Suffolk councils are set for major changes in 2019 – but is there more to come?
PUBLISHED: 11:30 02 January 2019
On a national scale 2019 is set to be a momentous year for Britain’s politicians with the country set to leave the EU on March 29 – but it is also set to be a big year for local politicians.
There are district and borough council elections throughout both Suffolk and Essex – and elections for new town and parish councillors as well.
But this year will also see major changes in Suffolk with the creation of two “super-councils” and the abolition of four districts.
Had things been different, there could have been three “super-councils” created – but a determined rearguard action by members of Babergh Council killed off plans to merge it with Mid Suffolk.
But two new councils will be created – East Suffolk and West Suffolk – which will cover about half of the population of the county.
East Suffolk is the new name for the Council that will cover the whole area from Lowestoft to Felixstowe by merging Suffolk Coastal and Waveney councils.
It will continue to have offices in both Lowestoft and Melton – but the sheer scale of the council will be a challenge when it comes to “local” decisions. It takes at least 90 minutes to drive from Felixstowe to Lowestoft and longer than that if you rely on public transport.
The creation of the new East Suffolk council looks set to give a big political boost to the Conservatives in this part of the county.
Waveney is a council that has changed political complexion several times over the last few decades – the Tories only retained control in 2011 on the casting vote of the council chair.
However Suffolk Coastal has almost always been safe for the Conservatives – the only time they lost power was in the years 1995-99 when a “rainbow coalition” of Labour, Liberal Democrats and Independents took control.
East Suffolk will be less safe than Suffolk Coastal for the Tories – but it will be much easier for them to defend than Waveney on its own.
West Suffolk is being formed by a merger of St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath councils and its headquarters will be at West Suffolk House which is shared with the county council.
Forest Heath’s offices in Mildenhall will be retained for now – but Bury St Edmunds is the natural epicentre for this new authority.
Unlike the east of the county, there should be no major political changes from the merger – both St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath have been safe councils for the Conservatives in recent general elections.
Again it was only in 1995 that the Tories’ dominance in this part of the county came under serious threat.
At one stage it looked as if a third “super-council” – tentatively named Heart of Suffolk – could be formed by a full merger of Babergh and Mid Suffolk councils.
They have been run by a joint administration since 2011, but voters in Babergh had already rejected a merger at that point and when the idea was refloated at the end of 2017 there was a revolt from councillors keen to retain their independence.
This means that the two small councils will continue to be separate entities – although they have moved in as tenants of the county council in its Endeavour House headquarters in Ipswich.
How long this remains the case is still to be seen. Leading councillors from both authorities are convinced they will be too small to be taken seriously but the Babergh backbenchers seem reluctant to share power.
One suggestion from Mid Suffolk is that they might dissolve themselves and split themselves down the A140 between East and West Suffolk.
But any such radical change is some time away and will depend on next May’s elections.
The only authority that is not making any plans to change radically is Suffolk’s only truly urban borough – Ipswich – although pressure is starting to mount again for a radical change to its boundaries to reflect the fact that communities like Kesgrave, Pinewood, and Rushmere are effectively part of the town.
However there is very much a different debate to be had there – and it is perfectly possible that in the not too distant future there could be a widespread reform of Suffolk’s councils creating a unitary authority, or authorities, to run all council services.
That would raise the question of the role of the county council as well as the districts – and that raises the stakes in the council chess-game to a new dimension and really change the face of local democracy.