Since late last year Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils have been exploring how our award winning 'Working Together' partnership needs to evolve to ensure that the Councils are 'fit for purpose', and able to continue to deliver the important services our residents value, in the future.
We carried out comprehensive public engagement during December 2017 and January 2018 which demonstrated clear support from residents, stakeholders, partners and staff in both Babergh and Mid Suffolk for our initial preferred option - to dissolve the existing district councils and replace them with a new single district council in the centre of Suffolk. This has culminated in a detailed business case which has now been drafted and will be published shortly. We believe that the earliest that any new council could be created would be from May 2020.
In the meantime the Leader of the County Council has separately commissioned the 'think tank' ResPublica to conduct a review in Suffolk. Alongside our colleague District and Borough Council Leaders in Suffolk we have made it clear to Suffolk County Council that we cannot subscribe to, or support this ResPublica work; not least because we have not had the opportunity to assess, understand or inform the detailed specification for this work, and given ResPublica’s previous published reports we do not believe that this can be an objective or independent review of Suffolk.
We have therefore called for the ResPublica work to immediately stop and be replaced by a joint review, with the County Council and wider public sector, designed to invest in expanding and accelerating our work to date, in a way that properly transforms the public sector service delivery in Suffolk for the future and for the benefit of our residents.
Equally, however, we cannot ignore that the commissioning of ResPublica is a signal that the County Council is keen to re-open the debate about unitary authorities in Suffolk. The creation of one or more unitary councils is one of the options considered in our draft business case. It was discounted as the preferred option in October 2017 on the basis that it did not appear possible or likely that it could be delivered in the foreseeable future. It remains the case however that both of us as Leaders, and many other Councillors in both our councils, would support some form of unitary arrangements for Suffolk that would see all of the district, borough and county councils dissolved and replaced.
In all the circumstances, and given that any new district council could not be created before May 2020, we believe that it would be illogical to submit our draft business case for detailed consideration by our Overview & Scrutiny Committees and Councils, or hold a Local Poll in Babergh at this stage. Instead we will be working even harder to further expand the multiple award winning 'Working Together' partnership between our Councils; and in the Suffolk spirit of joint working with all our partners, working to ensure that the public sector remains 'fit for purpose' in Suffolk for the future.
Councillor John Ward, Leader of Babergh District Council said “I made two commitments to the residents and Councillors of Babergh when I became Leader in January 2018. These were that I would personally prefer to see some form of unitary arrangements be brought forward for Suffolk, but that in the absence of any viable unitary plans I see real merit in creating a single district council in the centre of Suffolk to replace Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils. We have been working hard to achieve this because of the benefits it would bring to our residents. This is a big decision however and so not one that I was prepared to rush or take without first testing public opinion and then obtaining public support through a local poll. In all the circumstances, however, having just moved into our new single Headquarters, with an electoral boundary review already underway, with Suffolk County Council’s change of position and with our own elections just 12 months away, now is not the right time to be actively pursuing a merger with Mid Suffolk District Council.”
Councillor Nick Gowrley, Leader of Mid Suffolk District Council, said “We remain convinced that merging with Babergh, to cement our long standing relationship, is the right thing to do and something that we could deliver. It would be good for our residents, would save tax payers money, and protect the services that residents value most. However one of the alternative options that we also favour is the creation of unitary councils. Whilst it makes sense for the district and borough councils in East and West Suffolk to complete their mergers which will come into effect from 2019; it would not be sensible for us to start the process of a merger given the County Council's new willingness to consider other options. There is more that we can be doing together as two district councils for our residents and communities; so that will be our focus between now and our next elections in May 2019.”