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Plans to merge Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils into one authority ruled out until at least 2023

The final merger of two Suffolk councils has been taken off the table until at least 2023, it has emerged.

Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils had been pursuing work towards uniting into a single authority in 2018, but halted that work when then-county council leader Colin Noble announced he was exploring potential for a unitary council.

That work was scrapped when Matthew Hicks replaced Mr Noble as the county’s leader that May, with Babergh leader John Ward and then-Mid Suffolk leader Nick Gowrley stating in April this year that a formal merger was still the end goal.

Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Council headquarters at Endeavour House, Ipswich. (15811107)
Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Council headquarters at Endeavour House, Ipswich. (15811107)

Now it has emerged that plans to unite the councils has been ruled out by the current administrations, and will not be discussed again until after the 2023 elections at the earliest.

Conservative Babergh leader Mr Ward said other priorities such as the new joint local plan were the primary focus.

“At the moment we are not pursuing a merger,” he said.

“The organisational and financial benefits are still relevant, as are the opportunities it could give us.

“However, we are making the most of our existing joint arrangements and looking at other opportunities for closer working together as part of our continual organisational improvement.

“The relationship that the two councils have is working well and is enabling us to deliver good quality and consistent services, without having to consider any cuts.”

The two councils already share many resources, and are both housed at Ipswich’s Endeavour House with Suffolk County Council.

In April this year, Forest Heath and St Edmundsbury councils were dissolved and the new united West Suffolk Council formed, while Waveney and Suffolk Coastal councils merged into East Suffolk Council.

Mergers between authorities traditionally generate savings and efficiencies through shared resources and fewer councillor numbers, but Babergh’s opposition Green group said any additional savings would be minimal given they were already sharing.

Green group leader Robert Lindsay said: “Babergh Green Party was never in favour of the merger in the first place.

“Given that Babergh residents voted against it in 2011, it was a mistake for the Conservative administration to pursue it and is one of the reasons why they lost their majority in Babergh.

“Local authorities provide a public service and one cannot judge the efficacy of a public service purely on financial grounds.

“Creating a larger authority tends to mean that decisions are taken further away from the people they affect and tend to be made by people with less local knowledge and are therefore often not the best ones for residents.

“Any costs savings would be minimal given that the staff are already effectively one team and economies of scale can be achieved by the two authorities partnering with each other and other authorities in procurement, without the need for merger.”

Mid Suffolk’s opposition Green group said it preferred to have four unitary authorities which would carry out all council services with Suffolk County Council scrapped. Changes would need to be put to a public vote, according to the group.

A spokesman added: “Disruptive changes are not worthwhile unless they are forming unitary councils.

“Green councillors are not hearing the public crying out for organisational changes so we would not want staff and councillors distracted from more important matters. What the public do want to see is planned control over speculative development across the two districts.”

During this year’s elections, Mid Suffolk’s Conservatives failed to gain an overall majority, and hold power at the authority by virtue of uniting with Independent councillor Gerard Brewster and holding the casting vote of the chairman.

It is understood that the Tories’ precarious position there means that it would struggle to pass a policy through if the opposition Green and Liberal Democrat groups were against it.

The rainbow coalition at Babergh could also jeopardise any merger bid if other parties and Independents objected to it.

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