Council merger plan goes back to drawing board

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

Plans to dissolve Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils and reform them as a single authority have been sent back to the drawing board after coming under fire this week.

Babergh’s scrutiny committee voted overwhelmingly that the proposals – agreed last month – should be revisited by its cabinet and referred back to its full council.

Tensions were raised at Tuesday’s meeting as committee members voted six to one in favour of the move, resulting in councillor Peter Burgoyne storming out of the council chamber.

Committee members want to see the consultation process and financial case reviewed before any decision can be finalised over the proposed merger.

A public engagement process was due to begin this month to gather views on the proposal – similar to a plan turned down in a public referendum in 2011 – but issues have been raised over the lack of details provided, including financial figures involved in the decision.

“Have you scrutinised these figures?” asked David Busby, Liberal Democrat councillor for the Pinewood ward. “I’m not convinced these figures are as accurate as they need to be.”

Mr Busby highlighted the importance of scrutinising the numbers before consulting the public.

He added: “Given the turbulence that’s going on in these two councils at the moment, how confident would you be in any case you prepare?”

Concerns were raised over a scenario whereby both councils would have to be dissolved before any new authority is formed.

“There is a very strong hint that divorce is on the cards if this does not take place,” said councillor Alastair McCraw.

“It is severely hinted that we have to separate and start all over again as a separate, independent council with its own staff.”

This, however, was rejected by Jennie Jenkins, leader of Babergh District Council.

Bryn Hurren, committee member and Boxford ward councillor, said: “Up to now, apart from yourselves, I have seen no inkling of any manifesto or forward plan.”

Concern over the cabinet’s failure to consider the proposal as a key decision was raised by Tony Bavington, ward councillor for Great Cornard.

“No-one could credibly argue that the dissolution of Babergh itself is not a key decision in the meaning of its new constitution,” he said.

“This decision would have a significant effect on communities living or working in an area made up of two or more wards.”

Mr Bavington claimed the merger would have a knock-on effect financially.

“If this decision is pushed through, then almost certainly Babergh’s council tax would rise substantially and car parking charges would be imposed in our market towns.

“This could cause them to lose a major competitive advantage relative to the larger towns around them, like the one we now find ourselves in, and Babergh representatives would lose control over the housing revenue account.

“These are significant effects on all the communities in the district.”

Arthur Charvonia, Babergh and Mid Suffolk’s joint chief executive, sought to reassure the committee that a definitive decision had not yet been reached.

“The only decision that was made at that cabinet meeting was to provisionally say, of those choices, which one looks like it might be best if we’re interested in doing any of them,” he said.

Mr Charvonia, pictured right, addressed his claim that the 2011 referendum result provided a mandate for the proposal, which saw Mid Suffolk back the idea of a merger.

“Mid Suffolk is very clear that it had a mandate in 2011, the same as Babergh had a mandate in 2011,” he said.

“There is an expectation to do something and this partnership is moving in a particular direction, so there is pressure there.”

Mr Charvonia said the partnership between Babergh and Mid Suffolk had reached peak efficiency, but reassured the committee that future decisions would not be made lightly.

“It’s not suggested for one minute that the cabinet has only looked at a rosy picture of what and why it should do these things,” he said.

Mr Charvonia highlighted that public engagement could shed light on any loose ends outlined in the proposal.

“These are issues that would absolutely need to be looked at and addressed, and may well come out through public engagement,” he said.

Mr Charvonia added the engagement would be a “far broader, conclusive and apprehensive consultation”.