A proposal to merge Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils has been scrapped, with no prospect of a new authority being formed before 2020.
The leaders of both councils announced that they felt it was not sensible to pursue the plan to dissolve and reform the two councils as one authority, due to the recent decision by Suffolk County Council to conduct a £70,000 review of local government in the region.
The county council commissioned ResPublica to carry out the review – a move which has faced opposition from all district and borough councils in Suffolk, which called for it to be replaced by a joint review that includes the wider public sector.
But Babergh leader John Ward and Mid Suffolk leader Nick Gowrley added that the review showed the county council was still open to the idea of unitary authorities, and they supported, in principle, a form of unitary arrangement for Suffolk.
They concluded that, due to this change in circumstances, it would be illogical to submit a draft business case on merging the two councils, or stage the planned public referendum on the matter, leading to the proposal being shelved.
Opposition councillors hailed the development as “a victory for common sense”, while also criticising the councils for spending so much time and resources on pursuing the merger up to this point.
The plan to combine Babergh and Mid Suffolk has been controversial, due to a similar proposal being defeated in a public vote in 2011.
Further controversy was generated last month when a telephone survey of 4,000 residents suggested a majority favoured the merger – but critics called into question the poll’s impartiality.
In announcing the decision, Mr Ward said: “I made two commitments to the residents and councillors of Babergh when I became leader in January.
“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 I was prepared to rush or take without testing public opinion and 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 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.”
The councils will now be working to expand their existing ‘Working Together’ partnership, by increasing the sharing of resources.
It is expected the earliest a new authority could be created in the county would be May 2020.
Mr Gowrley said: “We remain convinced merging with Babergh, to cement our long standing relationship, is the right thing to do and something 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 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.”
Labour and Independent councillors at Babergh welcomed the U-turn on the merger, but added any future changes to local government would still need a democratic process and a positive vote from the electorate.
Derek Davis, representing the Babergh Independents Group, told the Free Press: “We are glad to see common sense has prevailed and this has been put on the backburner.
“Whether you are for or against the merger, it was clearly being pushed through with great haste and proper consultation was not being taken.
“The big thing is we have been forced to go to Endeavour House, so they are pushing everything towards Ipswich anyway.”
A public meeting about the proposal, which was scheduled to take place in Sudbury for later this month, is still set to go ahead at All Saints’ Church in Church Street on April 25 at 7pm.
Its organiser, Sudbury’s Labour district councillor Luke Cresswell, said: “There are many questions that need answering.
“And the first one is simple, can the Tories promise that no merger, whenever they want it, will happen without a referendum?”