary councils providing all facilities. The nearest of those are at Southend and Thurrock in south Essex, Luton, Bedford, and Mid Bedfordshire – and Peterborough.
Now could Suffolk get another attempt to create a unitary council?