Critics unconvinced after poll says majority favour Babergh and Mid Suffolk council merger

Suffolk County Council's headquarters at Endeavour House, Ipswich, where Babergh District Council and Mid Suffolk District Council are now also based.
Suffolk County Council's headquarters at Endeavour House, Ipswich, where Babergh District Council and Mid Suffolk District Council are now also based.

More than half of Babergh residents are in favour of seeing their local authority merge with Mid Suffolk, according to a telephone survey commissioned by the two councils.

The poll, which surveyed 2,000 people in each district, found 54 per cent of respondents in Babergh had a favourable view of the proposal to create a single council for both districts, versus 35 per cent who were unfavourable.

In Mid Suffolk, support was even higher, with 69 per cent of respondents in favour and 22 per cent not in favour.

The results will be included, alongside the other responses given during the public engagement, with the business case, which is due to be published in the spring, ahead of a public vote on the matter this summer.

The idea of dissolving and reforming the two councils, which have Conservative majorities, has been contentious, after a similar proposal was rejected by the people of Babergh by public referendum in 2011.

The phone poll itself has also generated controversy, with some residents and opposition councillors claiming it had been designed to engineer an outcome in favour of the merger.

Following the announcement of the results on Tuesday, some councillors reiterated their belief that the poll had not been impartial.

Babergh councillor Luke Cresswell, who represents the Sudbury South Ward, said: “If, after a poll with leading questions and Tory propaganda, they only get a slight lead in an opinion poll, it’s good news for those of us opposing the merger.

“Nobody trusts these polls – you can make a poll say whatever you like.

“I am confident the people of Babergh will vote to reject a council merger when the referendum comes.

“The referendum needs to be binding so that, once we defeat it, we can get on with running the council and providing decent public services, not never ending internal restructuring.”

Any accusations of bias have been denied by ComRes, the marketing research company that administered the survey, which insists it goes to great lengths to ensure its polls are neutral and balanced.

John Ward, leader of Babergh District Council, said: “This survey, which asked a representative sample of the local population, shows that, seven years on from the previous referendum on this issue, more people in Babergh are now in favour of the creation of a single council than those who are not.

“Residents are clear that we should be prioritising financial stability and providing better services that are more tailored to the needs of our residents.

“Dissolving Babergh and Mid Suffolk to create a new single district council will ensure we can deliver what our residents want.

“A lot has changed since 2011 and it was essential that we carried out this engagement to understand current public opinion in Babergh to inform the business case for creating a new council.

“Once the business case has been drafted and fully debated by all councillors, it will be put to the electors of Babergh to vote on through a referendum this summer.”

The council said there was very high support from residents for the five key objectives of creating a single council, which include long-term financial stability, maintaining low council tax and meeting the challenges facing local government.

The poll found that 70 per cent of those questioned were aware of the proposal, while 54 per cent knew a little or a lot about it. Support for vulnerable people was the most important priority for respondents.

But Labour Party representatives stated they believed the survey had used leading questions and argued people have not been given any details on the proposal, preventing them from making an informed decision.

Emma Bishton, the party’s candidate in the 2017 general election, added: “Having a sample telephone poll that doesn’t actually present the difference between merger and non-merger in relation to local services is just paying lip-service to democracy – but then I don’t expect much more from a council that is not even mindful enough of its own residents to hold council meetings in the district.

“The telephone poll is just another example of what Babergh has been reduced to – a few Conservatives sitting in an echo chamber presiding over a catalogue of failures to understand, represent and address the needs of the area.

“It’s a change of mindset that is needed, not a change in the size and name of the district.”

Cllr Cresswell has organised a public meeting on the merger, to take place in All Saints’ Church Hall in Sudbury on April 25, at 7pm.