Babergh and Mid Suffolk council merger proposal set for public consultation

Suffolk County Council's headquarters at Endeavour House, Ipswich
Suffolk County Council's headquarters at Endeavour House, Ipswich

The possibility of Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils dissolving and reforming as one authority has re-emerged, after a proposal was approved in principle last week.

A joint cabinet meeting on Friday voted overwhelmingly to informally endorse a proposal to replace Babergh and Mid Suffolk with a new district council covering both areas – despite a similar plan being turned down in a public referendum in 2011.

A public engagement period is now set to begin this month to gather views on the concept and, if the consultation is positive, a full business case will be drafted for consideration by both councils, before a final decision is made.

Arthur Charvonia, Babergh and Mid Suffolk’s joint chief executive, who recommended the proposal, said that, while the result of 2011 referendum had to be taken into account, the increased challenges faced in local government since then meant it was appropriate to revisit the issue, as the current ‘Working Together’ partnership had reached the limit of its efficiency.

“You could say that this proposal is the next logical step in this journey over the last six years. It’s a natural extension of our working together,” he told the joint cabinet session.

“It’s about building on the best things and enhancing others. Are we as good as we could be with local engagement? Are there things we could do more effectively or more tailored to our local communities?

“There is a great opportunity here. How often do you get a chance to start again and design the council that you want?”

Mr Charvonia, pictured right, did not rule out a second public vote on the matter in the future, but stated that it was too early in the process to speculate and much of what follows depends on the outcome of the upcoming consultation.

He added that another poll would cost about approximately £100,000, while the engagement period would cost about £20,000.

Supporters of the proposal, which could be delivered by as early as May 2019 if approved, say merging the two councils will enable them to have a bigger voice and greater influence in regional politics, as well as yield estimated budget savings of £1 million a year.

Jennie Jenkins, leader of Babergh District Council, said: “The possibility of creating a single council to cover both Babergh and Mid Suffolk would help us offer our residents better services and better value, but it is not a choice to be made lightly.

“That’s why we’re now going to look at exactly what it would mean, at every level, before making any decision, and why we need to get the broadest range of views.”

But critics argue the previous referendum demonstrated that there was a clear mandate not to pursue this change, and that the lack of a full business case meant not enough evidence had been put forward to support such a merger.

They also said the engagement period risked undermining public consultations already in progress for a joint local plan and the district ward boundary reviews.

Andrew Stringer, Mid Suffolk district councillor and leader of the Green Group, who was the only cabinet member on either council to vote against endorsing the merger, said: “I find it quite arrogant what is being proposed.

“We have got absolutely zero mandate to endorse this proposal without the public voting for it.

“The business case is totally unconvincing. I would like a few months to look at what the councils are delivering before we push forward for more change.

“The level of anger, cynicism and sarcasm I have heard from people, who think the council is not delivering on its current priorities, is incredible.

“I think this is the wrong consultation on top of loads of others that are far more important.”

Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils first suggested dissolving and recombining as a single district council back in 2011, and conducted a public referendum in both areas on the subject.

The proposal received the backing from Mid Suffolk, with 59.9 per cent voting for it and 40.1 per cent voting against, on a turnout of 43.2 per cent.

However, it was rejected from Babergh, which saw 60.9 per cent voting ‘no’ and 39.1 per cent voting ‘yes’, on a 45.2 per cent turnout.

This meant the overall result was a narrow rejection of the merger, 50.3 per cent to 49.7 per cent, with a total of 64,069 people casting ballots.